What Should Non-Natives In The U.S. Call Our Fellow Native Citizens?

Obama with Standing Rock Sioux, June. Photo: genindigenous.com.


The Dakota Access Pipeline protest at Standing Rock, an important cultural event and an intense clash of race, climate change, and water concerns, has engendered a renewed focus on the lived experience of the Native peoples of our country.

I anticipate a lot of talk about this issue in the coming months, so I think it’s important to address the terminology we use to refer to our fellow Native citizens, because language matters. I imagine that many are unsure about how to refer to the Native “protectors” camped out in North Dakota, as well as how to speak more generally about broader issues affecting our Native friends around the country.

It’s not exactly something our schools cared to elucidate growing up — in fact, they mostly accomplished more deeply ingraining false stereotypes and biased accounts of history — so it makes sense that there will be confusion.

I have struggled with this confusion as well, so I looked into it.

It seems that Native people in the U.S. are split on what they’d like to be called, many preferring to be called by their specific tribe, while not minding other more generic terms. But there is no consensus on what generic term is best. Some prefer “American Indian,” while others are fine with “Native American,” and still others prefer just “Indian”.

UNC’s School of Education and others cite a 1995 census survey that shows, among Native people in the U.S., 50% preferred “American Indian” and 38% preferred “Native American”, with much smaller numbers preferring other terms. But this seems a bit outdated to me, especially since that was 21 years ago and the term “Native American” has received severe criticism recently.

At the 2016 Academy Awards ceremony, in his acceptance speech for Best Actor, Leonardo DiCaprio used the term “First Nations”, referring to the 634 currently recognized groups of “Aboriginal Canadians.” While this term does not refer to tribes originating in the U.S., it could certainly add to the confusion.

The term “Aboriginal” itself is contentious, having been rejected by The Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs (AMC) in Canada. In 2014, the Anishinabek of Ontario joined the AMC, totaling 42 First Nations, but they’ve had trouble shedding the English word because of its widespread use.

I also spoke to my Lakota friend who says his family and friends just call each other “Indians.”

So that doesn’t really leave us with anything definitive to go on in every case.

But that’s actually the answer — as with most things in life, it depends. So, given that uncertainty, I suggest abiding by the following rules:

  1. Always use specific tribal or band affiliation when possible

Whenever possible, just figure out what specific tribe you’re actually talking about, and use that name. In everything I’ve read, that seems to be the first thing that most Native people prefer. It’s pretty simple and makes total sense.

As with all complicated social issues in the world, there are surely times when a set of problems does apply generally to a broader swath of people. But, more often than we think, specific issues apply to a specific population, so it’s worth adhering to that specificity when possible — both for the sake of respecting the people about which you speak as well as supporting the validity of any argument you’re trying to make.

More importantly, names are about identity, and while there are surely commonalities across tribes, there are also distinct differences in culture, history, and language — as with any huge, diverse group of people. It is a grand mistake for anyone to assume all Native peoples, and tribes, are the same. It is wrong, then, to refer to Native people with a generic term when addressing an issue or cultural aspect that’s actually unique to only one or a handful of tribes.

It would be like a Japanese journalist writing an article about a conversation they had with Boston Red Sox fans regarding the Curse of the Bambino and reporting to their home country, “I have learned that baseball fans in the U.S. take curses very seriously.”

First of all, this would offend Red Sox fans, because they, specifically, hold the Curse of the Bambino very close to the chest. This curse, before it was broken, wasn’t of great concern to fans in other cities — except perhaps the Chicago Cubs, who might have held sympathy for Red Sox fans out of solidarity, given their own curse (which was in fact just itself broken).

Second, it would simply be an inaccurate statement. A small segment of baseball fans in the U.S. are seriously concerned with curses, not all baseball fans. Also, even if it were true that every baseball team was nursing a curse and a vast majority of baseball fans were just bananas about it, it would still be invalid for the Japanese journalist to report this as fact based on a conversation with Red Sox fans alone.

If that example makes no sense to you or just confused you further, a simpler analogy would be that of constantly referring to everyone in Europe as “Europeans” regardless of their country of origin when referring to a specific event or characteristic.

For instance, you couldn’t say “Europeans have shockingly high unemployment” just because Spain, Greece, and Croatia have high unemployment rates. Great Britain, Germany, Netherlands, and Czech Republic are fine on that front, so using the generic term “European” wouldn’t apply.

Point being: just be specific, okay?!

  1. If you’re unsure, do more research

Before you give up on step 1 above, you should probably just do some more research. Most events or issues involving Native peoples are documented somewhere, and specific tribes are almost always named.

  1. If you’re still unsure, ask

It’s not the worst thing in the world to just ask. I’m sure most people would appreciate that you cared to know rather than make an assumption or just speak broadly without being informed.

