Native American name controversy

Native American name controversy

The Native American name controversy is a dispute about the acceptable terminology for the indigenous peoples of the Americas and broad subsets of these peoples, such as those sharing certain cultures and languages by which more discrete groups identify themselves (e.g., "Algonquin-speaking peoples," "Pueblo-dwelling peoples").

Many English exonyms have been used to refer to the indigenous peoples of what is now known as the Americas, who were resident when European colonists arrived in the 15th and 16th centuries. Some of these names were based on French, Spanish, or other European language terminology used by earlier explorers and/or colonists; some resulted from the colonists' attempt to translate endonyms from the native language into their own; and some were pejorative terms arising out of prejudice and fear, during periods of conflict between the cultures involved.

In the 20th and 21st centuries, indigenous peoples in the Americas have been more vocal about the ways they wish to be referred to, pressing for the elimination of terms widely considered to be obsolete, inaccurate, or racist. During the latter half of the 20th century and the rise of the Indian rights movement, the United States Government responded by proposing the use of the term "Native American," to recognize the primacy of indigenous peoples' tenure in the nation. The term has met with only partial acceptance. Other naming conventions have been proposed and used, but none are accepted by all indigenous groups. Typically, each name has a particular audience and political or cultural connotation, and regional usage varies.


Salient issues affecting the debate

  • Sentimental attachment to a previous name (example: "Indian" is a name which many elders have known all their lives, and their families may continue to use the familiar term);
  • Rejection of a word perceived as quaint or pejorative (example: "Eskimo");
  • Rejection of names used by outsiders and not the individual Tribe or Indian people at large (example: "Nez Perce" is a French phrase; "Native American" was coined by the US Government);
  • Perception that a name is inherently racist, or has over time acquired racist overtones;
  • Rejection of names assigned by an occupying and oppressive colonial government or expedition;
  • Belief that a name is too inclusive or not inclusive enough of all indigenous people, so does not effectively convey the group intended (example: "Aboriginal" has become associated with Australian Aborigines given its wide use on that continent; the UN uses "Indigenous" to refer to all tribal peoples around the world (as their representatives chose to be identified); "Native American" in general use has not applied to indigenous peoples within Canada or Mexico);
  • Reluctance of members of individual Indian Nations to be referred to by a collective, racial name;
  • Belief that a universal/collective name suggests, inaccurately, that the indigenous cultures referred to are homogenous, monolithic bodies, rather than the widely varied separate nations that they actually are.

United States

"Indian" and "American Indian"

1693 nautical chart of the Atlantic Ocean marked with "Route de Europe aux Indes Occidentales" or "West Indies"

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," "Middle India," and "Lesser India."[1] The oldest surviving terrestrial globe, by Martin Behaim in 1492 (before Columbus' voyage), labels the entire south Asian subcontinent as "India".[2]

Columbus 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.[3] 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.

In the late 20th century, some American public figures suggested that the origin of the term was not from a confusion with India, but from the Spanish expression En Dios, meaning "in God," or a similar one in Italian. Proponents of this idea include the American Indian activist Russell Means;[4] 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; and the comedian George Carlin.[5] 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."[6] However, as the writer David Wilton noted in his book Word Myths: Debunking Linguistic Urban Legends, this phrase does not appear in any of Columbus' writing. Wilton also says that since Greek and Roman times, more than a millennium before the voyages of Columbus, many European languages used variations of the term "Indian" to describe the peoples of the Indian subcontinent.[5]

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 1968, the American Indian Movement was founded. In 1977, a delegation from the International Indian Treaty Council, an arm of AIM, elected to collectively identify as "American Indian," at the United Nations Conference on Indians in the Americas at Geneva, Switzerland. Some activists and public figures of indigenous descent, such as Russell Means, say that they prefer "American Indian" to the more recently adopted "Native American."[7][8]

Objections to the usage of "Indian" and "American Indian" include the fact that "Indian" arose from an historical error, and thus does not accurately reflect the derivation of the people to whom it refers; and some feel that the term has absorbed negative and demeaning connotations through its historical usage that render it objectionable in context. Additionally, "American Indian" is often understood to mean only the peoples of the main body of the United States, which excludes other indigenous groups of the Americas, including the Inuit, Cup'ik/Yup'ik peoples, Iñupiat, Alutiiq, and Aleut peoples (i. e., the groups whose traditional languages are Eskimo–Aleut languages).

