You’re in a national park in North America. You see some large hairy brown bovines. Buffalo, right? Or are they bison? Which is which? There are those that will answer, simply, “well, ‘bison’ is right and ‘buffalo’ is wrong. ‘Buffalo’ are only in Africa and Asia.” While technically true (sort of), such an answer ignores colonialist dynamics and a lot of fascinating history. This kind of question is just the one to present to a historian!
TL;DR: “buffalo” has centuries of use in English and can be considered the common name. “Bison” is the scientific common name. I argue both are fine to use.
Firstly, let’s look at photographs of the animals I’m talking about.
When Europeans first arrived on the North American continent, they didn’t have a word for this animal in their languages. What should they call these strange cattle of the prairies? The Spanish, who were the first Europeans to encounter bison in the 1500s in what is now California, apparently used “Vacas jorobadas”: literally,“humped-back cows.” In 1589, the first English description of bison, from Spanish sources, used “Kine of Cibola”: the cattle from the city of Cibola. In the 1750s, when more and more English speakers came to the Western prairies to trade, work, or live, they began to use the term “buffalo,” which had its origins in the French word “boeuf,” meaning “beef.” French speakers at the time used “bison” or sometimes “buffle.” The French and English word “bison” is Latin in origin. This word also gave us the term “wisent” for the European bison, Bison bonasus, through the magic of linguistics: the “w” is pronounced as an English “v”, and “v”s are often similar to “b”s… so “wisent” = “bison.”
For hundreds of years, English speakers have used “buffalo” to describe this species. The vast majority of historical documents from the time of the height of bison populations use “buffalo”. It’s why we say “buffalo jumps” and “buffalo pounds”, not “bison jumps” and “bison pounds.” We say “buffalo robes”, not “bison robes.” “Wood Buffalo National Park” was so-named because “buffalo” was the most common and understood name in the 1920s.
However, over 100 years ago, after the buffalo slaughters, scientists and naturalists studying taxonomy wanted to more clearly distinguish between the buffalo of Africa and Asia (which have the Latin name Bubalus, which has the same root word as “buffalo”) and the buffalo of North America. As such, they recommended using the term “bison” instead to differentiate these species.
I’m into that. I reflexively use “bison” when I speak about this animal, largely because I work with a lot of biologists and ecologists. Furthermore, I first really learned to talk about the animal in school and I was in French immersion, so it was always “bison” for me in either language. However, I do not correct people who use the term “buffalo.” I really dislike the undertone of people who correct others for using the word “buffalo” in common parlance. I believe it is condescending to insist on correcting people, particularly if they are elders. As people speak about this animal in their daily lives or in ceremony, as they visit them out in the wild, I don’t think it’s up to scientists to say if someone calls them “bison” or “buffalo” or “iinii” or “paskwâw mostos” for that matter. What right do privileged scientists from settler communities have to change the common name of an animal that is very important to many Indigenous cultures?
I understand the desire for precision in terminology in the scientific context. This is why we have the Linnaean system of classification: those Latin scientific names. Scientific names have their place. Being able to identify a specific lichen as Icmadophila ericetorum is very useful to specialists, for sure. But the common name is way more evocative, fun, and easy to remember: fairy puke lichen. Both common names and scientific names have their place.
I admit that many common names don’t make a lot of sense and can be a source of confusion. For example, the Tennessee Warbler is only rarely found in Tennessee and the Worm-Eating Warbler doesn’t eat earthworms. There are dozens of local names for many species of berries in North America; the same species may be called “cloud berry” in one area and “bakeapple” in another. But how do you police the use of a common name? (The answer in the case of the buffalo/bison debate seems to be… people are just condescending to each other.) Why would you do so? How does one choose to prioritize one common name over the other? [Begin sarcasm] Sorry Newfoundlanders, you’ve got to stop saying “bakeapple”. They’re only called “cloud berries” now because “bakeapple” is confusing and “cloud berries” sounds pretty. How dare you use any other word for them? Forget the adorable origin story of bakeapple, anglicizing the French “baie qu’appelle” (“what’s this berry called?”). We can only have standardized English that privileges one term above all others. [/end sarcasm] Many common names like “bakeapple” are very evocative and rooted in the history of the area and the use of these species by local people. These common names have meaning and resonance.