At the end of the day, my general experience with sensitive topics has been that few people find offense in your current lack of knowledge if your intention is positive, respectful, humble, and open-minded, and you don’t presume to know more than you do, especially if you’re coming from a place of privilege. No one knows everything, and that’s okay. The fact that you want to reduce your ignorance of a sensitive issue is a good thing.

  1. Probably best to use “American Indian” when speaking broadly

If you really are making a sweeping statement about events, experiences, or collective treatments of Native peoples in our country, broadly, at this moment it seems best to use the term “American Indian.”

I didn’t want to use “American Indian” up to this point having not yet explained why, so you may have noticed I’ve been using an even more general term that could apply to anyone around the world, “Native peoples.” I had doubts about that, even, but felt it was an impartial way of describing American Indians until this section, given that “Native”, though typically vague, was couched in the context of my discussion about the United States.

“American Indian” is the term that seems to draw the least criticism, and was actually self-imposed unanimously by “Indians from the Americas” at an international conference in Geneva, Switzerland in 1977. From Russell Means, a Lakota activist and co-founder of the American Indian Movement: “We were enslaved as American Indians, we were colonized as American Indians, and we will gain our freedom as American Indians and then we can call ourselves anything we damn please.”

As I have heard echoed by many voices, “American Indian” is preferred primarily for two reasons. First, it is self-imposed, and sheds the term “Native American” which was fashioned by colonizers. Second, it puts the word “American” first. “Native American” is a qualified form of American, like the terms African American, Asian American, etc. When you say “American” first, an idea of a person intimately American immediately comes to mind, regardless of what they look like. It is, then, only by saying “Indian” that you know what type of American you are referring to.

It is an interesting way of turning a qualifier on its head. In the term African American, the word “African” is a qualifying adjective acting upon the proper noun “American.” By the rules of the English language, this would seem to imply that you are, first, an American, and then, per the qualifier, an American of African descent. Applying this treatment to American Indian, then, it would seem the phrase communicates that you are, first, an Indian, and then, per the qualifier, an American of Indian ancestry.

At first glance, this might seem counter to the goal of being seen as “American” first. Yet, even with “American” as a qualifier in front of the word Indian, psychologically I do get this sense saying it out loud or reading it that the most important word in the phrase is “American”, and I am left with the impression that I am referring to a people intimately American. I picture the “American” first, and then it’s almost as if “Indian” becomes the qualifier.

Language is weird and tricky. But such is the complexity of the issue. Perhaps the most important takeaway is that it doesn’t matter what I think as a non-Native, non-oppressed person anyway. I elaborate on this idea more in number 5 below.

There are still others who disagree, like Christina Berry, a Cherokee writer, who argues for avoiding terms like “Indian” as well as “Native American” altogether. This notion is supported by other prominent American Indian figures, too. But there will always be folks who disagree on sensitive, identity-based topics like this. So it’s probably best to go with the term that draws the least criticism or, on the flip-side, the one that draws the most support.

I guess you could, when in doubt, also use more generic, less-political or apolitical terms (although it’s hard to find entirely apolitical terms) like “indigenous people” or “Native people,” but that wouldn’t be as helpful in localized conversations because those terms can apply to anyone in the world depending on the context. Moreover, most people have a preference for a defining, identifying term rather than for generic apolitical terms, so this might also not be the most actively respectful way to address American Indians generally, though it might be the least risky.

All that said, I still think that, when you are uncertain, “American Indian” is most likely to be received well. And I still maintain that most people value intention above all else. In fact, it has been my experience that people almost always take most offense from negative intention or indifference, regardless of terminology, and even in spite of positive terminology, because of what it often represents — disrespect, ignorance, and arrogance.

  1. Always defer to someone’s preference

At the end of the day, if you aren’t American Indian and you’re writing or talking about pertinent issues with someone who is, just defer to their preference. Since it all really depends, just show respect for whom you’re talking to by humbly asking for and adhering to their preference.

It’s probably a good reminder for socially progressive folk, especially white socially progressive folk, that oppressed groups don’t care if we’re offended by a word — in this case, American Indians don’t care if we’re offended by the term “Indian” because we feel it furthers some stereotype or discourse that we don’t agree with, and therefore upsets our refined, academic sense of political correctness.

It isn’t up to us. We don’t get a vote. For us to feel we do or should have a say mirrors the original historical problem: the idea that non-white, non-Europeans are lesser, incapable of true, “civilized” autonomy — that “white men” brought civilization to the world — and incapable of making appropriate decisions for themselves. To feel or act this way is, to use an utterly underwhelming word, remarkably patronizing, and it only further exacerbates the disempowerment of a people who have already endured so much.

As Don Marks, a Winnipeg writer and editor of Grassroots News, said: “I have always maintained that we should call people what they want to be called, and if I make a mistake… I ask that they please ‘guide me gently to a higher understanding’ like the elders do. I never meant to offend anyone and I hope we can teach each other about these things in a good way.”


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