Supporters of the terms "Indian" and "American Indian" argue that they have been in use for such a long period of time that many people have become accustomed to them and no longer consider them exonyms. Both terms are still widely used today. "American Indian" appears often in treaties between the United States and the indigenous peoples with whom they have been negotiating since the colonial period, and many Federal, state and local laws also use it.[9]

"Native American"

The Oxford English Dictionary cites usage of the uncapitalized term "native American" in several publications reaching as far back as 1737,[10] but it is unclear whether these texts refer to indigenous peoples or simply to persons born on American soil. During the 1850s, a group of Anglo-Saxon Protestant European-Americans used the capitalized term "Native Americans" to differentiate themselves from more recent Catholic Irish and German immigrants. The group later formed the "Know-Nothings," a 19th-century political party that supported anti-immigrant policy in the United States. The Known-Nothings also called themselves the "Native American Party" and were referred to in the press with the capitalized term.[11] They hired the writer and orator George Copway (a member of the Ontario Ojibwa tribe) for some of their publications,[12] but it is unclear whether they intended their usage of "Native American" to include indigenous peoples.

In 1918, leaders of the Peyote Religion in Oklahoma incorporated as the Native American Church of Oklahoma.[13] In 1956, Aldous Huxley wrote a letter in which he thanks his correspondent for "your most interesting letter about the Native American churchmen" (note capitalization).[10]

The use of both "native American" and "Native American" to refer to the indigenous peoples of the Americas came into widespread common use during the civil rights movements of the 1960s and 1970s. Activists believed that it more accurately represented historical fact (i.e., indigenous populations predated European colonization), and that it was free of negative historical connotations that had come to be associated with previous terms.

Between 1982 and 1993, most American manuals of style came to agree that "color terms" referring to ethnic groups should be capitalized as proper names, including "Native American."[14] Critics argue that the typographical detail of capitalizing "native" to differentiate between the term's use for indigeous peoples and other meanings is easily overlooked in written grammar, and ineffective in speech.

Other objections to "Native American," whether capitalized or not, include a concern that it is often understood to exclude American groups outside the continental U.S. (i.e., Alaska, Hawaii, Puerto Rico), and indigenous groups in South America, Mexico and Canada. The word "American" is sometimes questioned because the peoples referred to resided in the Americas before they were so named, rendering the term a tautology.

As of 1995, according to the US Census Bureau, 50% of people who identified as indigenous preferred the term "American Indian," 37% preferred "Native American" and the remainder preferred other terms or had no preference.[15]


The word "indigenous" comes from the Latin indigena, meaning "native," formed from indu "in" and gen- "beget." It is unrelated to the formation of "Indian."

According to The American Heritage Dictionary, "indigenous specifies that something or someone is native rather than coming or being brought in from elsewhere: an indigenous crop; the Ainu, a people indigenous to the northernmost islands of Japan."[16]

The United Nations World Summit on Sustainable Development used the term "indigenous peoples" for the first time in its official political declaration in 2002. Prior to this date, the terms was considered to be "still under debate" for usage in official UN documents.[17]

Arguments against the use of the term "Indigenous Peoples" are that it does not refer specifically to peoples affected by European colonization during the 17th and 18th centuries, that it lumps all indigenous world groups into into a single "other," and that it fails to recognize migratory groups who do not technically meet the definition of "indigenous."[citation needed]

"Aboriginal" and "Aborigine"

The English adjective "aboriginal" and the noun "aborigine" come from a Latin phrase meaning "from the origin;" the ancient Romans used it to refer to the native peoples of central Italy who were their contemporaries. Today throughout most of the English-speaking world, it is most commonly understood to refer to the Indigenous Australians.

