Lost source on naming “Indians”

I have two confessions to make: 1) I am so distracted that I sometimes can’t find sources that I remember pretty well in general terms, and 2) I have become increasingly interested in and moved by the way earliest Latter-day Saints thought through their shared lives with the Native peoples they lived beside. Today, I can’t remember where in the early church organs William Phelps wrote a self-congratulatory semi-etymological essay about how the LDS knew the names of Indians and no one else did. Does anybody remember that piece?

In terms of making the post useful for everybody, there’s really been an outpouring of good work on Native pasts recently, some of it by practicing Mormons who are not pursuing apologetic or polemical aims. What are some of the books on Native history and culture that people are enjoying the most right now? I’m making my way through Pointer’s somewhat disappointing volume from U of Indiana, and I’ve been impressed by Jenny Pulsipher and am eager for Brett Rushforth’s book to come out in the next couple years. What are other people reading?

PS: my best read of the current scholarly standards is that Native peoples, Native groups, or indigenous peoples are the preferred designations if a specific tribal group cannot be used. Native Americans is out of vogue (because “America” didn’t exist until Europeans reconfigured land and culture), and there’s a chance that “Indian” will come back, though probably as a self-reference, the way some African Americans use the N-word. For now I use Indian occasionally when describing a society in which the term was somewhat normative but try to emphasize Native.


  1. I think you are going to need a new name for the continents of North and South America, both of which surely existed long before the European incursion. One could consider calling the native North Americans “native Laurentians”, but then Laurentia was ultimately named after St. Lawrence, a martyred early Roman deacon, so that wouldn’t exactly do, would it?

    And then once faces the further problem that most (all?) native Americans aren’t exactly native in any case, just rather more native than the later arrivals.

  2. I read a powerful book that I’ve kept thinking about again and again over the last year. The book, Radical Hope has changed my view of things. It is subtitled, “ethics in the face of cultural devastation.” and it explores surviving the complete loss of the ground of ones cultural bearing. It explores it through the life of a Crow visionary named ‘Many Coups’. Many Coups’ life straddled the time between the traditional Crow way of life and the take over by the US government of all Indian Affairs. He was raised in a culture in which everything was couched in terms of their continual war with the Sioux. Young children were raised with the idea that being a warrior and counting coup (a way of letting your enemy know it was you a Crow who was killing you by touching them with a stick before killing them) was the highest good and the aim of a well-lived life. Women did not just prepare food for the people, but they nourished the warriors. Many Coups’ world began to collapse as the buffalo disappeared and within a few short years his way of being was completely gone and the white settlers took over more and more of their lands. They joined the US government in their fight with the Sioux their traditional enemy and in the end were the only Tribe that was allowed to settle on their original tribal lands. Of course the other tribes looked at this a betrayal, but to the Crow the US was just a really powerful people with who they had no quarrel, while the Sioux had been their mortal enemy for over two centuries. In any case, suddenly everything they had lived for disappeared. The buffalo, the beaver on which they depended had been hunted to nothing. The other tribes, who had fought against the US, had been parceled out to reservations and their culture had been destroyed, and in fact made illegal. As a result the Indians did not know how to live. But Many Coups somehow provided a way to help his people reinterpret their old ways in new context that was unique among these Native tribes. Everything they had believed in had become meaningless. In fact, Many Coups had said that after the US had taken control of their lives “Nothing Happened.” The book is an exploration of what he meant by this. What Many Coups meant goes beyond the fact that his rituals had become meaningless. They were even more lost than that, they had even lost the context where meaningless or meaning could be conceptualized. The ground and context for meaning itself had been destroyed. That’s why “nothing happened” nothing could happen, all categories had been wiped out. Even though he went on to lead his nation in learning to farm, promoted education among his tribe members, and in fact became a representative of Native rights in Washington DC, ‘nothing happened.’

  3. From my experience, most scholars use “Native Americans” and “American Indians” interchangably, although “First Peoples,” “Natives,” “First Nations,” and “Amerindians” are also frequently used when not discussing a specific nation. IIRC, activist Russell Means is one of the foremost critics of the appellation “Native Americans,” although it was someone in AIM that renamed the Bureau of Indian Affairs the “Native American Embassy” during the 1972 occupation.

