1492 – Europeans at the time of Christopher Columbus’s voyage often referred to all of South and East Asia as “India” or “the Indias/Indies,” sometimes dividing the area into “Greater India,” and “Middle India,” and “Lesser India.” The oldest surviving terrestrial globe, by Martin Behaim in 1492 (before Columbus’ voyage), labels the entire Asian subcontinent region as “India”.
Christopher Columbus (1451 – 1506) carried a passport in Latin from the Spanish monarchs that dispatched him ab partes Indie (“toward the regions of India”) on their behalf. When he landed in the Antilles, Columbus referred to the resident peoples he encountered there as “Indians” in the mistaken belief that he had reached the Indian Ocean. Although Columbus’ mistake was soon recognized, the name stuck; for centuries the native people of the Americas were collectively called “Indians.” This misnomer was perpetuated in place naming; the islands of the Caribbean were named, and are still known as, the West Indies. [Personal note: I am glad that Columbus was not looking for Turkey, otherwise, we would have been called … – White Spotted Horse]
In the late 20th century, some American public figures suggested that the origin of the term was not from confusion with India, but from the Spanish expression En Dios, meaning “in God.” Proponents of this idea include the American Indian activist Russell Means; the author Peter Matthiessen, author of In the Spirit of Crazy Horse, a view of American Indian history through the life and trial of Lakota activist Leonard Peltier. In his book The Wind Is My Mother, the Muskogee writer Bear Heart (Nokus Feke Ematha Tustanaki) wrote, “When Columbus found the natives here, they were gentle people who accepted him, so Columbus wrote in his journal, ‘These are people of God’ (“una gente in Dios“). Later the ‘s’ was dropped and Indio became Indian.”
As European colonists began to move into the Americas in the 17th and 18th centuries, and have more sustained contact with the resident peoples, it became clear that the residents were not a homogenous group sharing a unified culture and government, but discrete societies with their own distinct languages and social systems. Early historical accounts show that some colonists attempted to learn and record the autonyms of these individual groups, but the use of the general term “Indian” persisted.
In Canada today, they are still legally categorized by the Canadian Government under the Indian Act as (Status or Non-status) Indians or Registered Indians. European arrival in the “New World” changed First Nations societies forever.
“They are well built people of handsome structure…. and show as much love as if they were giving their hearts…. With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.”
“I think that Christendom will do good business with these Indians, especially Spain, whose subjects they must all become.” – Journal of Christopher Columbus