American Indian vs. Native American: A note on terminology


“The term Indian, and later American Indian, dates back to the late fifteenth century and the mistaken initial assumption that Columbus had reached eastern Asia. The University of Southern Maine makes available the text of one of Columbus’s early letters, in which he refers to the people he came into contact with as Indians. In the 1960s and 1970s, people concerned about the impact of using this inaccurate term started using Native American as a more accurate alternative that might be viewed as more respectful and avoid stereotypes, but the term has not been universally adopted.1 For a more detailed discussion of the terms Indian and American Indian, please see American Indian Politics and the American Political System (David Wilkins, Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 2006).2

Some people have rejected both of these terms. Dr. Michael Yellow Bird, Assistant Professor and Director of the Office for the Study of Indigenous Social and Cultural Justice in the School of Social Welfare at the University of Kansas, considers both terms, American Indian and Native American, to be “oppressive, ‘counterfeit identities.’” He prefers the terms indigenous peoples or First Nations peoples to either American Indian or Native American.3

In most circles, however, the terms American Indian and Native American are both considered acceptable and, while there are people who feel strongly that one term or the other is more appropriate, they are often used interchangeably. There seems to be some agreement among American Indian people that the use of either term is acceptable — according to a 1995 census survey, 49.76 percent of American Indians preferred that term, compared to 37.35 percent preferring Native American and much smaller numbers preferring other terms.4 Most modern style guides also list both terms as acceptable options, noting that, when possible, writers should refer to the name of a specific tribe instead of using one of these umbrella terms.5

Some American Indians prefer the term American Indian over Native American for specific reasons. Lakota activist Russell Means has noted that “the American Indian is the only ethnic group in the United States with the American before our ethnicity” and prefers to use that term because he knows its origins.6 Others argue that the term Native American is inaccurate because anyone who is born in the western hemisphere is native to the Americas and could be considered a native American. Still others believe that the term Native American serves only to assuage white guilt over the treatment of American Indians. As Christina Berry notes, “Native Americans did not suffer through countless trails of tears, disease, wars, and cultural annihilation — Indians did. The Native people today are Native Americans not Indians, therefore we do not need to feel guilty for the horrors of the past.”7 In this view, the term American Indian is used because it is the term that has been used most consistently and because it makes the connection to the past treatment of people who have been called Indians in ways that make it difficult to gloss over the history of racism and discrimination in our country.

The broad use of the term American Indian by government and advocacy groups makes it a practical term as well. The federal government has a Bureau of Indian Affairs and a Bureau of Indian Education; treaties and other legal documents often refer to American Indians; and the federal census uses the terms American Indian or Alaska Native to refer to native people. Many government documents use the terms American Indian or Alaska Native to refer to groups that have been granted federal recognition and use the term Native American to refer to groups that do not have that recognition. In North Carolina, the Commission of Indian Affairs addresses the issues of concern to North Carolina’s Native communities; the state’s Advisory Council on Indian Education advocates on behalf of American Indian students; and our schools offer an elective called American Indian Studies. American Indian activists and political groups like the American Indian Movement and the National Congress of American Indians also use the term American Indian as part of their names. The use of the term American Indian is widespread both among governmental groups and American Indian advocacy groups, making it seem like a reasonable term to use in most cases.

Christina Berry notes in the conclusion to her own essay on this same topic, “[w]hat matters in the long run is not which term is used but the intention with which it is used.” When referring to people outside our own cultural heritage, our intention should always be to refer to others in ways that are respectful and accurate. In these materials, we have chosen, for the reasons outlined above, to use the names of individual tribes or nations where we can and to use the term American Indian more broadly, but we acknowledge that there are many differing but valid opinions on which terminology may be the most appropriate. We encourage educators to read a variety of opinions on this issue, to talk to people in their communities about terminology, and to let their own respectful intentions guide them to the choices that they deem most appropriate….8

  1. Brunner, Borgna, American Indian vs. Native American: A once-heated issue has sorted itself out . Available online (retrieved on June 26, 2009). [return]
  2. Wilkins, David, American Indian Politics and the American Political System (Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 2006). [return]
  3. Yellow Bird, Michael, American Indian Politics and the American Political System(Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 2006). Available online (retrieved on June 26, 2009). [return]
  4. Preference for Racial or Ethnic Terminology (Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Census Bureau Survey, 1995). Available online (retrieved on June 26, 2009). [return]
  5. Brunner, Borgna, What Style and Usage Guides Say: American Indian versus Native American (Pearson Education, Inc, 2007). Available online (retrieved on June 26, 2009). [return]
  6. Means, Russell, I am an American Indian, Not a Native American! (Treaty Productions, 1996). Available online (retrieved on June 26, 2009). [return]
  7. Berry, Christina, What's in a Name?: Indians and Political Correctness (All Things Cherokee, 2009). Available online (retrieved on June 26, 2009). [return]
  8. Ibid. [return]