In defense of the common use of the word “Inuit,” a correspondent writes: “People are best, and accurately, defined by themselves.”
This is a common notion these days. But it is really a novel idea. We do not extend this privilege to European ethnicities. What people call themselves in their language is more or less their own business; but what we call them in English is the business of English speakers. We do not use the native word for the Deutsch, the Francais, the Erse, the Cymru, or either of the two distinct people who call themselves the Han.
And what if one group wishes to call itself “the master race”? For that matter, a group calling themselves “the real people” (“Inuit”) is roughly equivalent; why is it tolerable for one group, but not the next?
And what if I wish to be referred to as “Your Royal Highness the Emperor of Portugal”?
While we’re at it, let’s also dispense with the old saw about “Indians” being a name given to the native people of the Americas by mistake.
From Columbus’s perspective, there was nothing particularly incorrect about calling the natives he encountered “Indians.” That is what they were, by the usage of the day.
Remember, there was no country called “India” then. “Indian” was used by Europeans to refer broadly to anyone east of the Indus River. Filipinos were also “Indians.” As late as the 1920s, Hermann Hesse referred to modern Singapore and Malaysia (in German) as “India.”
Columbus’s point was that the world was round. Therefore, the inhabitants of the West Indies were also Indians, in that they could be reached by traveling east from Europe as well as west.
You would have thought he had proved his point.
The Spanish for many years after saw America and the Far East as a unit. The Philippines were administered from Mexico.
We just happen to divide the world up differently these days. A matter of cultural perspective.
It is fine to want to change the term “Indians” now. It makes some sense, as there is now a problem of confusing North American Indians with the inhabitants of India. But it is wrong to portray Columbus and our European ancestors as merely stupid.
But what term would be better? “Aboriginal people” is no better than “Indians”: we just cause confusion with a different group, in Australia instead of India. “Native People” confuses them with those merely born in Canada; and is technically incorrect. As far as we can tell, the Indians are no more native to the Americas than are the Europeans who came later.
The currently fashionable “First Nations” is no better. How can more than one nation be first? And doesn’t this term imply different levels of citizenship? Do I get to pull rank on second-generation immigrants from India, because my ancestors arrived on this continent several generations ago?
Why not? I’m the Emperor of Portugal, after all. Right?