Subscribe to the IHARE Blog

Africans Are Not Indigenous: Is That Racist?

Where everybody knows and uses your name ('Cheers' Credit: NBC)

To fully understand the term “Indigenous,” one needs to examine not only when the term is used but when it is not. This blog is a continuation of an analysis based on an “Exchange: which was published in the journal of the American Historical Association (AHA) [Violence and Native American and Indigenous Studies (NAIS) and Native American and Indigenous Studies: Another Culture Wars Episode]. The more I thought about the issues directly raised in that exchange as reported in two previous blogs, the more I realized there were larger issues which extended beyond what was covered there. As part of this ongoing effort, I now turn to the apparent double standard in the non-use of the term in reference to Africans.


As I mentioned in the previous blogs, I was involved with a local group formed in Westchester County, New York, as part of the 1619 quadricentennial. In the first meeting I inquired about the beginning of slavery in the County. During the course of events, I learned about an event in 1685 in the Town of Rye where I live involving the bringing ashore of nine “Angolans” to help build what became the Upper Mills, now Philipsburg Manor, on the other side of the County.

In my investigation of this event, I began to read about the African side of that event. To the best of knowledge, at no point in any of the articles and books that I read did a scholar refer to any of the African peoples involved as or use the word “Indigenous.” True, I was not looking for it at the time so I may simply not have noticed it. Also many of the readings were from the pre-Politically-Correct era of scholarship so at that time the only word used was “indigenous” in its traditional meaning.

As far as I can tell, African scholars follow the same path as European scholars. They routinely refer to the peoples, countries, kingdoms, and empires they are studying by their names. Actually, Indian scholars frequently do as well. But sometimes as brought out in the initial blog, the term “Indigenous” trumps all other considerations. Then the name of the Indian people practically disappears, a modern variation in the longstanding practice of the “Disappearing Indian.”

This contrast between the treatment of Indian and African can be seen in an event that occurred right as I was reading the “Exchange” in the AHA journal. The incident involves a statue in front of the American Museum of Natural History in New York. The statue has Teddy Roosevelt on a horse flanked by two males, one African and the other Indian. All three figures are physically fit. The standing figures represent areas where Roosevelt had visited and are unnamed.

While I am not an expert in such things, the Indian appears to be a Northern Plains Indian. Scholars are familiar with the Plains Indians by that name. I reported on them in two previous blogs: the 2020 annual conference of another history organization, the Organizations of American Historians (see the blogs The Organization of American Historians (OAH) Conference: What Would Have Been Presented? and  Organization of American Historians Conference: II). While scholars can differentiate among Indians just as they do among Europeans, the general public has more of a tendency to lump all Indians together whereas they do differentiate between Nordic and Mediterranean white people.

In the press coverage of the statue, the reporting differed. The African figure to the right was always, as in every single time I read about or heard about it, referred to as an African. By contrast, the Indian initially was routinely designated as “Indigenous.” Africans are not Indigenous, Indians are. Over time, the Indian more and more was called a “Native American.”

A striking difference in treatment of African and Indian occurred on September 22, 2020, in the print edition of The New York Times. It would not have been as noticeable online. There was a contrast in the treatment on pages 8 and 9 respectively meaning when you held the paper up you could see both pages. The headline on the right side (page 9) was “Journalist Covering Indigenous Rallies Is Arrested.” The article repeatedly used the word “Indigenous” to refer to the protesters, the reporters, and the issues. In third column of the four-column article, the arrested reporter is identified as Haudenosaunee member of the Oneida Bear Clan. In the second column, another arrested reporter was identified as a member of Mohawk Turtle Clan.

The article on the left side (page 8) tells a different story. The subtitle is “Congolese Activist Sees Relics as Colonial Loot.” The opening sentence identifies the activist as Congolese. Throughout the article about the museum artifacts under question, they are referred to as African. There is no mention of “Indigenous.” Museums are African, artifacts are African, and people are African and/or Congolese. Africans are not indigenous, Indians are.

Can you tell where this person is from? The headline is: “A Lawman Carrying Indigenous Roots and a John Wayne Style” (10/12/20 NYT).  Want a hint?

