19-3 “Beyond Our Names: Uncovering Identity” Resource Guide

Feb 15th, 2008 | By | Category: 19-3: Beyond Our Names: Uncovering Identity, Online resource guides, Resource Guides, Web Exclusive
By Dr. Cornel Pewewardy

Identity and Names: We must define ourselves to escape linguistic imperialism

The language we use to categorize one another as ethnic groups is imperfect. Race categories tend to evolve simultaneously as people evolve in their own ethnic identities, especially in a multicultural society in which many of us live today. A case in point is the contemporary debates over U.S. Census classifications. The original creation of racial categories favored the dominant race groups over other racial groups, creating a system of subordination and perpetuating oppression.

Some writers argue that continuing to use obsolete racial terms continues that oppression. I agree with that argument because racism is based upon a politically constructed concept of race. This concept resulted in a 500-year history of racism and cultural genocide in the United States, which still exist today.

It is difficult to talk about what is essentially a flawed and problematic social construct without using language that is itself problematic. For example code language enables white society to attack underrepresented groups without resorting to racist language (i.e., “at-risk,” “low achievers,” “language deficient”).

Descendants from the original peoples of North America have to be able to talk about who we are in order to change our names or have them remain the same. Knowing that race is a social construction, I am confronted with a paradox when writing from a tribal perspective. This phenomenon is complex because, while both dominant and dominated groups play roles in keeping racism alive, the responsibility is not equally shared. The following selected bibliography reflects and influences much of my ideology on the topic of identity and names.

The purpose of this resource guide is to help readers examine the original construction and evolution of tribal college names and how this nomenclature reflects their tribal identity. Therefore, a call for manuscripts to focus on the topic of Identity and Names may lead into a discussion of linguistic imperialism — how someone outside their tribal group named them or how tribal colleges have renamed themselves using their traditional tribal names. Wilson asserts “as Indigenous Peoples we must ask this question of ourselves. We have brilliant minds among our people, but why do we not have a wealth of literature in our Indigenous languages? How can we resist colonization if we have abandoned the languages that will allow us to resist in one of the most meaningful ways?” (2005, p. 52)

Since decolonization as a political process is always a struggle to define who we are as tribal people, we are always in the process of reminding ourselves of our tribal histories while at the same time creating new ways of knowing tribal worldview(s). To me, this is an educational exercise that expresses tribal sovereignty. As a former dean of a tribal college, I have often felt the need to create language, finding the English language many times inadequate to express my tribal worldview(s). Through various terms used in this resource guide, I suggest that our highest hopes for literacy at this point rest on a vision Lyons (2000) refers to as “rhetorical sovereignty.” Therefore, this resource guide should trigger the discussion of tribal identity and names simultaneously.

Given the sacred nature of naming who we are and given the association of a name with our tribal identity as extended families, our struggle over names imposed on us by outsiders was a double tragedy. We had come to a point where we, as tribal people, were named in mainstream academe by non-tribal people. Thus, tribal people had lost control of this most fundamental of human processes, the self-determination of naming ourselves, of saying to the world, not asking who we were.

Lately, I have used the terms First Nations Peoples or Indigenous Peoples (with capital letters) interchangeably to refer to the original people of the North American continent as they provide empowerment meanings that describe tribal identities. In Canada First Nations Peoples appears to be the most widely used term even in the popular media, while in the United States the term Indigenous Peoples is gradually gaining acceptance. Even the solo term “Native” has gained much recognition in ethnic studies journals. Certainly, these terms have come a long way from the original Christopher Columbus misnomer and frequently used “Indian.”

The precise term Indigenous Peoples can be problematic in that it appears to collectivize many distinct populations whose experiences under imperialism have been vastly different. Smith (1999) describes other collective terms also in use: First People, Native People, First Nations, People of the Land, Aboriginals, and Fourth World Peoples.

“Indigenous” refers to one reality of Indigenous Peoples — the facts that we have established ourselves in a location for tens of thousands of years and are not an immigrant or migratory population (Anglesey, 1997). However, it does not reflect all aspects of our tribal cultures. Thus, some groups prefer the labels that connect us to Mother Earth and to deeply significant spiritual relationships.

