Friday, March 03, 2006

Name calling


Further to my previous post -

I've just spent some of my hard earned cash on this book:
Ancient Americans :rewriting the history of the New World /Charles C. Mann.London :Granta Books,2005.9781862076174 (hbk)
- you can find a review of it here.

I'll just quote from that review:
A second reason is that one justification used by Europeans to take over the Americas was the legal doctrine of res nullius, the concept that anyone can take unused, unoccupied land. If the native population of the United States in 1491 was 900,000, as scholars until recently believed, it seemed pretty clear that Britons and Spaniards and Frenchmen could snap up some land without doing anyone wrong. If, by contrast, the country was home to millions of people, this justification no longer becomes tenable.
because I'm lazy and it explains why the book caught my attention.

Now, in an Appendix, he discusses the difficulty in choosing how to term pre-colombian Americans (he doesn't actually discuss that term, but I suppose it is loaded in its own way).

He notes that Eskimo is now discouraged in Canada because although a name of indiginous derivation it is apparently the abusive name another tribe used for those people. The preferred term Inuit is problematic since it actually referrs to a sub group within the, er, Inuit peoples. (He also notes how tribe is itself an historically loaded word).

It's enough to make you throw your hands up in despair, until you stop and think. The problem arises not out of the prickliness of people nor their simple bewildering complexity, but out of the attempt to label and classify from an external viewpoint rather than from one arising from dialogue and participation.

We're stuck with unsatisfactory terms like native Americans etc. due to our continued existence in a contingent history derived from a profound racist experience.

True to my Bakhtinian leanings, I should have said, yesterday, that we cannot expect to change the sedimented meanings of discourse without changing the social relations within which they exist.

Genuine human emancipation will more effectively render racist language obsolete than any agonising over choosing words.


Blogger Matthew said...

It's not so much that Eskimo is discouraged here in Ye Great White North as that you just never hear it any more at all. The only people I've heard it from for years have been a) over 50 years old or b) Americans. And only rarely from the geezers.

Fun fact: Inuit is plural, inuk is the singular. And their language (although there are many dialects) is called Inuktitut.

8:25 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home