But I get it. Having many names for one thing can be confusing. Sometimes, people even have the same common name for different things. I’ve even heard some people who live in British Columbia call Steller’s Jays “Blue Jays”, for instance, because that is the only Blue Jay they ever really see. That is certainly imprecise, but makes sense in the local context.
To avoid confusion where it counts, we use the scientific, Latin names to distinguish between species. And so it should be. However, I also believe that doesn’t mean that one group should be able to dictate the common names for species. In that same vein: pedants, let people use the word “buffalo” in North America. It’s okay. I promise.
I get really uncomfortable when people police others by saying “actually… it’s bison, not buffalo!” I hear it a lot, because I talk about bison a lot, and listen to others share their knowledge too. Some people may make this “correction” in an attempt to be helpful or show off their knowledge. Please do not. It’s condescending and ignores a long history of this word and its importance to many people. It’s especially bad, to me, when someone does this to “correct” (and as a result challenge or put down) an Indigenous knowledge-keeper. There are many Indigenous people who prefer to use “buffalo” when referring to this sacred animal in English. Not everyone, but many do. This is why we have Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the Buffalo Treaty, in which Indigenous peoples north and south of the 49th parallel vow to work to restore bison to traditional territory, for cultural as well as conservation reasons. What is there to gain by “correcting” these names by insisting they be switched to “bison”? “Buffalo” has a long history of being used in English and is a valid and widely understood term for Bison bison bison and Bison bison athabascae.
Please continue to use the word “bison” if you like. I will in most contexts. But please stop correcting people who choose to use the original English name. As in all things, be conscious of your word choice.
The struggle over the use of “bison” versus “buffalo” isn’t new, either. It’s been going on for over a century (and I suspect we’ll still be arguing over it generations from now too). Most books on bison published today and in the past have at least one note in the introduction or end notes that justifies their use of either “buffalo” or “bison.” I was reading F.G. Roe’s massive textThe North American Buffalo: A critical study of the species in its wild state (originally published in 1951), and he quoted the famed taxidermist and conservationist William Temple Hornaday (writing in the 1880s) about terminology. Hornaday is quite salty about having to justify using the term “buffalo” in his work, so I’ll leave you with his words:
“Although Bison [bison bison] is a true bison, according to scientific classification, and not a buffalo, the fact that more than sixty millions of people in this country unite in calling him a ‘buffalo,’ and know him by no other name, renders it quite unnecessary for me to apologize for following, in part, a harmless custom which has now become so universal that all the naturalists in the world could not change it if they would…”
If you are under the age of thirty and went through the Canadian school system, you were probably taught not to use the word “Indian” when referring to the indigenous peoples of Canada or the United States. “Indians” are people from South Asia, and using the word “Indian” here in North America, and Canada in particular, seems outdated and conjures to mind the historic uses of harmful stereotypes. It’s happened a few times in front of me: older folks – often Americans but not always – visiting historic sites or attending conferences here in Canada will casually use the term “Indian” … and you can see a bunch of the Canadians in the room, particularly those of the younger generation, hold back their flinches and look awkwardly at each other. However, while I wish it were as straightforward as simply saying “don’t call them Indians!”, it isn’t easy to find an alternative – and some people don’t want to, for both good and bad reasons.
Words are loaded with meaning and implications, and even the idea of having an overarching term that purports to refer to indigenous peoples of the Americas as a whole is incredibly problematic. Here is a roundup of all of the common questions I have heard asked about choices of terminology and what I believe are issues you need to be aware of before you use any of them. Many of these are questions and discussions I have had at museums with visitors, with undergraduate students, with young collège students in France, with friends, with visiting scholars, and so on. As is usually the case with thorny issues, there is no simple answer.
Disclaimer: I am a relatively young Canadian woman who identifies as being of European descent: i.e., I am a young(ish) white Canadian woman. Take everything I say with a grain of salt as I am someone speaking from a settler community about people I respect but cannot speak for. I welcome any questions, corrections, expansions, and opinions.