"Alaska Native"

"Alaska Native" refers to the indigenous peoples in Alaska, including the Aleut, Inuit, and Yupik peoples.

In Alaska, the term "Alaska Native" predominates, because of its legal use in the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) and because it includes the Aleut, Inuit and Yupik peoples, the three groups of indigenous Alaskan peoples.

European Americans once used the term "Eskimo" for those groups, but this term is in disfavor because the people consider it derogatory; it was adopted from the exonym Eskimo used by the competing Algonquian-speaking tribes of the northern tier. The Inuit are "a people inhabiting the Arctic (northern Canada or Greenland or Alaska or eastern Siberia); the Algonquian called them Eskimo ('eaters of raw flesh') but they call themselves the Inuit ('the people') [syn: {Esquimau}, {Eskimo}]."[18]


The term "Amerind" is a blended form of "American Indian,"[19] though it can also be parsed as a blend of "American" and "Indigenous." It was coined in 1902 by the American Anthropological Association and is more commonly used in Latin America.


"Aboriginal peoples"

In Canada, the term "Aboriginal peoples in Canada" is used for all indigenous peoples within the country, including the Inuit and Inuvialuit, as well as the Métis.[20]

"First Nations"

"First Nations" (most often used in the plural) has come into general use for the Indigenous peoples of North America located in what is now Canada, and their descendants, excluding the Inuit and Métis, who have distinct identities.[21] The singular commonly used is "First Nations person" (when gender-specific, "First Nations man" or "First Nations woman").

Some tribal governments of Canada also use the term "First Nations" to refer to any indigenous, tribal or nomadic society, using the term for such diverse groups as the Roma, Sinti, Saami, Māori, Hmong, and the Australian Aborigines.[21]

Although the Canadian government has formally adopted use of the term "First Nations" and "Aboriginal peoples," the federal ministerial portfolio in charge of their affairs is named the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs, and the historical term "Indian Reserve" is still a legal land description. Some First Nations peoples also use "Indian Band" in their official names.

"Canadian Indians"

The Canadian Indian Act, in defining the rights of people of recognized First Nations, refers to them as "Indians." The responsible federal government department is the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs, headed by the Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development. The act officially recognizes people commonly known as "Status Indians," although "Registered Indian" is the official term for those on the Indian Register. Lands set aside for the use of First Nations are known as Indian Reserves.[20]

"Native Canadians"

"Native" or "Native Canadian" is an ambiguous term, but people frequently use it in conversation or informal writing.

"First Peoples"

"First Peoples" is a broad term that includes First Nations, Inuit, Inuvialuit, and Métis (equivalent to "Aboriginal" or "indigenous" peoples)—and could be extended outside the Canadian context to comprise all descendents of pre-Columbian ethnic groups in the Americas, including (self-identified) ethnic groups whose ancestry is only partially of pre-Columbian groups (e.g. Mestizo). Due to its similarity with the term "First Nations," the two terms are sometimes used interchangeably.


The Algonquin autonym, Anishinaabe or Anishinabe, is used as a cross-tribal term in Algonquian-majority areas, such as Anishnabe Health and Anishnabe Education and Training Circle. The term is also used among historically Anishinaabe peoples in the Upper Midwest region of the United States.

Canadian French nomenclature

In Canadian French, the terms are première(s) nation(s) for "First Nations" and autochtone for "Aboriginal" (used both as a noun and adjective).

The term indien or indienne is used in the legislation, although the preferred term is now amérindien. The term indigène is not used as it is seen as having negative connotations because of its similarity to the French equivalent of indigent ("poor"). The old French term sauvage ("wild") is no longer used either, as it is considered racist.

Chinook Jargon nomenclature

The Chinook Jargon, the old trade language of the Pacific Northwest, uses siwash (an adaptation of the French sauvage) for "Indian," "Native American," or "First Nations," either as adjective or noun. While normally meaning a male native, it is used in certain combinations, like siwash cosho ("a seal," literally "Indian pig" or "Indian pork").

