- Indian, Native, Indigene: The Reverberations of a Quiet Linguistic Revolution
Over the past decade the people of aboriginal descent in the US who many know as American Indians or Native Americans are increasingly referring to themselves as—Indigenes. This word in turn has opened political and aesthetic possibilities whose linguistic inspirations, I would like to suggest, deserve greater critical acknowledgment and analysis than they often currently receive in US literary criticism. I will examine current uses of the terms Indigene and indigenous as they emerge from recent scholarly works on the concept. Yet first I would also like to explore why aboriginal people around the world might find “Indigene” a more accurate, more empowering term than others they have used in the past. Of course, within the mass culture that has come to characterize modernity, many groups tend to change the word by which they refer to themselves, so commonly in fact that the phenomenon of self-name change now has a new name itself: the “euphemism treadmill” (Pinker 213).
Pulitzer-finalist Steven Pinker invokes this phrase to describe how “people invent new words for emotionally charged referents” in a way that, at least within his theories of evolutionary psychology, ultimately proves that “concepts, not words, are primary in people’s minds. Give a concept a new name, and the name becomes colored by the concept” (213). Consider a term chosen specifically for its heightened emotional charge. Pinker notes that we gradually come to view a term like “mentally retarded,” once implemented to seem less offensive than previous labels, as itself offensive, so we institute a new phrase, “intellectually disabled,” to move the signifier away from the signified concepts or emotions that accrete within its usage over time. Even potentially less politically charged monikers often [End Page 374] change over time, as anyone of middle age will remember through one lifetime’s evolution of “African American,” which traces its genealogy through “Black,” back through “Negro” to “Colored Person,” and beyond.
The field we often call American-Indian studies or Native American studies (usually depending on whether scholars founded a given program in the 1970s or in the 1980s, respectively) has embraced the term Indigenous studies in the present decade. Scholars in the field often refer to the peoples they study as indigenous peoples or Indigenes, and evoke the methodological concept of indigeneity to refer to the quality—and more later on various contested definitions of this quality—of being indigenous. Certainly, the notion of a euphemism treadmill might in part explain why. Use of “American,” which at the beginning of the nineteenth century referred to Native Americans had, by century’s end, changed to refer to non-Native Americans. So too, as everyone from the anti-immigration nineteenth-century Nativist Party to fifth-generation Coloradans sporting “NATIVE” license plates to people born in a certain region have officially designated themselves as natives, connotations have accrued within the term which might cause aboriginal peoples to seek a better term to specify their own groups.
By imagining as creative acts those linguistic alterations whose signified concepts Pinker figures as remaining static while a linguistic treadmill rotates beneath them, E. B. White crafted a more mobile metaphor for the ways terms change over time. For White, “The living language is like a cowpath: it is the creation of the cows themselves, who, having created it, follow it or depart from it according to their whims or their needs. From daily use, the path undergoes change. A cow is under no obligation to stay in the narrow path she helped make” (23). Many in literary studies will surely prefer White’s vision of a meandering path over Pinker’s notion of a static treadmill, especially because White registers the ways linguistic changes participate creatively in the formation of new cultural directions and perceptions. People of aboriginal descent may increasingly prefer to call themselves Indigenes because previous...