A Column By Jack D. Forbes
Native American Studies
University of California, Davis

What Do We Mean By America and American?

Our hemisphere has for quite some time now been known as "America", being subdivided into North America, Central America, South America, et cetera.

Indigenous peoples have a bit of a problem, however, in that: (1) the United States and its dominant European-origin citizens have attempted to pre-empt the terms America and American; and (2) there has been a strong tendency, especially since the 1780's, to deny to Indigenous Americans the right to use the name of their own land. As a matter of fact there is a strong tendency to also deny Native People the use of the name of any land within America, such as being Brazilian, Mexican, Canadian, and so on, unless the term "Indian" is also attached, as in "Brazilian Indian"( as "American Indian" is used instead of "American").

Some people believe that America as a name stems from the mountain range known as Amerique located in Nicaragua. Others believe that it stems from a word common to several American languages of the Caribbean and South America, namely Maraca (pronounced maracá, maráca, and maraca). This word, meaning rattle or gourd, is found as a place name in Venezuela (Maracapana, Maracay, Maracaibo), Trinidad (Maracas), Puerto Rico (Maracayu, etc.), Brazil (Maraca, Itamaraca) and elsewhere.

Many very early maps of the Caribbean region show an island located to the northwest of Venezuela (where Nicaragua is actually located) called "Tamaraque" which has been interpreted as T. amaraque standing for tierra or terra (land) of Amaraque. All of this is before America first appeared as a name on the mainland roughly in the area of Venezuela.

Most of us have probably been taught that America as a name is derived from that of Amerigo Vespucci, a notorious liar and enslaver of Native people. Strangely enough, Vespucci's first name is more often recorded as Albérico rather than Amerigo. It may well be that the name America is not derived from his name but we know for sure that it was first applied to South America or Central America and not to the area of the United States.

From the early 1500's until the mid-1700's the only people called Americans were First Nations People. Similarly the people called Mexicans, Canadians, Brazilians, Peruvians, etcetera, were all our own Native People. In 1578, for example, George Best of Britain wrote about "those Americans and Indians" by which he referred to our Native American ancestors as Americans and the people off India and Indonesia as Indians. In 1650 a Dutch work referred to the Algonkians of the Manhattan area as "the Americans or Natives" In 1771 a Dutch dictionary noted that "the Americans are red in their skins" and so on. As late as 1845 another Dutch dictionary defined mestizos (metis) as being children of a "European" and an "American" parent.

English usage is very little different. John Wesley in 1747 referred to First Nations People of Georgia as "the Americans." The Quaker traveler William Bartram, after a lengthy tour among the Creeks, Cherokees, and Choitaws in the 1770's refers to them as the "the Americans." Samuel Johnson's Dictionary (1827 edition) has:" American [from America]. An aboriginal native of America; an inhabitant of America." The dictionary then quotes Milton ("Such of late/Columbus found the American/so girt/with feather'd ....."), and Addison from the Spectator ("The Americans believe that all creatures have souls, not only men and women, but brutes, vegetables, ... stones").

In 1875 Charles Maclaren in a British encyclopedia wrote of "the American race", "the color of the Americans", "the American natives" and "the Americans" by which he meant "the Americans of indigenous races." More recently (1986), the Chronicle of Higher Education noted that "Scientists Find Evidence of Earliest Americans" in northeastern Brazil (32,000 years old). Clearly these "earliest Americans" were not United Statesians!

Nonetheless, beginning in the 1740's-1780's British newspapers also began to refer to their British subjects on the Atlantic seaboard as Americans in the sense of Britons living in America. After the United States became independent in the 1780's its new citizens began to refer to themselves as Americans, trying to identify with Tammany and the Native People.

It is simply nonsense to refer to the United States as America. It is "of America", and that's different. California was part of America before it became part of the United States, and everything from Canada to Chile is still American! First Nations Peoples clearly have prior claim on the name, whether they stem from Quebec or Mexico!

[Professor Jack D. Forbes, Powhatan-Delaware, is the author of Columbus and Other Cannibals, Africans and Native Americans and other books.]

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