“What’s wrong with the word ‘Indian’? They use it all the time in movies!”
“Indian”, at its root, is based on a misconception. In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue, etc., etc., ad nauseam, thought he had stumbled across India when in fact he had landed in the Caribbean, killed a bunch of people, left chaos in his wake, and went on to serve as a “heroic” symbol for European exploration and the discovery of a “New World” … which had already been “discovered” and occupied by millions of people before him but who apparently just don’t count.
Early European explorers and settlers thought that these non-European people needed to be given a name. Their own names were apparently no good: that would involve talking to them, acknowledging them, and attempting to pronounce non-European words! It really was just easier for explorers and settlers to refer to and think of them as a homogenized group: they are essentially the same people. Over time (and I acknowledge that I am generalizing here), “the Indian” grew in the imaginations of Europeans and European settlers into a very specific being – who wore a feathered headdress, smoked “peace pipes” but was a fierce and savage warrior. “The Indian” probably rode horses, screeching and whooping, and only spoke broken English if he spoke at all. The word “Indian” is inextricably tied to these stereotypes in the minds of many people even today.
Just because a word has cultural currency (i.e., you hear it in common use) doesn’t make it inoffensive. Case in point: the once common “n-word”, which I dare not even type, was once used quite frequently throughout the United States and likely elsewhere but is now incredibly considered inflammatory, blatantly racist, and offensive. Was the “n-word” ever used in a non-derogatory manner? I doubt it, but it is definitely not a word fit for polite or even impolite society today. My point is that simply because a word was heard all of the time doesn’t mean it isn’t disrespectful.
Nevertheless, the word “Indian” is still in common use throughout the United States in particular. American scholars still use it, apparently unselfconsciously, though it is very unlikely that you will see Canadian publications use the term without clarifying or identifying it as a quotation from a historical text. The Smithsonian Institution seems to favour the term “American Indian“, but as far as I am aware most Canadian scholars eschew the term, and recent works like Daniel Francis’ The Imaginary Indian, Paige Raibmon’s Authentic Indians, or Thomas King’s The Inconvenient Indian only use these terms after defining them not as reflections of actual people but as an idea that others hold about them. If the word “Indian” appears at all in these works, they appear in historical quotations or between scare quotes and refer to a specific concept and rarely if ever to refer to a group as old “Cowboy and Indian” Westerns once did.
Great. So why do many people, including respected American historical institutions and government bodies, continue to use the word “Indian”? I can’t tell you for sure. The thing you have to remember when using these terms is that these debates are also generally happening among Euro-Canadians and Euro-Americans. Deciding unilaterally that “Native American” is a better term than “Indian” because it makes white people feel better and trying to impose that word without the consent of the people it actually applies to also isn’t cool. I have heard some older folks say that they’ve been called an “Indian” all of their lives and they identify with it and prefer it – nobody can take that identity away from them. There is a lesson in here somewhere.
Edit: I should also mention that “Indian” is also a legal term in both the United States and Canada, designating a certain status in relation to the state. For more information on this rather convoluted legal concept and the differences between the two countries, see Thomas King’s The Inconvenient Indian.
“Isn’t this just political correctness run amok? Aren’t there better things to worry about?”
No. Well, yes, there are other issues to worry about. However, names have power. They are important. What you are called by others and what you call yourself are elements of your identity. Having control over what you are called is incredibly important and these terms do have certain implications – and in the case of the term “Indian”, many negative connotations are evoked. These words are not all synonyms. “Indians”, for example, are seen as relics of the past or even mythical creatures; the endless debates (that many are shocked are still happening in 2013) over the inappropriate and racist nature of “Indian” Hallowe’en costumes confirms this view. The stereotypical “Indian”, as a dead or mythological being from the past, is not perceived as being able to co-exist with the modern present and is thus frequently invisible to the wider North American society; if you aren’t a part of modern Canada/America and/or are mythological, you cannot agitate for rights.
Yes, there are other important issues yet to be tackled in these communities today, but that doesn’t diminish the necessity of little changes.May I also direct you to a very articulate explanation of why the “little things” people need to just “get over” are in fact hurtful and extremely harmful, courtesy of blogger Adrienne K. at Native Appropriations?