    I like anything from Philip Deloria, as I have a taste for his American Studies methodology and he’s a great writer. I also like Pekka Hamalainen’s new The Comanche Empire, Jill Lepore’s The Name of War: King Philip’s War and the Origins of American Identity, and Claudio Saunt’s Black, White, and Indian: Race and the Unmaking of an American Family.

    Wish I could help you with the Phelps piece. Have you contacted Ron Walker?

  4. Though somewhat dated, my favorite treatment of Native peoples (world-over) is still Guns, Germs, and Steel. After reading it, I felt understood the grand global migrations for the first time.

  5. What is your thesis for Mormon-Indian relations during early LDS history?

  6. I hope others will give book recommendations. This is a topic of some interest to me.
    We lived in Washington State for many years, where the term “Native Peoples” was used most often. Here in Montana (where we have lived for the past seven years), tribal names are used pretty exclusively. When referring to Native Peoples as a group, they are referred to as Indians. Obviously, the terminology varies from place to place.

  7. Thanks for the great recommendations. One thing I’ve enjoyed about moving to the Rockies is the proximity of Native pasts.

    Sterling, my chapter 4 looks at the distinctively Mormon version of the vanishing Indian motif, interconnecting Moundbuilder graves, displaced tribes beside Zion, the temporally coincident genocide of Natives and hostilities between Mormons and Whites, and the broad narrative of rebirth and resurrection that sacred Lehite history provided for the LDS. As a result of the chapter, I’ve become more interested in Native history, but I am far from having any expertise in formal Native studies.

  8. As for nomenclature, I spoke with Dr. Fixico after his recent visit to SLC over MMM, and he’s the one who gave me the skinny on preferred terminology. In settings like this I prefer ethnically Native scholars as informants, but I recognize that there is often a lack of consensus and it can feel like a minefield for well-intentioned investigators. The White scholars of Native pasts that I speak with are more friendly to Native American or other terms.

    Where’s Justin when we need him? Would love to find that missing source.

  9. SMB; I am not sure this is what you are looking for, but I am just about to start a book, “The Sun Came Down: The History of the World as My Blackfeet Elders Told It.” By Percy Bullchild. It was written by the Uncle of a fishing guide I met on the Blackfeet Reservation. It is as described in the title. I have read a little, and find it interesting. It may not be what your seeking, but I will pass it on anyway.

  10. I’m not entirely sure, but you may mean the rambling Indian-related essay in the January 1833 Evening and the Morning Star. See http://www.centerplace.org/history/ems/v1n08.htm .

    Also, make sure to check out Dan Vogel’s book:


  11. Kaimi, thanks for trying. I do love the long Indians piece and have read Vogel’s book, but the thing I’m remembering in my mind’s eye is just a couple paragraphs and is Phelps bragging about etymologies and that the world idiotically think that Indians come from the word for India, but their actual name is Lamanites or something like that.

  12. Not of a historical nature but I’ve really enjoyed reading Sherman Alexie lately. Great insider view of life on a reservation and bridging two cultures (and the resulting disconnect from both). He’s probably most known now for testifying on behalf of the city of Seattle as a representative of fans in the lawsuit trying to keep the Sonics from leaving. “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” is a recent young adult novel and “The Lone Ranger and Tonto in Heaven” is a short story collection.

  13. John Turner says:

    I don’t think it’s accurate to equate the “N-word” with “Indian,” when used self-referentially or by outsiders. “Indian,” as far as I know, has never been used as pejoratively and is usually not considered offensive. I agree with the notion of using tribal names whenever possible.

  14. I have never thought it correct to limit “Native Americans” only to those groups that interrelated with “White Americans” moving west.
    If you put the “Latino” in the mix, along with the “Native Canadians”, and “Eskimo”, you get a different since of history.

  15. I like Fixico’s work a lot (just finished his book Termination and Relocation), and he does represent a native scholarly voice, but don’t you think it’s a bit problematic to generalize one scholar’s opinion as “current scholarly standards”?

    I also agree with John about the misequation of the “N-word” and “Indian.” Both have troubled and colonizing histories, to be sure, but let’s not get carried away.