And along with the tangibility of the physical environment, there’s the authentic feel of the [TV] shows depiction of the lives of the Indigenous characters, who make up the majority of the cast. That’s no surprise, given that both directors, and three of the five writers of the season’s six episodes are Indigenous themselves.

Give up? It’s Australia and the people are identified as Aborigines. This goes back the question I asked in the first blog of this thread: what is the value added of calling people “Indigenous” instead of using their names?

Barack Obama is Luo.

Joe Biden is Irish.

Kamala Harris is Jamaican-Indian or South Asian.

Evo Morales is Bolivia’s first Indigenous president (NYT 10/18/20).

Don’t Indians have proper-noun names? Didn’t they say that is what they preferred to be called?


This difference in treatment between Africans and Indians is known to scholars. In 2017 in the American Quarterly, Robert D. G. Kelley wrote an article “The Rest of Us: Rethinking Settler and Native.” Kelley takes issue with the way certain politically-correct terms have been defined and used in settler colonial studies. He calls to task the racism in the usage: “it presumes that indigenous people exist only in the Americas and Australasia. African indigenity is erased in this formulation through linguistic slight of hand.” He criticizes Patrick Wolfe, an intellectual giant and leader figure in the burgeoning field of settler colonial studies for having “settler colonialism on the African continent” fall outside the purview: Wolfe “eliminates the settler from African history.” He even takes settler colonialism to task for ignoring when it occurred in Europe among white people! (The subject of my next blog.)

The racism in settler colonialism is exposed in a 1966 article from the time before the concept even existed. The article by Roland Oliver in the Journal of African History is entitled “The Problem of Bantu Expansion.” The author was exploring the origins of the Bantu-speaking people of some 70 million who occupied most of Africa south of the Equator. Since the Bantu were not indigenous to the lands they now occupied, the question has been raised how did their language spread there? The traditional explanation has been through migration and conquest. Oliver cites one expert who pictured the event as hordes of invaders fanning out over the southern half of the continent as hordes of Zulu warriors had done in the 19th century. He notes similarity of some of the analogies used by scholars to what happened with European settlement in North America and Australia in case you didn’t make the connection.

Oliver explores the expansion of the Bantu from their homeland in one part of Africa in the northern woodlands south to other parts of Africa. They were aided in this effort with superior technology in iron that could be used for weapons, in hunting, and in fishing. As Oliver wrote:

…in was here in the southern woodland belt, that they achieved their first, main population increase. It was here that they established a bridgehead comparable to the bridgehead established by the European settlers on the Atlantic coast of North America…Their obvious success over against any earlier hunting, gathering and tenuously vegecultural peoples whom they found in this region would be more adequately explained by their possession of a rudimentary iron technology and a knowledge of cereal agriculture which enable them to take over…

Oliver refers to the “colonization” of the land by the Bantu as they spread across it. He noted the continued existence of “remnant populations.” Overall, it was “an unending sequence of migration, conquest and absorption.”

In an article entitled “Western Bantu Expansion” by Jan Vansina in the Journal of African History (1984), he asked about what happened to the “autochthones” before the Bantu expansion:

All the former languages spoken by these hunters and gathers have disappeared and most of their populations have been absorbed. How did this happen?

One answer was demography. The new settlers just kept coming and coming and their farm populations just kept growing and growing. The new crops and metal technology prevailed. Some oral traditions tell of wars but the bottom line is clear: Bantu settler colonialism displaced and overwhelmed the “Indigenous” people who are now a remnant.

These African-related articles highland the double standard in the treatment of Africans and Indians. Africans have retained their proper-noun names. Indians do still have proper noun names:

“Contact tracing saves Apache lives” (article title on 10/21/20 in my local paper from the Arizona Republic)

but the need to politically correct leads to some convoluted combinations:

Democratic Assembly nominee Marccela Mitaynes is asked by an interviewer:

“For you, as an immigrant, Indigenous Peruvian woman of color, what does it mean to have your voice represented in state government?” (City & State New York, 7/27/20).

Way to cover all your bases and check all the politically correct boxes. Notice that her “Indigenous” people in Peru are not named. In her answer, she spoke on behalf of “immigrants” and left the other identifiers out.

