There’s a set of questions I get over and over and over (and over) again, so I thought I’d write about them here. They have to do with names for things. In particular, names for aboriginal groups. In particular, the names European languages have for various aboriginal groups. No matter how many times I explain this in classes, no matter how many long explanations I offer when asked, I have to inevitably explain it again – often to the exact same people. So I figured why not explain it here? That way all these people can ignore me in a more convenient format!
Long story short: The names European languages give to aboriginal groups and their languages are often inaccurate, from the perspective of an aboriginal person, but so are most names given to most human groups by everybody. It is an inherent thing about naming; names are arbitrary, as much historical accident as anything else. Arbitrary: Just like all words in natural language.
Simple example: Where I’m from, the first ATM machines were by a company called Tyme. (Seriously; google it.) The logo was plastered all over the machines, which were at first only available at banks. To this day, most of us from Wisconsin will call the ATM a “Tyme Machine.” “I have to go to the Tyme machine.” … Even if the machine is not owned or operated by Tyme. Are we making a moral claim about ATM machines by doing this? No. The first example of the new machine in our area was used to name it. It’s a historical accident; it tells you something about the history of ATM machines in Wisconsin, but that’s about it. We’re not putting down BMO or M&I (now defunct) or whoever when we call it a “Tyme” machine. Any more than you’re putting down Scotts Tissue when you buy it because you need a new box of “kleenex.”
People are very sensitive about this process when it applies to different human communities. The confusion seems to be that an exononym (a name given by foreigners) is somehow always insulting, and they should always be forced to use an endonym instead (a name given by the group to itself). Of course, this seems to be a one-way street in all these debates; ‘Cree’ is bad because it’s not what the people call themselves, but môniyâw (‘montreal’) for European-descent people is fine, kihci-môhkomân (‘long knife’) for Americans is a-okay, even though both also derive from first-contact and historical accidents.
Below is a discussion of some names for groups – in English and in Cree. Have a read if the issue of naming really bothers you, or you’d like to know more about it.