    Likewise, I’m troubled by your use of the word “genocide” to describe removal. That’s such a powerful word, with powerful connotations, and historiographically speaking you’re placing yourself on the radical end of those writing about Jackson’s Indian policies. Michael Rogin, in his intriguing yet problematic psychohistory of Jackson, Fathers and Children (1975), used the word, but no major scholar of Indian removal has followed him, with Donald Cole (1993) and Robert V. Remini (2001) specifically repudiating Rogin’s characterization.

  16. I wish I could help you with that source, Sam, but I’m afraid I’m not familiar with that Phelps essay.

    I second your enthusiasm for Rushforth’s forthcoming book. I’ve been slowly making my way through Juliana Barr’s Peace Came in the Form of a Woman: Indians and Spaniards in the Texas Borderlands and have quite enjoyed it. I also recently completed Henrietta Stockel’s On the Bloody Road to Jesus: Christianity and the Chiricahua Apaches—it was helpful for some of my own research on the culture(s) the first Mormon missionaries sent to northern Mexico encountered. Race, Nation, & Religion in the Americas (ed. by Henry Goldschmidt and Elizabeth McAlisers) has a few insightful essays on the Native American experience from a continental perspective and Carolyn Haynes’s Divine Destiny: Gender and Race in Nineteenth-Century Protestantism has a couple of chapters devoted to the gendered dynamics of Pequot conversion to Methodism in early America, and is quite excellent, IMO.

  17. “McAlisers” should be McAlister. I’m not sure how I messed that up.

  18. Sorry, N-word as in the one that starts with Ne rather than Ni. Your point on Ni is well taken.
    Howe takes a fairly negative view of Jacksonian Removal in his survey, and while it’s dramatic, I am inclined to think it’s largely true that Removal was a genocidal activity that would be prosecuted today as a war crime.

  19. Again, my point was that scholars of Indian removal reject “genocide” to describe Jackson’s Indian policy, and as Howe is not a major figure in that literature, I’m not sure how he’s relevant here. If you’re set on using a provacative word to describe removal, I suggest using a concept that contemporaries themselves would have accepted, rather than imposing a mid-20th century notion on 19th-century people. Richard Slotkin discusses the langauge and symbols associated with “racial wars of extermination” (nope, Rigdon and Boggs didn’t invent the concept of “extermination”) in The Fatal Environment, an excellent analysis of 19th-century white ideologies concerning Native Americans and other minorities.

  20. I meant Howe as a summarizer of broader academic movements rather than a primary scholar in the field. Genocide is rather presentist; point taken. I’m not sure why scholars wouldn’t endorse it though.

  21. Random House Dictionary:

    Gen-o-cide (noun) The deliberate and systematic extermination of a national, racial, political, or cultural group.

    The “Removal” (before and after Jackson) was clearly deliberate and systematic. The question is, was it attempting to exterminate a national, racial, political, and cultural group. I would argue, that “No” it did not have a purpose of killing off the people, but “Yes” it did attempt to end their national, racial, cultural, and political structure and existence.

  22. Robin Jensen says:

    I love a good mystery. While this is Taylor as editor, the two paragraphs sounds suspiciously like Phelps–although it doesn’t exactly match your description. Is this it?


    The word Indian, which is used to personny [personify] the natives of China, and America, is probably not fully and fairly understood. The word Indian is an adjective derived from the proper noun India, found in Esther 1:1. The original Hebrew word is Ho doo most likely from Haudad, to Shout for Joy.

    When Columbus discovered Islands on his first voyage, he supposed they were situated upon the West side of the East Indies, and as a natural rule, called them the “West Indies.” from this circumstance the natives of this continent have been favored with the appropriate and prophetic appellation of “Indians,” which, no doubt means nothing more nor less than: They shall shout themselves for Joy!

    Times and Seasons vol. 6 (15 November 1845), 1032.

  23. Robin, you’re great. this is half of what I’m remembering, which must be a merger of two separate pieces. The other piece is where Phelps says basically [Gentiles know nothing; they don’t even know the name of the Indians].

    This was a popular (and false) etymology for Indians.

    thanks again

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