American Indian vs Native American

The name by which it is polite to call a group of people is sometimes in flux and changes over time as political and social perceptions change. What was once normal can become offensive over time, usually because it was always offensive to begin with.

The name of peoples whose ancestors were originally in the Americas before colonization is a tricky subject, mainly because they were never lumped together in one group before. Each tribe or family group called themselves something different. As such, today each group still prefers different names. We discuss to commonly accepted terms below, but if this group is in your audience, it is best simply to ask what they prefer. Many will say they prefer the specific tribal name they subscribe to.

Indian was the common term for native peoples for a long time. It stems back to Christopher Columbus. He called the people gente en Dios or people of God, which morphed over time to Indios and then Indian. Some people still prefer to self-identify with this name. However, as more mixture happened, especially with people coming from India, the name became confusing. In fact, in the dictionary its primary definition now is a person from India. Whereas the original definition has become secondary.

American Indian is the preferred politically correct term currently. It refers to the same group of people, but again mostly from the continental United States. Alaska has Alaskan Natives and Eskimos (two different groups). There are Native Hawaiians and more. In Canada the term is Canadian Indian or First Nations.

Native American is a noun referring to persons that are part of an indigenous group. It is mostly associated with the United States, even though the name should include all of the American continents (more about this difference here). This term was revised mainly because it too was unclear. Anyone born in America is native to America. In some areas close to American Indian reservations it is common to hear American Indians referred to as natives. This is derogatory and should be avoided. As should the terms ingin and redskin, though that should be common sense.

6 thoughts on “American Indian vs Native American”

  1. The term in Canada is not “Canadian Indians.” Aboriginal people or First Nations are the commonly used terms. Furthermore, Inuit and Metis people are not First Nations.

  2. This whole subject is fraught with controversy. Indeed, at the core is whether members of any broader group of speakers have a delicately alienable right to determine the exonym used to describe another people, nation, religion or socially meaningful group of people.

    Moonies? They don’t like the word. But in American English, we understand Moonies to be followers of Reverend Moon. OK, so the PC types will just pop up and bleat, “But Goat, obviously Moonies is derogatory and dismissive”. OK, fine.

    What do we do though with the hard cases? African-Americans … seems to be an affectation to me: I don’t walk around calling myself an Irish-German-French-Cherokee-American, now do I? Its ridiculous. Oh… wait… so if you have eyes, and can see that I’m as pink as a carnation, then I’m just an American. Or White. Or Euro-American (which is dopey).

    No, inserting the ‘African-‘ in there is the vestige of racism, ironically enforced by the very group that oft-complains (and rightfully) about bigotry. Its like the street-sign I saw the other day in Oakland, “Black Chamber of Commerce, 2 blocks south”. REALLY? There’s a separate Chamber of Commerce for Americans that happen to in part have African cultural and/or genetic heritage? Is there a Chinese (or Asian) Chamber of Commerce? Would it be impolitic to have a White Chamber of Commerce? Or an Irish-American Chamber of Commerce? Latvian? Ethiopian?

    So in the end I don’t know what to do with the whole endonym / exonym problem. Like a certain pesky blogger keeps insisting, do we have a new responsibility to call India “Bharat” because 95% of its people do, internally? We don’t seem to have a problem calling Deutschland, “Germany”, and Volksmenschen, “Germans”. But we have naming problems with people of mixed colorful heritage, in order not to miff them individually, or as a group.

    People of Color. I qualify! I’m tawny pink! Its a color.

    Colored People. I still qualify!

    Black. Hardly seems helpful: I have yet to meet a black person. Bronze-thru-almost-violet-brown, yes. Black, no.

    African American. Well, what about all the negro population which is from Trinidad, and not American? What, pray, are we supposed to call them collectively? Trinidadians. OK. But what about the abundant Haitians, Jamaicans, Dominicans and Cubans which are genetically closer to Africans than the native Americans who once were the majority people of their respective islands? The ones who you find all thru America, quite happily citizens. They’re not from Africa, by any stretch of the imagination. They’re from Haiti, Dominica, Dominican Republic, Jamaica, and so forth.

