Just Deaf

Note: Just Deaf is an article I wrote back in 2004. We're still arguing semantics ad nauseum so I thought it would be fun to dig this one up out of the archives. Enjoy!

Never mind history textbooks. The best historian, in my humble opinion, is irreverent comedian George Carlin. Being of Cherokee descent, I was amused to read Carlin’s diatribe against the term “Native American.” In Brain Droppings, the craziest book I’ve ever read, Carlin unapologetically uses the word “Indians” and gladly explains why.

Carlin says the name “Indians” is not a result of Columbus mistakenly thinking he reached India in 1492. India wasn’t even India back then; it was known as Hindustan. Most likely, Carlin explains, Columbus “called the Indians ‘Una genta in Dios.’ A people in God. In God. In Dios. Indians. It’s a perfectly noble and acceptable word.”

“Native American,” Carlin continues, is a term invented by the U.S. government Department of the Interior in 1970. “Do you know what the Indians would like to be called?” Carlin asks. “Their real names: Adirondack, Delaware, Massachuset, Narraganset, Potomac...” The list goes on for almost an entire page.

Carlin’s rant jolted me out of my politically correct stupor. I did an Internet search and found numerous historical accounts. Some of them confirmed Carlin’s version. Others varied or were entirely different. Regardless, it was a whole new world of Indian history that I should have known. In spite of my own heritage, up until now I’ve always said “Native American.” I thought it was the proper thing to do.

The ironic thing is, as a Deaf person, I have adamantly defended my right to be called Deaf. Not hearing impaired, not undeaf impaired, not a person with a severe-to-profound sensorineural hearing loss. I’m Deaf. Just Deaf.

“Deaf” to me is less about my inability to hear and more about my ability to be culturally Deaf, such as signing ASL and being a member of the Deaf community. To paraphrase an old DeafNation T-shirt I bought a long time ago, “Deaf” is something measured in terms of identity and not by an audiogram. If anyone calls me “hearing impaired” in an attempt to be politically correct, I blanch.

Really, this is inappropriate. I shouldn’t be comparing “Indian” and “Deaf.” Each has its own history of oppression, but the Indian version is far more horrific. Nonetheless, when I read Carlin’s comments I learned a valuable lesson. Just Indian. Just Deaf. Just be yourself.