“Okay. What else can I call them? What about ‘aboriginal’?”
This is a term that gets thrown around a lot and is generally considered acceptable but not ideal. It simply means “original to a place,” which sounds about right. However, it is still an incredibly general term. Often, conscious of the fact that “Indian” is a less acceptable word now, people will simply use “Aboriginal” in the same way that the word “Indian” was used previously, without thinking more deeply about the subject. Generalized words are useful for making sweeping statements and discussing broad policies. They have their uses, but are also incredibly problematic because using the word “Aboriginal” (or “Indian” or other terms discussed below) assume that there actually is one large group that have enough in common to be referred to with one word, which many have argued is not the case. Having one word ignores huge differences in language, culture, and history in the Americas, and negates historical divisions and conflicts between the groups encompassed by this word. There may be far bigger cultural, linguistic, and historical differences between, say, the Inuit in Nunavut and the Iroquois near New York, than between Castillians in Spain and Muscovites in Russia. In the latter case, is it still useful to refer to both as “white”/”European” without troubling the terms a bit? What, specifically, do they have in common?
However, some “Aboriginal” people do see a political advantage to be had in solidarity, and that one of the things that “Aboriginal” peoples have in common is the fact that they have been discriminated against for generations under the collective term “Indian”. Because they have suffered under a collective term, they can perhaps find some usefulness in mobilizing under a collective term as well.
As a side note, “aboriginal” is awfully close to “aborigine”, which has been used pejoratively in Australia for many years and I am told is on par with the “n-word” in the States… so if you use it with an Australian present you may get some funny looks, if not worse.
(Edit: It has also been drawn to my attention that “Aboriginal” is also used as a collective umbrella term by some Canadian organizations to refer to, collectively, First Nations, the Inuit, and the Métis.)
“What about ‘indigenous’?”
Some people use this term to refer to native peoples of a region in many colonial states across the globe, and is essentially defined as a person (or animal, or thing) that is native or born of an area. This term is not limited to North America and is often used to contrast those who are native to a region from European settlers or colonizers. It can be a useful term, but often is used to define contrasts and can gloss over differences in radically different historical and cultural situations. Usually, when you use the word “indigenous”, it is because they are being discussed in contrast with European colonists, so you are almost defining people by what they are not. Why not call them what they call themselves? Nevertheless, it can be a useful, if general term. Be conscious of your purpose in using it.
“What about ‘Amerindian’?”
This portmanteau (“American” + “Indian”) is interesting, but I don’t hear it terribly often in Canada. I hear it more in French (“Amerindien“). At the root of it, it still has the “Indian” assumption. I believe that the “Ameri-” prefix was added mainly to distinguish between “East Indians” from India and those native to North America, which is a problem that shouldn’t even exist in the first place because these are very different peoples. Furthermore, while “American” can be a descriptor, it is far from a neutral one. It also has political implications for those nations that are resisting the hegemony of the American (or Canadian) governments – e.g., the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) on the border between Ontario and New York that issue their own passports. I am unsure of the acceptability of this term, so I would proceed with caution and perhaps look at alternatives.
“What about ‘natives’ or ‘Native Americans’?“
The term “Native American” has been in use for far longer than the age of political correctness, and used to refer to anybody, including those from settler communities, that were born in North America. “Native” distinguished them from those Americans (or Canadians) from those who were born in Europe and immigrated later. It enjoys a lot of currency in the United States as an alternative to “Indian”, but it isn’t without its detractors… and of course the term “Native American” doesn’t work terribly well in Canada because while the Canadian government doesn’t have the best track record with indigenous relations, those North of the Medicine Line would probably not want to be considered American either.
“What about the word ‘squaw’? That just means ‘woman’ in an Indian language, right?”