Earlier in my professional life, I might have used the terms American Indian or Native American (with capital letters). I have also used the term people of color (no capital letters) to refer to ethnic groups who have historically confronted racism in this country. While the term people of color may be perceived as inclusive, it is not a perfect term either.

Moreover, I try to avoid using the term minorities when including First Nations Peoples because it detracts readers from the primary issues of tribal sovereignty. My efforts are about moving away and abandoning pejorative terms like minorities. By not using the term minorities, I am empowering First Nations Peoples by affirming the concept of tribal sovereignty. Therefore, First Nations Peoples supersedes the term minorities, which tries to include the original people of the North American continent among underrepresented groups in this country.

Identity and Names, the central focus of this resource guide, usually refers to the process of defining for oneself the personal significance and social meaning of belonging to a tribal group. The concepts identity and names are often used synonymously though a distinction can be made between the two words. An ethnic group is a socially defined group based on cultural criteria, such as language, customs, and shared sense of history.

Both racial and ethnic categories are socially constructed, and social definitions of these categories have changed over time. In summary First Nations Peoples and Indigenous Peoples are becoming more widely used than Native American and American Indian, and this paradigm shift reflects more critical thinking on this topic. However, when quoting other writers I use whichever term they use.


Anglesey, Z. (1997). Moving from an obsolete lingo to a vocabulary of respect. MultiCultural Review, 6 (3), 23-28.
Delgado, R. (2000). Words that wound: A tort action for racial insults, epithets, and name-calling. In Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic (Eds.), Critical Race Theory: The cutting edge. (pp. 131-140). Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Lyons, S. R. (2000). Rhetorical sovereignty: What do American Indians want from writing? Journal of the Conference on College Composition and Communication, 51 (3), 447-468.

Smith, L. T. (1999). Decolonizing methodologies: Research and indigenous peoples. New York: Zed Books.

Wilson, W. A. (2005). Remember This! Dakota decolonization and the Eli Taylor Narratives. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press.

Selected Bibliography

Alfred, T. (1999). Peace, Power, Righteousness: An Indigenous manifesto. Ontario, Canada: Oxford University Press Canada.

This is a provocative book on the empowerment of First Nations Peoples.
Benedict, J. (2000). Without Reservation: The making of America’s most powerful Indian tribe and Foxwoods, the world’s largest casino. New York: Harper Collins.

This book challenges the concept of Indian identity, especially when tribes become financially successful from Indian gaming casinos.

Clifton, J. A. (1990). The Invented Indian: Cultural fictions and government policies. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction.

This book is a classic work that examines the concept of Indian identity from tribal and government perspectives.

Churchill, W. (1999). The Crucible of American Indian Identity: Native tradition versus colonial imposition in postconquest North America. American Indian Culture and Research Journal, 23 (1), 39-67.

This article challenges the construct of race and American Indian identity from the U.S. government perspective.

Fenelon, J. V. (1998). Discrimination and Indigenous Identity in Chicago’s Native Community. American Indian Culture and Research Journal. 22 (4), 273-303.

This article chronicles a few case studies of urban Indian identity in the Chicago Indian community.

Forbes, J. D. (1995). Only Approved Indians. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press.

This book challenges the government definition of American Indian and provides an excellent analysis of Indian identity.

Foster, M. (1991). Being and Becoming Comanche: A social history of an American Indian community. Tucson, AZ: University of Arizona Press.

This book chronicles the stories of Comanche families living in the traditional tribal communities of Comanches living in southwestern Oklahoma.

Garroutte, E. M. (2003). Real Indians: Identity and the survival of Native America. Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press.

This book examines the various interpretations of American Indian identity and short story about their survival in the U.S.

Gonzales, A. (1998). The (Re)Articulation of American Indian Identity: Maintaining boundaries and regulating access to ethnically-tied resources. American Indian Culture and Research Journal, 22 (4), 199-225.