Many native communities perceive the terms sauvage and siwash negatively, but others use it freely. They consider use by non-natives to be derogatory. placenames and certain other usages. In the creolized form of Chinook Jargon spoken at the Grand Ronde Agency in Oregon, a distinction is made between siwash and sawash. The accent in the latter is on the second syllable, resembling the French original, and is used in Grand Ronde Jargon meaning "anything native or Indian". By contrast, they consider siwash to be defamatory.[citation needed]

The Chinook Jargon term for a native woman is klootchman, an originally Nootkan word which was adopted in regional English to mean a native woman, or (as in the Jargon), all women and also anything female. Hyas klootchman tyee means "queen", klootchman cosho, "sow"; klootchman tenas or tenas klootchman means "girl" or "little girl". Generally klootchman in regional English simply means a native woman and has not acquired the derisive sense of siwash or squaw. The short form klootch, encountered only in English-Chinook hybrid phrasings, is often derisive.

Latin America

In Mexico, the preferred expression is "Indigenous Peoples" (pueblos indígenas in Spanish. Indios is still in common use, including among the indigenous peoples.

In Mexico, Brazil, and several other countries, these names are normally applied only to the ethnic groups that have maintained their identity and, to a some extent, their original way of life. In those countries there is also a large segment of the population with mixed native and European ancestry, who are largely integrated in mainstream society, and no longer identify themselves with their ancestral native groups. In some Spanish speaking countries, there are also Ladinos who do not have significant European ancestry, but have adopted the culture of the White and Mestizo population.

These people were originally called mestizos in Mexico, caboclos in Brazil; however, those terms have largely fallen in disuse as that segment has come to predominate among the population.

In South America, the preferred expression is Indigenous Peoples (pueblos indígenas in Spanish, povos indígenas in Portuguese). However, Indians (indios, índios) is often used too, even by indigenous peoples themselves, since this expression is not seen as derogatory.[citation needed] It should also be noted that in Portuguese índios does not conflict with the word for the people of India (indianos).


"Indigenous peoples"

During the late 20th century the term "Indigenous peoples" evolved into a political term that refers to ethnic groups with historical ties to groups that existed in a territory prior to colonization or formation of a nation state. In the Americas, the term "Indigenous peoples of the Americas" was adopted, and the term is tailored to specific geographic or political regions, such as "Indigenous peoples of Panama." "'Indigenous peoples' ... is a term that internationalizes the experiences, the issues and the struggles of some of the world's colonized peoples," writes Maori educator Linda Tuhiwai Smith. "The final 's' in 'indigenous peoples' ... [is] a way of recognizing that there are real differences between different indigenous peoples."[22]

Obsolete and/or unacceptable terminology

"Redskin"/"Red Indian"

Some Europeans called Native Americans redskins; it was one of the color metaphors for race which colonists and settlers historically used in North America and Europe. It is similar to the expressions "pale face" or "pale skin", which some Native Americans used for Europeans. Such terms are often considered pejorative. Different individuals may hold differing opinions of the term's appropriateness. There is an American football team named the Washington Redskins, and the Redskins serve as the mascot of Red Mesa High School on the Navajo Reservation in Teec Nos Pos, Arizona.[23]

The term's use was not restricted to the United States or North America. The English-speaking world and Europeans, in loan-translations, used redskin and the similar term "red Indian" throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to refer to indigenous Americans. For example, the French translation peaux-rouges was used by Arthur Rimbaud in Le Bateau ivre and Jean Raspail in several of his travelogues.


Anthropologists once used savage as a blanket word to refer to indigenous peoples worldwide (e.g. Bronisław Malinowski titled his 1929 study The Sexual Life of Savages). At the beginning of the nineteenth century, representatives of the relatively new United States government often used the term in official records when referring to Indian nations (see, e.g., Justice Baldwin's concurring opinion in Cherokee Nation v. Georgia[24]) This was related to their association of non-Christian people as savages.


European Christians once broadly used the word "heathens" to refer to Native Americans, a pejorative term related to their perceived lack of religious beliefs (because they were not Christian).