    Myself, I’m trying as hard as possible to remove and ignore phenonyms (hey, I made that up, it works) from what I write, and even what I say. If Liberty is a blind goddess who cannot see the scales which she so proudly hauls to every occasion, then I too should see no color-as-a-basis-for-collective-nouns. Michael Jackson? An American with great licks. James Brown? Hmmm… getting harder. Definitely from the Negro side of the family tree, but to point that out or not to both seem bigoted. We remember (or not) that Andreas Vollenweider is Swiss. And the very hip Albert Einstein was German. And the Marx Brothers were Jewish, from New York’s Upper East Side. But we don’t call ’em Jewish-Americans, … just Americans. Crazy Americans.

    I give up re: people-bearing-some-african-genetic-heritage. Vexingly, I just can’t embrace needing to be politically correct at the moment by using whatever is parlance for the mixed-to-wholely-pure african genetic community. Not when they call themselves n*gg*r endlessly. And will call you n*gg*r too if they’re ranting at you. But lord help you if you’re not Negro and call a person who self-identifies as being an African America, ‘n*gg*r’. Expect to have your facial features readjusted.


    • I appreciate your comment here! I’ve always been the worst at understanding nationalities, races, backgrounds, etc. It’s all so ridiculously confusing to me. I’m a mental health counselor and was just reflecting back to a drug and alcohol counseling class I took a while back in which we did a project on various populations. I was wondering if you could by chance give me some sources to pull from to do a little reading on the correct terms for each population, as well as any information on the politically accepted terms. “Politically correct” seems like an oxymoron to me. (If that’s even the right word.) Lol
      Anyway, I thought this would be an awesome topic to pass along to the next classes at my school. It’s another interesting point of view. We talk so much about having a sensitivity for each specific population that each client identifies with, but we never really talk about where these labels came from. So, many of the people who get offended because you don’t use the term “African American” or whatever they identify themselves as may not actually understand the justification for their being offended. Everything you said now has me thinking about how counselors can use that to not only build rapport with the clients who are more sensitive to this kind of thing but to also help them change a stubborn mindset with education about their background.
      If you have anymore information for me that’d be great, but if not that’s fine. Thanks! :)

  3. Hay GoatGuy: You don’t need to write a PhD thesis for me to get the gist of what you are saying. The reason for all these different identities and confusion referring to Black folk is because of marginalization and past discrimination; you are too young to know about them. For instance, there was a company called Fuller Brush, when White folk found out it was owned by a Black man, they stopped buying the products and he eventually went out of business. When Frank Aron surpassed Babe Ruth’s record, he got death threats and letters saying, ‘You can beat his records, but you can’ change the color of you skin.” Indecently, the word, “Negro” is a Spanish word, that’s why they (Black folk) didn’t want to be called ‘Negro’ anymore. In Spain they call black pepper, negro pepper; you see the confusion! But in a manner of speaking, you made some good points.

  4. I would just like to point out that your explanation of why Native Americans are called Indians is incorrect. Columbus called them Indians because he fervently believed – until his death, in spite of all contrary evidence – that he had found a western passage to Asia.

    South and East Asia were commonly referred to collectively as India/the Indies (derived from the Indus river), las Indias in Spanish, and the people Indians/los Indios. Columbus believed that he had come across islands in the Indian Ocean (the Latin version of his letter to the Spanish Monarchy is entitled ‘De Insulis nuper in mari Indico repertis’ or, On the recently discovered islands in the Indian Ocean). Thus he was convinced that the people living there were from Asia and so repeatedly called them Indians (Indi in Latin).

    The ‘gente en dios’ derivation is an myth – he did not write this phrase in any of his letters.


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