What can be concluded from all this?

1. “Remnant” is a better term than “Indigenous.”
2. Africans have “remnant” peoples too.
3. Same-race settler colonialism exists.
4. Indians should be referred to by their names.
5. The “Disappearing Indian” syndrome still exists when people aren’t called who they are.

This thread continues with an exploration of what happens where settler colonialism and “Indigenous” occur with white people when they can’t be called that.

“Indigenous” versus “Indian”: What Word Should Be Used?

This blog is a continuation of a study deriving from an “Exchange” in the journal of the American Historical Association. The title of the Exchange is “Living with the Past: Thoughts on Community Collaboration and Difficult History in Native American and Indigenous Studies.” It consisted of a review of two books on King Philips War (1676) and one organization, the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association (NAISA).

The first blog I wrote on this Exchange addressed the critique of and the defense of the NAISA and its scholarship by the participants (Native American and Indigenous Studies: Another Culture Wars Episode).

The second blog on this Exchange, Violence and Native American and Indigenous Studies (NAIS), focused on the subject of violence in one of the two reviewed books. For whatever reason, the author of that book did not participate in the Exchange while the author of the other book did. The absence of the author’s participation meant the accusations about the shortcomings in the scholarship were not refuted.

In this blog, I wish to address a topic not included in the Exchange but implicit in it. This has to do with the terminology used by the scholars, specifically the words “Indigenous” and “Indian.” In many instances the author has no choice – the reference is to an organization, conference, book or article title which has the word “Indigenous” or “Indian” in it. I did not scrutinize the Exchange to differentiate between when the use of a term was the author’s choice or not. In 32+ pages of the journal, the word “Indigenous” was used 110 times. In the same space the word “Indian” was used 34 times. This roughly 3:1 ratio is not a scientific experiment. I suspect many of the 34 times the word “Indian” was used in the Exchange was because the author had no choice, for example if one was referring to the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian or the American Indian Quarterly. The question I have, in baseball terms, is what is the value added in the use of “Indigenous” over “Indian”? What is the reason for the change?


Speaking of the NMAI, I had the opportunity to participate in three online presentations by the NMAI since I read the Exchange. In all three instances, an immediate question raised or anticipated was what to call “Indians.” Since many of the participants were teachers and the NMAI specifically was reaching out to the education community in these programs, the urgency and immediacy of this question suggests that teachers do not want to commit a politically incorrect faux pas and be hauled off before the Thought Police by a white parent of a white student claiming insensitive and disrespectful language is being used in the classroom.

The NMAI is well aware of the situation. It even has prepared a “cheat’ sheet teachers can use. In general terms the Indian and white instructors in these sessions say that the people prefer to be called who are they are whatever that particular tribe or nation name happens to be. This makes sense.  One says Japanese-American about an American citizen of Japanese descent for instance. When referring to people collectively, say not to Polish-Americans but to all Americans of European descent, then the preferred terms according to the NMAI are American Indian, Indian, Native American, or Native which can be used interchangeably.

NMAI is aware that the term “Native” can be problematic. The reason is Americans born in the United States are native Americans as well (see If You Are a Native New Yorker, Are You a Native American?: The Weaponization of “Native” and the Culture Wars). In fact, since I started writing this blog I have come across multiple attestations of people being referred to as native New Yorkers or of a particular borough. True, one person’s ancestors can have been a Native American earlier than when your immigrant ancestors first had a child born in the United States, but one’s “nativeness” is determined at your birth, not by you parents or distant ancestors. At some level the NMAI may be aware that privileging one group as more “Native American” than another group can be a micro aggression to a non-Indian person born in America.

Strangely enough, the term “Indigenous” did not come up in these sessions as a suggested name for Indians. For more on this topic see Warrior, R., “Indian,” in B. Burgett and G. Hendler (eds.), Keywords for American Cultural Studies (2014). Personally, I think “Turtle Island people” or “Turtle-Island-Americans” would be a more respectful name. It draws on the actual Indian culture without privileging it.


The question remains what is the value added of the term “Indigenous” instead of “Indian”? One may also add what the purpose was in the invention of the term in the first place?