Uh… no. Well, maybe it did at some point (and remember, etymology is not destiny), but its pronunciation has probably been corrupted by English mouths and probably sounds very different from what the word originally sounded like. “Squaw” has been a pejorative (insulting or belittling) word for over a century, and has connotations with prostitution. It has also been associated with dehumanization; racist protesters have waved signs at rallies against treaty fishing rights saying things like “Save a fish, spear a squaw.” This is not appropriate language. As far as my circle of friends and acquaintances goes, I have never heard a woman identify herself as a “squaw”.
“Papoose”, too, is a word that has been appropriated into the English language. I believe it originally came from one of the Algonquin languages on the Eastern seaboard, but it entered English vocabulary at a very early date and has likely lost a few syllables and such over time. I don’t want to enter into the “prescriptive” versus “descriptive” language debate, as this word has been in use for several centuries in English with less belittling connotations than other words. Nevertheless, I feel that it is rarely used (in North America, at least) to refer to non-indigenous children, and so is a marker of difference. Anglophones who use this term without having a firm definition of what exactly a “papoose” is: an infant? An infant wrapped in a moss bag? A toddler? In the UK, it can even be used to refer to a kind of backpack, I think. (Brits, can you clarify this for me? What springs to mind when you hear the word “papoose”?)
Even if it does not have as many dangerous or sexist connotations as the word “squaw”, and may have indeed originated from an indigenous language in the East, applying the word “papoose” to, say, Cree children in cradle boards on the plains or to Inuit children in the North or Haida infants on the North-West Coast assumes that the children in these diverse cultures and languages are essentially the same when they are not. I would avoid it unless you hear them use the term. Ask yourself: why is there a specific term for a woman or child of a separate race? Are they not also women and children?
Furthermore, if you cannot identify which”Indian language” the word came from and are not entirely certain of the word’s definition or connotations, I would hesitate to use it until you find out more information.
“But it’s traditional! Why do we have to change the names of our mountains and stuff?”
Traditional according to whom? “Squaw Peak” or “Dead Indian Valley” probably had a different name for far longer before it got given that moniker by Europeans, Euro-Americans, or Euro-Canadians.
(Also: “your” mountains? By what right do you/we claim ownership? )
Let’s take a slightly less racist case in point. The Queen Charlotte Islands off of the coast of British Columbia held that name for over a century on European maps, but its name was recently changed back to Haida Gwaii: the Islands of the Haida. The imposition of European names upon places that were already known by different names by peoples native to the area is a whole other kettle of fish that could be addressed in a different blog post.
“Francophones in Canada use ‘Autochtone.’ What’s the deal with that?”
Apparently, at its root, it simply means “the originals.” Aside from “Premières Nations“, this was the term I heard most often in my French immersion classes in elementary, junior high, and high school. It appears to be used in the names of a few organizations – e.g., l’Alliance Autochtone du Québec. Other websites appear to use it as a synonym for “indigenous”, so as a word it may not be limited to North American peoples. As an anglophone, I am not up to date on the most common terminology in use among Francophones in Canada. I would be very interested to hear from Canadian Francophones on this subject.
(Incidentally, “autochtone” does not register as a word with either the teachers nor the students of the junior high schools (collèges) I taught at in Normandy (France) in 2011/2012. In France they were still using the term “Indiens“, which I tried to disabuse them of. My British and German friends were also much less sensitive to nuances of racialized words than my Canadian and American friends of the same age. But they were willing to learn!)
“Okay, what about ‘First Nations’?”
This is the term that is in vogue in Canada right now. Unlike “Indian”, it acknowledges that, well, they were in the area first, before white settlers (which seems obvious to me, but in many ways they are treated as if they were foreigners in their own land by governments and settler communities). It also implies pluralism – “First NationS” – and, like the collective word “United StateS” it can at once demonstrate solidarity but also individuality and independence. By using the term “nation” you may also be suggesting the idea that they are potentially sovereign nations in their own right – which they had to be, to enter into treaty with Great Britain and, later, Canada, and First Nations did on multiple occasions – though in subsequent years they were treated as wards of the crown and not the independent nations they would have been.
However, as previously mentioned, this is a word for a collective that may actually not have the same goals and aspirations, and it can also be thrown around to refer to the group in sweeping generalizations – “find and replace” the word “Indian” in your digital documents and replace it with “First Nations”? Furthermore, you have to respect the fact that if some people don’t like the phrase and don’t want to be called “First Nations” then you shouldn’t call them that.
