Plimoth Plantation

What’s in a Name?

What’s in a name? Does it really matter all that much what name or label we use to identify groups of people? The bard William Shakespeare famously had Juliet in Romeo and Juliet, say, “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” If by that he meant the name of the flower isn’t what matters; but rather the fragrance of it, well then, sure what difference does it make?

But what if the alternate name for a rose was not something that suggested a fragrant-smelling plant but rather a slur of some sort to call it a hideous bush with thorns that scratch and leave scars? Then would any other name matter?

I recently visited Plimouth Plantation in Plymouth, MA to learn more about the rest of the story of the arrival of the Mayflower nearly 400 years ago. The common version either overlooks or drastically condenses the impact of that event on the people who were on this continent first.

While there I overheard a conversation between a mother visiting the Wampanoag home site and the young woman demonstrating what Wampanoag life might have been like in the early 1600’s. The gist of their conversation was that her son had used the term “Indian” in asking a question, and had been told that wasn’t really appropriate terminology. The mother asked what would be proper terminology.

The young woman explained it this way: The term “Indian” comes from Christopher Columbus’ bad geography. He thought he’d arrived near India and so named the people he encountered “Indians” and the term stuck. The United States government established the Bureau of Indian Affairs in 1824. Continuing to be referred to by a term describing people from a country thousands of miles away, is problematic for those who were here first.

Common alternatives are “Native Americans,” “Indigenous,” or “First Nation.” These are often used inter-changeably, but also pose some challenges. For example, the Native Americans were here long before there was any concept of this continent being “America.” That name derives from Amerigo Vespucci, an Italian explorer who suggested what Columbus sailed into was actually an entirely different continent, previously unknown to European globe sailing captains of ships and commerce.

The term “First Nation” incorrectly assumes there was one nation established before the Revolutionary War that led to the establishment of a second nation, the United States of America. In reality there were hundreds of native nations and hundreds of thousands of people living in this vast continent before the Europeans found their way to these shores.

The term “indigenous peoples” seems innocuous enough until we delve into the history of relationships between those who were here first and those who came later. The later arrivals had a very nasty practice of displacing those here first, kidnapping them to sell as slaves, murdering them, and introducing fatal diseases that reduced their pre-European population by 70 or more percent in a matter of a few years. Modern terminology uses the term “indigenous people” to describe the persons whose way of life was virtually eliminated by the new comers.

So, where does that leave us? Well the young woman at the Wampanoag home site suggested we start by asking someone their nationality. Just as I sometimes define myself as half English and half German, those who were here first have a specific national identity they claim. Native nations consist of groups of communities, usually bound together by a common language. Though their numbers have been considerably reduced since the early pioneer era, there are still direct descendants of the Wampanoag nation and other original nations all up and down the East Coast, as well as many other areas within the USA.

I’d like to suggest a possible way move forward through the awkwardness of trying to decide how to define groups of people. First, listen and when someone says a particular term is offensive be willing to hear why. There is probably some history the other knows about what happened that most of us do not know. Listen to learn.

Next, find things we have in common and build a connection based on that. For example, we are all dependent on the natural resources for survival, so perhaps we can do more to preserve and protect them. We all have families of some sort. We can learn about one another’s families. We all have some very basic needs for food, shelter, and some sort of work to sustain life. We can learn about these.

Names have tremendous power. Farmers often discourage children from giving names to the animals that are eventually headed to the family dinner table. Once a creature has a name, it morphs into something more than livestock.

Name-calling is a common weapon used to discredit the value of another human being. Names easily put people into categories and then we judge the value of a person by that category. On the other hand, NOT giving someone a name is a way of discrediting their existence. Many women in history are known only as some man’s wife, daughter, or mother. Their lives weren’t considered important enough to record their actual names.

Confusion about what name to use creates a barrier where we ought to be building a bridge. I don’t claim to have the answers, but I do have some suggestions. Start with a smile. A smile is a universally recognized non-verbal expression of friendship. Be genuinely interested in learning; including being open to hearing ways in which our ancestors have abused and discredited other people. Denying history does not erase it; it only keeps us from learning from it and moving forward beyond it. When we don’t know, ask: “What name do you prefer?”

Individuals are just that – unique and separate from all other people. There isn’t going to be one term that meets with approval from everyone who may appropriately be classified in a particular group within the human family. We can learn. We can ask. We can do our best to avoid offending after we learn what is offensive.

Most of all, we can show up with an open mind, willing to increase our awareness. If you’re interested in increasing your own awareness about the people who dwelt on this continent first, you may find these books helpful: An Indigenous People’s History of the United States by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz and Our Beloved Kin by Lisa Brooks.


If you liked this blog, you may also enjoy reading Pilgrims Meet the Locals.


Thank you for reading about my recent visit to Plimouth Plantation Plimouth Plantation in Plymouth, MA.  If you enjoyed reading this, please take another minute to forward this to a friend. If you want to read future weekly blogs about people and programs making helpful contributions to society, sign up at HowWiseThen. I’m currently giving away a section from the study guide from of my most recent book, Asunder.

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