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Indian (yet not 'an' Indian)

What's the difference between being 'Indian' and 'an Indian'? Chelsey Luger breaks it down with a Thanksgiving anecdote.

“We’ve got a real Indian with us this Thanksgiving!”

I cringe when I recall this announcement, which my hosts included in each and every introduction between me and their other guests during my first holiday away from home as a Dartmouth College freshman. It wasn’t worth it to fly all the way home to North Dakota for the long weekend, so a group of us went to a dorm-mate’s parents’ house in Connecticut. As much as I still appreciate the family for welcoming me into their lovely home and feeding me copious amounts of expensive food, I have to say that the number of times they felt the need to point out my race to the other guests was... uncomfortable. For me, at least. But hey, I guess it was my first Thanksgiving with a bunch of Whites too, so that was pretty neat. (Long Live the Pilgrims! But where are their fancy bonnets?)

Anyway, the point of this anecdote is to share an example of subtly inappropriate language. I was offended for being made a novelty at the Thanksgiving dinner table, but I was also annoyed by the choice of grammar within the offensive jest. You see, instead of choosing to describe me as a human or person who could be further described as American Indian ("This is Chelsey, and she is Indian"), I was grouped—human plus race—into one noun or object with an indefinite article ("This is Chelsey and she is an Indian." Sounds different, right?)

For the full effect, say it with a southern accent and a hint of fear in your voice, as if I’m thrusting a spear toward your face. “Ahhhh! Look out! It’s an Indian!”

'The Tourists' (1912), directed by Mack Sennett.

I’m suggesting that we should be careful about nuances in language when describing or discussing individuals of a certain ethnicity or racial background. It’s relevant now, because in the past few months, the Redskins debate has brought a lot of media attention to Native peoples. And from both pro and anti-Indian voices, I see a lot of people—obviously subconsciously—doing the same thing that the Connecticut hosts did to me. Commenters on social media, bloggers, and even writers from legitimate publications are adding the unnecessary indefinite article and dehumanizing us even further: an Indian. What’s the difference, and why does it matter?

It’s a subtlety in language that has the power to evoke varying degrees of respect. The indefinite article (a or an) should of course be used freely when referring to objects - like a candy bar, a book, or an orangutan. But it shouldn’t be used in front of an ethnicity, because it creates a demeaning connotation.

For example:

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I wouldn’t say, “This is my friend Daniella and she’s a Jew.” Instead I would say, “This is my friend Daniella, and she is Jewish.”

A tasteful writer wouldn’t say, “I spoke to a Mexican about the event,” they would say, “I spoke to a Mexican man about the event.”

And finally, I would say, “This is my friend Melanie, and she is White,” or “She’s a White person” but never “she’s a White.” (Notice how I did it up there in paragraph one and it sounded disrespectful? Go back and look and tell me you don’t disagree!)

I should acknowledge that there are instances when placing an indefinite article in front of a nationality or other group is fine. For example, “I’m an American.” That, I would say, is appropriate. No negative connotations whatsoever. You might even be able to think of even more exceptions. I can’t right now. That said, I’d just like to reiterate that while being called “an Indian” is nothing that I’m particularly outraged by, it is irritating because it’s one of many ways that the public affords slightly less respect to Native peoples than to other races or ethnic groups. We deal with a host problems regarding objectification and misnomers, so if writers would be a little bit more careful, it would be much appreciated.

Remember: I am Indian, but I am not an Indian.

P.S. The other highlight of the weekend was the part when we were all hanging out in the guest house (these Whites and their innumerable properties—they kill me!) and the father asked if I’d like a drink. I said “No, thanks.” He replied, “Oh I forgot… you’re never supposed to give an Indian whiskey!” I didn’t say anything, but I wish I had responded, “And you, 65-year-old family man and self-declared, well-respected doctor and businessman, should remember that you are breaking both legal and moral codes by offering alcohol to a vulnerable group of 18-year-old co-eds under your care for the weekend.”

Didn’t think to do it. 

'The Tourists' (1912), directed by Mack Sennett.

Chelsey Luger is from the Turtle Mountain Chippewa Tribe & Standing Rock Lakota Nation in North Dakota. An alumna of Dartmouth College and Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, she lives in New York City and remains an avid student of global indigenous politics and history. She hopes to play her role as a strong link in a long chain of ancestors and descendants by spreading ideas for Native health and wellness. Follow her on instagram at chelswhoelse or twitter @CPLuger. (Photo: Eller Bonifacio.)