This article examines the re-articulation of American Indian identity as well as regulating access to ethnically-tied resources.

Grounds, R. A., Tinker, G. E., & Wilkins, D. E. (2003). Native voices: American Indian identity and resistance. Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas.

This book is a collection of essays by prominent Native scholars in American Indian Studies, an insider’s perspective writing about Native America drawing on their individual disciplinary expertise.

Harjo, J., & Bird, G. (1997). Reinventing the Enemy’s Language: Contemporary Native women’s writings of North America. New York: W.W. Norton and Company.

This book is a collection of essays from Native women writers who try to interpret their voice of struggle in white America.

Hernandez, I. (1993). Foreword: Reflections on Identity and Culture. In Patricia Riley (Ed.), Growing Up Native American. New York: Avon Books.

This book is a collection of essays from Native writers trying to express their concern on the construct of race in U.S.

Hertzberg, H. W. (1971). The Search for an American Indian Identity: Modern pan-Indian movements. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press.

This book is a classic in the volumes of writings on American Indian identity.

Hilden, P. P. (1995). When Nickels Were Indians: An urban, mixed-blood story. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press.

This book chronicles the life an urban, mixed-blood growing up in U.S.

Hirschfelder, A., Molin, P. F., & Wakim, Y. (1999). American Indian Stereotypes in the World of Children: A reader and bibliography. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press.

In its second edition this book is a classic introduction to American Indian stereotypes in the world of children. A valuable component is that it is both a reader and bibliography.

James, H. A. (1995). Some Kind of Indian: On race, eugenics, and mixed-bloods. In Naomi Zack (Ed.), (p. 134). American Mixed Race. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.

This book examines the construction of race in the U.S. Special topics include the history of eugenics and race mixing.

Lobo, S. (1998). Is Urban a Person or Place? Characteristics of urban Indian country. American Indian Culture and Research Journal. 22 (4), 89-102.

This article chronicles the lives of urban Indians and provides an analysis of individuals and locations of their residences.

Mihesuah, D. A. (1998). American Indian Identities: Issues of individual choices and development. American Indian Culture and Research Journal, 22 (2), 193-226.

This article discusses the race box issue as well as how individuals develop in their tribal identities.
Nagle, J. (1996). American Indian Ethnic Renewal, Red Power and the Resurgence of Identity and Culture. New York: Oxford University Press.

This book analyzes the resurgence of Indian identity especially in the heyday of American Indian Movement.

Penn, W. S. (1996). As We Are Now: Mixblood essays on race and identity. Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press.

This book is a collection of essays that discuss being mix-blood and affirming an American Indian identity in the U.S.

Pewewardy, C. D. (2004). So You Think You Hired an “Indian” Faculty Member: The Ethnic Fraud Paradox in Higher Education. In Devon Abbott Mihesuah and Angela Cavender Wilson (Eds.), Indigenizing the Academy: Transforming scholarship and empowering communities. (pp. 200-217). Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press.

This book chapter challenges individuals in the professorate that are deemed suspect by grounded American Indian faculty to having a false or fraudulent American Indian identity in U.S. higher education.

Pewewardy, C. D. (2003). To be or not to be Indigenous?: Identity, race, and representation in education. Indigenous Nations Studies Journal, 4 (2), 69-91.

This article presents an analysis on American Indian identity as well as discusses the challenges of being represented in U.S. educational curriculum and enterprises.

Pewewardy, C. D. (2002). American Indian and white students talking about ethnic identity in teacher education programs: Helping teacher education students know themselves as cultural beings. Action in Teacher Education, 24 (2), 22-33.

This article compares and contrasts the differences in how American Indian students and white students identify themselves as cultural beings in teacher education programs.

Pewewardy, C. D. (2001, June). “I” is for Indigenous: Renaming ourselves on our own terms. Multicultural Review, 10 (2), 30-33.

This article argues for using the capital letter “I” in the word “Indigenous.”

Pewewardy, C. D. (2000, Spring). Renaming Ourselves on Our Own Terms: Race, Tribal Nations, and Representation in Education. Indigenous Nations Studies Journal, 1 (1), 11-28.

