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State of American History, Civics, and Politics

When Did Indians First Become Indigenous?

We are all victims now! (Elijah Nouvelage, Bloomberg)

When did Indians first become Indigenous? When were they first victimized? Before suggesting some dates, I provide again the following working definition of the term “Indigenous”:

No general, internationally accepted definition of indigenous peoples exists. It is typical of indigenous populations that they do not represent the dominant population in the larger society of which they are part, although they may be the population group that inhabited the area first.

To be Indigenous requires a dominant population that has victimized a weaker people. You can’t have a victimized people with there being someone to victimize them. So when did that process begin?

As a caution, I am including the words of Susanah Shaw Romney in “Settler Colonial Prehistories in Seventeenth-Century Century North America” (William and Mary Quarterly 76 2019). She writes that terms may be applied when they are inappropriate.

Central to the theory is the idea of settler colonialism as a structure that requires Native erasure, both ideologically and in the real world… [I]t is crucial that we not become part of the ongoing process Native erasure ourselves by failing to recognize the central role played by Native nations both in the past and today.

As I understand this, she is informing us not to fall into the trap of discounting the contribution Indians have and are making to American history. One corollary is to recognize the existence of Indian history prior to contact with white people in its own right.

Here, then, are some suggestion dates for when Indians became Indigenous based on the 12,000 year existence of Indians on Turtle Island.

0          At creation – were Indians victimized at the moment of their creation?  If yes, then who was the dominant population? If no, then it is not appropriate to refer to Indians as “Indigenous” for that time.

12,000 BCE to 1491 Pre-Columbus – were Indians victimized during the first 11,491 years of their existence prior to the arrival of Columbus? If yes, then who was the dominant population? If no, then it is not appropriate to refer to Indians as “Indigenous” for that time.

1492 Columbus – Did the arrival of Columbus mean the instant victimization of all Indian peoples in the western hemisphere? If not, then it is not appropriate to refer to Indians as “Indigenous” at that time.

Consider some non-Indian examples. Suppose Jews decided in response to their victimization and struggle to survive against dominant populations, they wish to be called the Holocaust People as in:

Moses led the Holocaust People out of Egypt.
David became king of the Holocaust People in Jerusalem.

Or suppose Armenians wanted to be called the Genocide People after their victimization.

In the beginning of the fourth century CE, the Genocide People established the Armenian Orthodox Church.

Or how about Africans declaring that they are to be called the Enslaved People?

These examples are not exact parallels. Still, they highlight one crucial similarity with each other: peoples who have been victimized do not necessarily want to be defined by victimhood or named after the act of victimhood perpetrated against them.

When the following meetings occurred, were they occasions of victimization or attempts as alliance/friendship?

1607 John Smith and Powhatan (Algonquian)
1609 Henry Hudson and the Lenape
1620 Pilgrims and the Wampanoag.

These “first contacts” can be compared and contrasted with that of Columbus and the Carib. To characterize the English or Dutch as dominant at this these times seems farfetched. Eventually these three Indian peoples would become victims of the dominant people. However, it is incorrect to designate them as “Indigenous” right from the start.

In fact, one could tell the history of the United States through the prism of Indians becoming an Indigenous people, that is, one dominated by a population which victimized them. The very Exchange in the journal of the American Historical Association that started this thread (see Native American and Indigenous Studies: Another Culture Wars Episode) presents one such moment that could be considered as a starting point: King Philip’s War (1675-1678) marked a last ditch effort by the Wampanoag to fend off the English settlers who had and did become the dominant people.

Here in New York, 1779, the Sullivan Campaign marks an important turning point in the relation between the American settlers and the Haudenosaunee. Prior to then, multiple Indian tribes and European peoples jockeyed for power in various wars from the 1600s through the French and Indian War to the American Revolution. Until this time Indians were players in the game of power politics and not Indigenous.

A similar case can be made for the Cherokee. They had developed a script, written a constitution, and settled as farmers. Then came the Trail of Tears. At that point, it seems appropriate to refer to them as Indigenous as clearly the dominant culture had victimized them by forcibly removing them from their land.

In 1876, the Battle of Little Bighorn was between two sides quite capable of squaring off against each other. In fact, the Sioux were even capable of winning the battle. Eventually their foe would become the dominant one but it hadn’t yet happened. The Sioux did not yet fit the definition of an Indigenous people.

The same applies to the Apache before their leader Geronimo died in 1909.

