“What are you?”
Growing up as one of the few Indian-Americans in southern Virginia, I always knew that when asked this question, I was supposed to identify my race. But the relatively straightforward answer, “Indian,” was anything but. In fact, the tortured exchange that usually followed made it one of the most dreaded questions of my childhood. I, and every other Indian-American, have one man to thank for that misery: Christopher Columbus.
When Columbus landed in what is now the Bahamas in 1492, he thought he was in India and accordingly dubbed the native population “Indians.” But the wave of immigration that actually brought the majority of Indian nationals to this country didn’t happen until the late 1960s, when immigration laws were loosened and Indians – often doctors like my dad who came to fill shortages created by the Vietnam War – were allowed to enter the country in greater numbers. Some of these opportunities were in places like my hometown of Hampton, Virginia, which had few Indian immigrants at the time but boasted a rich Native American history. Growing up, I attended Captain John Smith Elementary School, drove down Powhatan Parkway, and cheered for the football team of Kecoughtan High School, named after the tribe of Algonquian Native Americans who lived in the area at the time colonists arrived in 1607.
It was a wonderful place to get an on-location historical education, but as the sole student of Indian descent in my school in the 1980s – and usually the only one my classmates had ever seen – it was also a crash course in cultural confusion. Telling people that I was Indian could be met with a number of responses that might be expected of children who were routinely exposed to “Indian” history in their education: “What tribe?” “Do you live in a teepee?” or just a solemn, “How.” Despite the fact that more than 2 million Indian-born immigrants now live in the U.S., making them the second-largest immigrant group in the country, today’s school curricula have not changed much: A recent 4th grade Thanksgiving worksheet distributed in a New York public school had the title, “What Did Indian Women Do?” followed by fill-in-the blank answers for “tan hides,” “gather nuts,” and “make pottery.” It’s no surprise that identifying oneself as Indian today might still prompt the politically incorrect but clarifying follow up, “Dot or feather?”
The confusion Columbus created doesn’t end at America’s borders, either. As I learned while living in Bogotá, Colombia, the term indio – Spanish for “Indian” – is used specifically to denote the indigenous population living throughout Latin America. After a few baffled exchanges, I realized that people of Indian descent (few and far between on that continent) are referred to as hindú, based on the Hindu religion practiced by about 80% of India’s 1.2 billion inhabitants. I am in fact Hindu, but this label overlooks the religious diversity of India, which includes Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, and Buddhists, just to name a few faiths practiced there. Reducing all Indians to “Hindus” is as inaccurate (and potentially incendiary) as describing anyone with an Irish background as “Catholic” just because the nationality is already being used to describe another group that, by the way, is not Irish at all.
Some people believe that labels don’t matter, and that getting stuck on them only highlights our differences and divides us as citizens. It’s true that in the end, we are all Americans. But when individuals claim their African-, Italian-, Japanese- or other heritage as a part of their identity, they aren’t disavowing their American-ness. Rather, they are invoking a unique cultural narrative that has shaped their path and relationship to this country. Sharing and understanding these distinct histories is what weaves us together as one nation on the other side of the hyphen. Treating identities as interchangeable obscures these histories and does a disservice to the groups that have lived them.
I’m dismayed that I (still) have to explain to my children the difference between Native Americans and Indians simply because one man happened to get lost five centuries ago. But perhaps one day the way we refer to the people who live in America will recognize that the world is much bigger than Columbus had ever imagined.