“What about tribe names?”
I would say that this is one of the better options, but with a few caveats. Acknowledging that you are speaking of a specific group of people – e.g., the Cree, the Blackfoot, the Stoney – is definitely a big step up from the general and problematic term “Indian”. However, you may notice something peculiar about the examples that I used: “Cree” comes from the French “Christineaux”, referring to the fact that some may have converted, and “Blackfoot” and “Stoney” are clearly English in origin. These names may have a lot of cultural currency in English Canada and perhaps among these peoples themselves, but they are in all likelihood names that were imposed by English colonizers. Would they choose this designation themselves? Perhaps. Again, many of these terms have been in use a lot longer among anglophones and are more recognizable to outsiders than the actual name of the First Nation (respectively, if I have this right, the Nehiyawak, the Siksiká and the Nakoda).
And even then, as our writing system was not designed with North American indigenous languages in mind, spelling is subjective. Is it Anishinaabeg, Anishinaabek, Anishinabe, or what? Chippewa or Ojibwa or Ojibwe or Ojibway? Am I referring to the name of the people, the name of their language, or a larger confederacy or alliance of smaller groups collected together, and how do these names differ?
Furthermore, some of these “tribe names” are more or less precise than others. Be aware of the history of the word and what it actually refers to. Even using the term “Algonquin” when referring to, say, the group that Samuel de Champlain met on his two week journey down the Ottawa River Valley in 1613 is a bit of a generalization. They were Anishinaabeg; “Algonquin” is a larger linguistic group which is composed of multiple nations who may or may not have enough in common with each other to be referred to be a generalized term.
Incidentally, some of our terms may not seem English or French in origin, but are not ideal either. “Eskimo” is a good/terrible example. Often spelled “Esquimaux” in the early years, it is comes to English via the French pronunciation of a word from a group of Algonquin speakers who may have been enemies of the Inuit. “Eskimo” is generally thought to mean, roughly, “Eaters of Raw Flesh.” (Or so the story goes.) Those once called the “Eskimos”, at least in Canada, prefer to be called the “Inuit”, meaning “the People” in their own language, instead of an insulting nickname from the language of their enemies. To use a European comparison, it’s as if the most commonly used name for the French in German and Dutch were a Germanized spelling of the English “Frog Eaters” or “Surrender Monkeys.” I’m sure the French would much prefer the nicer sounding, less insulting, and native term “les Français”, or even regional terms like “les Rouennais”, “les Bretons”, etc.
(Another caveat: “Eskimos” is still used as a collective term in Alaska to refer to two different groups, the Inuit and the Yupik. I would love to hear from people who are up to date on the views of that word in Alaska! Nevertheless, “Eskimo” is not considered an acceptable term in Canada.)
Even the term “tribe” has fallen out of favour, possibly because of “primitive” anthropological connotations. I believe “nation”, “band”, and other words are preferred to “tribe” or “tribal” now. I welcome any further clarification on this subject!
“Well, what can I call them?!”
Thank you for asking this question. The moral of this story is don’t assume. Be conscious of your word choices and think critically about them. If you are not sure, ask the group affected what they would prefer. You want a say in how people know you and your people – why would you assume that First Nations would feel otherwise? As always, I welcome comments and questions (always in a respectful manner).
Daniel Francis, The Imaginary Indian: The Image of the Indian in Canadian Culture (Vancouver, B.C.: Arsenal Pulp Press, Inc., 1992): an excellent history of how the stereotypical image of the “Indian” formed in popular culture.
Thomas King, The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America (Random House; Doubleday Canada, 2012): a fascinating recent work on the subject of relations between the governments of Great Britain, America, and Canada and the indigenous peoples of North America throughout the past centuries.
Paige Raibmon, Authentic Indians: Episodes of Encounter from the Late-Nineteenth-Century Northwest Coast (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2005): the author tackles very thorny questions of what people mean when they evaluate the “authenticity” of indigenous culture and just how damaging ideas of “authenticity” can be.