These examples show a more than 200 year period over which various Indian peoples from New England to New York to the southeast to the northern Plains to the west became victimized by the dominant population. As Shaw writes:

The dominance of Native peoples on the continent through much of the eighteenth century, and clear understanding of that dominance by the colonists at the time, fits poorly with current theorizations of settler colonialism….

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the real power of Native peoples on the North American continent often constrained whites from enacting settler colonialist fantasies.

Notice how Shaw, whether accidentally or on purpose, has reversed the definition of “Indigenous.” She states that both Indians and Europeans/Americans in the 18th century recognized that the Indians were the dominant people. She has no illusion about what would happen next. But she objects to “perpetuat[ing] ideologies of the Disappearing Indian.” So at the very time when Indians say “We’re still here,” their history risks being shortchanged by limiting them to victimhood status.

There is no historical basis for intrinsically defining Indians as victims from the moment of their creation through the first 11,500 years of their existence. Or to the moment of first contact with a single white person in 1492. Or with various white people over the centuries to follow. So why do white people routinely designate Indians as “Indigenous.” Why define them as being victimized by a dominant population? Instead, it happened to them at specific points in time, with specific people, and specific events. Indians were not created as victims so why should they have a victimized name (does any other people)?

You may be thinking that when people say “Indigenous” they really mean “indigenous” in the traditional sense and not the politically-corrected sense. Then why use the term at all? When I began this thread, I asked what is the value added of using the term “Indigenous” over “Indian.” Indians don’t object to being called “Indians.” Why do white people prefer “Indigenous” to “Indian”?

In a previous blog, I claimed that white people would not support the change of Columbus Day to Indian Heritage Day. However they would support the change to “Indigenous Heritage Day.” I suggested that “Indian” was just a name so there was no moral benefit to calling the holiday that. By contrast, “Indigenous Heritage Day” marked a victory over evil and repentance for America’s second original sin.

At that time I forgot about a phrase used to name that situation. It comes from the Civil Rights movement. It is called the “white savior” syndrome. It can be defined as follows:

The term white savior, sometimes combined with savior complex to write white savior complex, refers to a white person who provides help to black people in a self-serving manner. The role is considered a modern-day version of what is expressed in the poem “The White Man’s Burden” (1899) by Rudyard Kipling.    

I wrote about it briefly back in 2018 (Twelve Years a Slave – What about the Other Years?).

Consider the movie Brooklyn (2015), the story of an Irish immigrant to America in the 1950s who lives the American Dream. She was not a superhero. She did not change the course of human history. She did not stand out as she was one of many who eventually found their heaven on earth after an intermarriage to an Italian and a dedication to education. Solomon Northup was doing that over a century earlier but that story is only glimpsed at the beginning and end of the movie.

There is more to black lives than being rescued by the white savior. Yes, it’s great that the godly Brad Pitt helped free Northup from captivity but notice that limited life being assigned to black people – they are victims. We all are aware of how important victim ideology is in the political arena today. Elitists love to tell the story of a Joe Louis or Jackie Robinson but what about the black Saoirse Ronan who stars in Brooklyn. Free blacks had a life in New York beyond the Underground Railroad with stories to tell just as Irish, German, Italian, Jewish, and immigrants from countries besides Norway have to tell. But those stories aren’t told.

For the application of the white-savior complex in Africa, see The White-Savior Industrial Complex by Teju Cole (The Atlantic, 2012):

One song we hear too often is the one in which Africa serves as a backdrop for white fantasies of conquest and heroism….Africa has provided a space onto which white egos can conveniently be projected.

One of the common tropes of the white-savior is the school teacher in the inner city. You would think that there is no such thing as a black teacher making a difference. The exception is To Sir with Love but that was in England and the students were white.

It shouldn’t be a surprise then that the same white-savior complex found in the Civil Rights movement on America’s first original sin also has been applied to Indians on America’s second original sin. Defining Indians as “Indigenous” defines them as existing solely in terms of white people, as having no existence until the dominant people arrived and as having no other relationship with whites except as victims. Why do Indians allow white people to define them as victims instead of calling the, Indians or using the name of their people? What choice do they have against the dominant population seeking to redeem itself?

15 thoughts on “When Did Indians First Become Indigenous?

  1. Thanks, Peter. This is the best thing I’ve read on the topic. It’s been a confusing term for so many of us [especially teachers who are instructed to always use ‘indigenous’ instead of ‘indian’.