Firsting and Lasting: Writing Indians out of Existence in New England is a book by Jean O’Brien who participated in the Exchange. The description of the book is:

Across nineteenth-century New England, antiquarians and community leaders wrote hundreds of local histories about the founding and growth of their cities and towns. Ranging from pamphlets to multivolume treatments, these narratives shared a preoccupation with establishing the region as the cradle of an Anglo-Saxon nation and the center of a modern American culture. They also insisted, often in mournful tones, that New England’s original inhabitants, the Indians, had become extinct, even though many Indians still lived in the very towns being chronicled. This book argues that local histories became a primary means by which European Americans asserted their own modernity while denying it to Indian peoples. Erasing and then memorializing Indian peoples also served a more pragmatic colonial goal: refuting Indian claims to land and rights. Drawing on more than six hundred local histories from Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island written between 1820 and 1880, as well as censuses, monuments, and accounts of historical pageants and commemorations, the book explores how these narratives inculcated the myth of Indian extinction, a myth that has stubbornly remained in the American consciousness. (Bold added)

In the book there are no uses of the term “Indigenous” and 7 examples of “indigenous.” That suggests to me the usage is based on the traditional meaning as native to a place. Exactly when “indigenous” shifted to being “Indigenous,” I don’t know. The book also uses the term “Indian” approximately 1500 times. Evidently there was no problem in the Indian author using the term “Indian” and no obligation to use “Indigenous.”

On the book jacket, Philip J. Deloria, who also was part of the Exchange, wrote:

Driven by a creative reading of hundreds of local histories, Jean M. O’Brien’s Firsting and Lasting reinvigorates the old question of the ‘vanishing Indian‘ in surprising ways, taking readers into the contradictions surrounding race and modernity, and offering an ur-history of the politics of tribal termination, dual citizenship, and cultural politics.

Deloria is the author of the three books Playing Indian, Indians in Unexpected Places, and Becoming Mary Sully: Toward an American Indian Abstract.

The book jacket description of the book is:

In Firsting and Lasting, Jean M. O’Brien argues that local histories became a primary means by which European Americans asserted their own modernity while denying it to Indian peoples. Erasing and then memorializing Indian peoples also served a more pragmatic colonial goal: refuting Indian claims to land and rights. Drawing on more than six hundred local histories from Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island written between 1820 and 1880, as well as censuses, monuments, and accounts of historical pageants and commemorations, O’Brien explores how these narratives inculcated the myth of Indian extinction, a myth that has stubbornly remained in the American consciousness.

 This description provides a constructive basis for individual historical societies in both the three states mentioned and elsewhere to examine how the Indian stories in their own communities have been dismissed, ignored or erased. That is consistent with my previously stated view that historical societies should tell the story of their land from Ice Age to Global Warming. The identification of the Indian history would seem to be a productive undertaking although I doubt most individual historical societies have the resources to do so or that there sufficient number of experts who can be consulted to help them.


Unfortunately, local historical societies may not have gotten the message that it is acceptable to investigate the Indian history in their own community. Here is one example.

“Village Erasing ‘Indian’” was the front page headline of an article in The Freemans Journal, Cooperstown, New York. It seems that a Village trustee noticed the wording on a history marker at Council Rock, an Indian meeting place where the Susquehanna River flows out of Otsego Lake. The resident was shocked to see the text was: “Council Rock: Famous Meeting Place of the Indians.” The Trustee was aghast saying:

“I was shocked that I hadn’t noticed it previously. The sign refers to Native Americans as ‘Indians.’ It’s racially insensitive and incorrect, and it needs to be updated.”

That outrage sparked another Trustee to voice concern about another sign about the Indian Grave a few blocks from the meeting.

The first Trustee expressed concern about “this moment of social awareness and racial awareness” in the United States and called for contacting the New York State Department of Education responsible for state history markers. It was felt that the village needed to get out ahead of the “problem.”

A more intelligent Trustee commented that the “we shouldn’t assume what is politically correct or culturally correct. We need to do our due diligence.” This comment demonstrates the elevation of politically correct standards as the basis for rendering a decision. Think about that for a moment. A village government acknowledged that it was obligated to comply with politically correct standards even though Indians have expressed no objection to the term. The only issue for the village was the determination of what those standards was.