This article argues for Indigenous Peoples to name themselves on their own terms, rather than continue to be named by others from outside their tribal groups or communities.

Pewewardy, C. D. (1998, June). Will the “Real” Indians Please Stand Up? Multicultural Review, 7 (2), 36-42.

This article examines the (mostly unconscious) ways that people identify themselves as American Indian. It also attempts to demystify American Indian identity by using Indian humor as one way to suppress “the soul wound of colonization,” as well as interrogates the phenomenon of the “Cherokee Indian Princess” and the notion of having been an Indian in one’s former life.

Ridgeway, M., & Pewewardy, C. D. (2004, Summer). Linguistic Imperialism in the United States: The historical eradication of American Indian languages and the English-Only movement. MultiCultural Review, 13 (2), 28-34.

This article chronicles the historical eradication of American Indian languages and the English-Only movement.

Root, M. P. (1996). The Multiracial Experience: Racial borders as the new frontier. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

This book introduces the multiracial experience of having multiple ethnic identities, one of which includes American Indian ancestry.

Sturm, C. (2002). Blood Politics: Race, culture, and identity in the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

This book chronicles the history of race construction among the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma.

Strauss, T., & Valentino, D. (1998). Retribalization in Urban Indian Communities. American Indian Culture and Research Journal. 22 (4), 103-115.

This article examines the retribalization of American Indians living in urban communities in the U.S.

Vickers, S. B. (1998). Native American Identities: From stereotype to archetype in art and literature. Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press.

This book examines the construction of Indian identity from stereotypes to archetypes in art and literature.

Weaver, H. N. (2001). Indigenous Identity: What is it and who really has it? American Indian Quarterly, 25 (2), 240-255.

This article examines the concept of Indigenous identity as well as inquiry into interpretation.

Williams, R. A. (2000). Documents of barbarism: The contemporary legacy of European racism and colonialism in the narrative traditions of federal Indian law. In Richard Delgado and Jean Stefanic (Eds.), Critical race theory: The cutting edge. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

This book chapter examines the social construction of race categories by the U.S. government.

Wilson, C. B. (1989). Search for the Purebloods. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press.

This picture book explores an artist’s search for full-blood American Indians in Oklahoma.

Wilson, T. (1992). Blood Quantum: Native American mixed bloods. In Maria P. P. Root (Ed.). (pp. 108-125). Racially Mixed People in America. Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications.

This book chapter analyzes the social construct of race categories in the U.S.
Womack, C. S. (1999). Red on Red: Native American literary separatism. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

This book argues that the meaning of works by Native peoples inevitably changes through evaluation by the dominant culture.

Yellow Bird, M. (2005). Decolonizing Tribal Enrollment. In Waziyatawin Angela Wilson and Michael Yellow Bird (Eds.), (pp. 179-188). For Indigenous Eyes Only: A decolonization handbook. Santa Fe, NM: School of American Research.

This book chapter examines the colonization of race categories in the U.S. by providing an opportunity for readers to engage in their own decolonization process of Indigenizing their tribal identity.

Yellow Bird, M. (1999, Winter). Indian, American Indian, and Native American: Counterfeit identities. Winds of Change, (14), 1.

This article argues for alternatives names for terms such as Indian, American Indian, and Native American. Instead, the author provides a brilliant analysis and discourse that offers empowering nomenclature.

Dr. Cornel Pewewardy (Comanche-Kiowa) is an educational consultant based out of Fresno, CA. He teaches courses in American Indian Studies at Fresno City College. Pewewardy was the Dean of Academic Instruction at the Comanche Nation College in Lawton, OK, from 2005-2007 and an associate professor with dual appointments in the School of Education and College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Kansas from 1997 to 2005. His scholarly interests include culturally responsive teaching strategies, learning styles of American Indian children, ethnic stereotyping in schools and sports, linguistic imperialism, identity politics and representation in curriculum. He can be contacted at cpewewardy@comcast.net.

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