    1. Thanks Lola, glad to be of help. As I wrote in another blog, one of the first questions teachers ask in these conferences such as by the National Museum of the American Indian is what word to use. They do not want to be reported by the Thought Police. Keep in mind: Indians don’t object to the term “Indians,” it is white people who do.

  2. If Iroquoian-speaking people in prehistory invaded and displaced the Algonquian-speakers in what became Iroquoia, then the Algonquians were indigenous and the Iroquois were not indigenous.

    1. Hi Paul, As you know there is no known instance of intra-Indian violence that is not directly due to the white man! Actually when I started this thread based on the Exchange in the American Historical Association, the reviewer took one of the authors to task precisely for glossing over Indian:Indian violence with specific reference to the Mohawk. The terminology fails if doing actual history and prehistory. Peter

  3. Your “working definition” and statement that “To be Indigenous requires a dominant population that has victimized a weaker people” seems to be erroneous to begin with. From the same link you provided: “under international law, the term ‘indigenous people’ implies that the population involved must have been the first inhabitants of an area [but] In accordance with ILO Convention 169/89, the central issue is whether any current population group has an affiliation with a specific region dating back to the time when the present state boundaries were established in that region” While you quote the part that says “It is typical of indigenous populations that they do not represent the dominant population in the larger society,” not even that sentence necessarily implies that the definition requires indigenous populations to be “victims.”

    1. Dawn, Your points are welltaken but incomplete. If “Indigenous” applies only to “whether any current population group has an affiliation with a specific region dating back to the time when the present state boundaries were established in that region” then it does not apply prior to the establishment of those boundaries. You are agreeing with me that it is an inappropriate term for Indians until such time as those state boundaries were established. Fine. It doesn’t apply in 1492, 1607, 1609, or 1620 and should only be used once boundaries were established. IN addition, the implication of your citation is that the people were victimized.

      My position is that historical societies should tell the history of their area from Ice to Global Warming. Is that what you had planned to do during your bicentennial before it was cancelled?


  4. Thank you Peter! This is a great article. I’m beginning to research the Haudenosaunee diaspora from 1780 through the 19th century in the Mohawk Valley. Thanks for the reminder to get back to it.

    Best Wishes,

    Chris Leonard
    City Historian – City of Schenectady

  5. Peter;

    In Onondowa’gah the language of the “People of the Great Hill”, also referred to as Seneca (which has no meaning in our language) we call “Indians” Ongwe’oweh.

    All the ‘O’s are nasalized in these words, the translation I would offer is “the real human being” it could be “original human being” also.

    All the misnomers you know Indians, Native Americans, American Indians I won’t list any prejudicial words that debate isn’t settled mascots still abound in public schools.

    The French Campaign of 1687 known as the Denonville Campaign sent by Louis the XIV was the beginning of a foreign government really attempting to destroy us.

    Four Onondowa’gah towns were destroyed 1,200,000 bushels of corn were destroyed. All this was to gain control of the fur trade in North America.

    By your definition we then became Indigenous. I don’t think so but just reacting to what your writing. Likewise 12,500 year ago only marks the receding glacier not our arrival.

    We begin here on Turtle Island the place Euro-Americans call North America.

    Doneh ho,

    Pete Jemison

    1. Pete,

      It’s not my definition of “Indigenous.” I was applying an agreed upon working definition.

      I didn’t realize your arrival preceded the receding glacier. I have heard different stories of creation including of a Polynesian location at a recent Indigenous Conference. Maybe I will write about it.

      Stay safe and thanks for writing,


  6. Don’t overlook the fact that the Africans enslaved themselves. The Arab traders never went out hunting slaves themselves. They simply contracted with west African tribes to go out and bring back prisoners from East Africa, A significant % of today’s black population here is related to the slave providers and not the slaves themselves. A totally overlooked, and inconvenient, historical fact. Reparations ??? Need to check your DNA first……. which side were “you” really on !

    1. Bob, I wrote about that topic in some blogs on 1619. I am not sure how your comments apply here unless you mean to point out the shortcomings of politically-corrected language in other areas as well. Peter

  7. Peter,

    My Mohican Indian friends tell me that there are no Native Americans. “Some of us just got here earlier.”
    Speaks to the equality of us all.


    Tom Lake
    New York State Department of Environmental Conservation
    Estuary Naturalist, Region 3, Hudson River Estuary Program

  8. Listen, bubala, you kvetch too much with toothless arguments about Native/Indigenous/American Indian folk. You’re fighting a rear-guard battle. Best for you to read Susan Neiman’s “Learning From the Germans.” Listen to your zeyde, just read it. Channukah

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