The reporter concluded the article with the droll comment that “The Indian Hunter” statue, the most famous statue in the village, was not mentioned during the deliberations.

As one might expect, the June 22, 2020, meeting led to a community response on the newspaper’s website. Here are some salient remarks.

1. One resident expressed the notion that to be truly sensitive to Native Americans meant returning the lands in Cooperstown taken from them. He suggested starting with the lakefront homes of one Trustee and the mother of a second Trustee.
2. One anonymous resident went to the NMAI website showing the information reported above. It noted the acceptability of the term “Indian” and the preference to call Indians by their tribal name.
3. A third resident responded to the oversight of not mentioning the Indian hunter statue. After all, hunting depicts Native Americans in a stereotypical appearance that could offend someone. [Apparently hunters are an offensive image to Indians. Indeed it is hard to image any culture anywhere at any time having a hunter as a hero.] This person went on to call for the removal of the statue of James Fenimore Cooper and changing the names of Fenimore Park, Fenimore Museum, and Cooperstown itself. After all, who knows what might be offensive to someone in the future. Ironically this article appeared in the local paper [yes, one still exists in Cooperstown] right next to right my blog Schuyler Owned People: Should Schuylerville Change Its Name? which the paper had published. This resident may have been speaking tongue-in-cheek as the comment ended: “Better to take it all down and change all the names. George Orwell would be proud.”
4. One resident was rather upset. “Who in the hell said ‘Indian’ is racist? No white person has that right? And it if was offensive, don’t you think it would have been changed years ago.”

The reference may also have to a previous village project which involved working with Mohawks and Oneidas where the issue of “Indian” hadn’t been raised.

The answer to the resident’s question about who determined the word Indian is racist would seem to be white people, not all white people, just some white people as this editorial states in discussing a related issue on the use of the term “Native American.”

Native American vs. American Indian: Political correctness dishonors traditional chiefs of old

This editorial by the Native Sun News Editorial Board (Sioux) in Rapid City, South Dakota began with that question and an answer.

Who decided for us that we should be called “Native Americans?”

It was the mainstream media of course….

The activist Russell Means preferred the name American Indian. He would say that just as you have Mexican Americans, African Americans, or Asian Americans, you should have American Indians….

During the activist days of the 1960s and 70s the U. S. Government responded to the activists’ protests by proposing the term “Native American.” And so the anti-government activists decided to accept the name Native American, a name suggested by the United States Government, a government that they despised. Say what?

That sad part of this entire fiasco is that so many of the so-called “elitist Indians” have allowed themselves to be bullied into using the name “Native Americans” and even “Native” by a white media that seems to have set the agenda for what we should be called. [The questions then to be asked is why did these white people did this and since whites are the dominant culture, what can Indians do to resist?]

One elderly Lakota man from the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation said recently, “If some Indians want to be called Native Americans or Natives, let them be called that, but I was born an Indian and I shall die an Indian. [This comment matches the words of Marc Lacey, the National editor of The New York Times: My father was born a Negro. Then he was black. Late in life, much to his discomfort, he became an African-American (John Lewis and “the Sad Demise and Eventual Extinction of the American Negro”: Erasing History).

So if you travel to any Indian reservation out west you will soon discover that nearly all of the indigenous people refer to themselves as “Indian,” especially the elders who are still fluent in their Indian language. As Chief Oliver Red Cloud said a few years before he died, “I am Lakota and I am Indian.”

As an Indian newspaper we must be very careful that what we call ourselves is not dictated to us by the white media. We have been Indians for a few hundred years and the name carries our history. Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull and Little Wound (Read their quotes) all called themselves “Indian” and they said it with pride. Should we dishonor them by saying they were wrong?

Political correctness be damned: We will use “Indian” if and when we choose. We will not be intimidated by the politically correct bunch or the white media.

The question raised by the teachers and the debate in Cooperstown suggest if Indians have not been intimidated by the politically correct, then non-Indians have. That still leaves open the question of the value added by using the term “Indigenous” instead of Indian.

To be continued.