Today, "Injun" is an intentional-mispronunciation of "Indian", generally used in a joking way to mock or impersonate Native Americans' supposed accented English (e.g. "Honest Injun", "Injun time").[25] The word and related terms have been defined as derogatory by indigenous people and are not widely used.

Some Native Americans consider the word "squaw" offensive, derogatory, or racist, although there is some controversy on the topic.[26] Similarly, the term "Indian princess" is considered demeaning to Native American women. The Indian princess stereotype is in some ways the opposite of the squaw stereotype. However, this should not be confused with the practice of tribes, powwow organizations, colleges, and other indigenous groups choosing young women with exceptional knowledge of their cultures to represent the groups as tribal "princesses."[27]

See also

Spiromoundsraccoon.gif Indigenous peoples of North America portal


  1. ^ Zimmer, Ben (2009-10-12). "The Biggest Misnomer of All Time?". VisualThesaurus. 
  2. ^ Microsoft Encarta Encyclopedia, 2003
  3. ^ Adams, Cecil (2001-10-25). "Does "Indian" derive from Columbus's description of Native Americans as "una gente in Dios"?". The Straight Dope. Retrieved 2011-07-03. 
  4. ^ Means, Russel. "I am an american Indian, not a native American!". PeakNet. 
  5. ^ a b Wilton, David (2004-12-02). Word myths: debunking linguistic urban legends. Oxford University Press, USA. p. 163. ISBN 978-0195172843. Retrieved 2011-07-03. 
  6. ^ Bear Heart. The Wind Is My Mother. p. 160. 
  7. ^ Dennis Gaffney (2006). ""American Indian" or "Native American": Which Is Correct?". PBS. Retrieved 2007-10-17. 
  8. ^ "Indian Eristic". Wisconsin Office of State Employment Relations. January 5, 2007. Retrieved 2007-10-17. 
  9. ^ "American Indian vs. Native American: A note on terminology". Retrieved 31 July 2011. 
  10. ^ a b "Oxford English Dictionary". Oxford University Press, 2011. 
  11. ^ [Oxford University Press, 2011 "Oxford English Dictionary"]. Oxford University Press, 2011. 
  12. ^ ed, Paul Lauter, general (1994). The Heath anthology of American literature (2. ed., 1. [Dr.] ed.). Lexington, Mass. [u.a.]: Heath. pp. 1482–1483. ISBN 0-669-32972-X. 
  13. ^ Weston La Barre, The Peyote Cult, (Yale University Press, 1938, 5th ed. 1989), p. 169
  14. ^ Wachal, Robert S. (Winter). "The Capitalization of Black and Native American". American Speech 75 (4): 364–365. 
  15. ^ Clyde Tucker, Brian Kojetin, and Roderick Harrison (May 1995) (PDF). A statistical analysis of the CPS supplement on race and ethnic origin. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Bureau of the Census. Retrieved 2007-10-18. 
  16. ^ The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition. Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004. (accessed: November 18, 2007).
  17. ^ Deer, Kenneth. "International Indian Treaty Council Press Release". Retrieved 1 August 2011. 
  18. ^ name=Miller_WordNet
  19. ^ url= in dispute|date=October 22, 1902|publisher=The New York Times|accessdate=2009-01-14 | format=PDF
  20. ^ a b Mandel, Michael. The Charter of Rights and the Legalization of Politics in Canada, Revised edition. (Toronto: Thompson Educational Publishing, Inc., 1994), pp. 354-356
  21. ^ a b (R.S., 1985, c. I-5 )Canadian Constitution Act, 1982, sections 25 and 35.
  22. ^ Smith 7
  23. ^
  24. ^ "Cherokee Nation v. Georgia". United States Supreme Court. 1831. 
  25. ^ Steve Schultze (October 23, 2006). "Kagen apologizes for remark Congressional candidate says use of 'Injun time' wasn't meant to offend". Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. Retrieved 2007-10-17. 
  26. ^ The Sociolinguistics of the 'S- Word': 'Squaw' in American Placenames, by William Bright
  27. ^ "The American Indian Exposition in Anadarko, Oklahoma." America's Story. (retrieved 1 Aug 2011)


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