Earth & Conservation

Should You Say Native American Or American Indian?

While Native American replaced the use of American Indian in the 1960s, many still find the term problematic. So which is more correct?

Exonym is an useful word: It refers to the name given to a place or group of people by those outside of the place or group. An exonym is a name, in other words, that foreigners or visitors use.

The indigenous people of the United States have been subjected to many different exonyms over the centuries. The terms currently in popular rotation are "Native American," "American Indian" or similar variations. Is there any one correct term to use?

Laura Ling explores the question in today's Seeker Daily report.

The quick answer is that there is no quick answer. Different people have different preferences regarding terminology in this area. In fact, there are many indigenous people who reject any general term, contending that the cultural diversity of the North America's various tribes cannot be homogenized. As such, many will instead identify themselves by tribe name -- such as Navajo or Cherokee.

As to how the name "Indian" got introduced in the first place, most people know this story: Legend holds that Christopher Columbus arrived in the Caribbean thinking he has reached the Indian Ocean. He referred to the indigenous people as Indians, and subsequent settlers repeated the mistake.

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The term "Indian" has been troublesome ever since. Many see it as a reminder of the country's brutal colonial past, based on a pejorative understanding of the indigenous culture. By the late 1960s, advocacy groups began using a new name that appropriated the controversial term, calling themselves the American Indian Movement.

The term Native American also began to emerge during this period. It's since been widely used by those who prefer to eliminate the "Indian" pejorative entirely.

Dr. Andrew Jolivétte, professor and former chair of the American Indian Studies Department at San Francisco State University, says that no single term is appropriate in all instances when referring to the indigenous peoples of the Americas.

"On some days I might say Indian, other days I might say Native," Jolivétte says. "And that's okay, we have to be comfortable in this society with the fact that identities are malleable -- they move, they change as we evolve and get older."

Check out Laura's report for more history and additional perspective from Dr. Jolivétte.

-- Glenn McDonald

Learn More:

PBS: "American Indian" or "Native American"?

Washington Post: How the Redskins Got Their Name, and Why Just Maybe it Should be Changed?

Native Times: Native American vs. American Indian: Political Correctness Dishonors Traditional Chiefs of Old