Most people living in the United States are familiar with the terms “Native American,” “American Indian,” and, increasingly, “Indigenous American” or “Indigenous peoples.”
But if you’re still uncertain about which term to use, you’re not alone.
Perhaps you learned to say “Native American” in elementary school and stuck with it until college, when a class on American Indian literature led you to rethink the terminology. Maybe you have a friend who uses “American Indian” and a co-worker who describes themselves as “Native American.”
This inconsistency might leave you confused, wondering how to best avoid giving offense. Should you use “American Indian”? Is “Native American” still the best term? Or does “Indigenous” offer the most respect?
The truth is, there’s no right answer that applies to every situation. Read on to learn why and get more insight on how to proceed with consideration and respect.
Before getting into whether one term is better than the other, let’s recap some history to help explain where these terms came from.
You most likely heard a sanitized version of the Columbus story in elementary school. You know, that intrepid explorer who claimed to have “discovered” America? He was so certain the “new” world he’d landed on was India that he called its people “Indios,” which later became “Indians.”
Later, you probably learned of not just the flaws in Columbus’ reasoning — obviously, you can’t discover a place where people already live — but also the many atrocities he committed in his travels.
While the U.S. government continues to use the term “American Indian” officially, many find “Indian” a painful reminder of the racism, violence, theft, and decimation of their people. There’s a reason why many states and regions now officially recognize and celebrate Indigenous Peoples Day instead of Columbus Day.
“Native American” became the preferred “politically correct” terminology in the 1970s.
This term emphasizes that hundreds of individual tribes inhabited the land now known as the United States of America before anyone else. In other words, they’re native to this land.
Still, many Indigenous people object to this term because it’s a name assigned by white oppressors. It also categorizes them as Americans, a name they didn’t choose.
Some choose instead to reclaim “Indian” or “American Indian” to describe their ancestry.
Generally speaking, both “American Indian” and “Native American” are OK to use. Both refer to the Indigenous peoples of America.
That said, the best term to use in a given situation usually comes down to preference — not your personal preference, but the preference of the person you’re speaking with.
They might dislike “Native American” and prefer “American Indian,” or vice versa, but you have no way of knowing unless you ask (or better yet, listen first).
People often get so caught up in dissecting the nuances of political correctness that they overlook what really matters: how someone chooses to describe themselves.
You might assume you’re showing respect by using terminology you’ve been taught. But when you fail to ask someone what they prefer to be called or ignore their preference by insisting you’re using the correct term, you show them even more disrespect by invalidating their identity.
You might also see the terms “Native Alaskan” or “Alaskan Native” used, but these terms subtly imply possession, or that the Indigenous people of Alaska “belong” to Alaska.
As a broader term, “Native American” also includes Alaska Natives, since Alaska is, of course, a state. Still, it’s always best to use the most accurate and specific term possible.
Keep in mind that while all Indigenous tribes have unique cultures, histories, and ways of living, Alaska lies quite far from most of the United States.
Land boundaries were established by white settlers, not by Indigenous people themselves, and many Alaska Natives may not consider themselves Americans or Native Americans.
While saying “Alaska Native” might feel more specific and accurate than “Native American” or “American Indian,” keep in mind that it’s still a fairly broad term.
As the Alaska Federation of Natives explains, Alaska Native tribes share a number of core values that help them survive in Alaska’s harsh climate, but they still have their own diverse languages, traditions, and culture.
“Indigenous” means the original inhabitants of a given land or region.
“Indigenous peoples of America” has the same general meaning as “Native Americans,” and many people prefer this term’s inclusivity.
The term “Indigenous” makes it clear that they occupied the land first, without assigning the American nationality.
More and more people chose to refer to themselves as Indigenous people, and this is also acceptable.
But again, it’s another broad term. When used generally, it can refer to any original inhabitants of a country, not just the United States.
A few things to remember when using this term:
- Avoid using it as a noun: for example, “the Indigenous.”
- Avoid possessive phrasing: for example, “America’s Indigenous peoples.”
- Specify where someone is from: for example, “Indigenous peoples of Central America” or “Indigenous peoples of Canada.”
Whenever possible, aim to use a specific tribe name rather than a generalized umbrella term.
No matter how polite or respectful terms like “Native American” or “Alaska Native” aim to be, these are still English names assigned by white people. These terms also lump hundreds of unique and culturally diverse tribes into one mass group.
And again, while “Native American” does acknowledge the fact that members of these tribes lived on this land before anyone else, it still uses the English name for the continent.
This only serves to emphasize that the land was, in fact, stolen from Indigenous people, who were then forced onto reservations and denied their languages and cultural identities.
Using specific tribe names doesn’t change this fact, but it does help reaffirm both cultural and personal identity.
Some tribe names you’re familiar with may not actually originate with that tribe. You might know the names Navajo or Sioux, for example, but members of these tribes may call themselves Diné or Lakota — their name in their own language.
It’s best to be as specific as possible when referring to Indigenous people, but how do you go about finding out their background and preference?
Many people are willing to talk about their identity and nationality, but it’s important to make sure your questions don’t “other” them or give offense in other ways.
For example, it’s never a good idea to ask things like:
- “Where are you from?”
- “What are you?”
- “What kind of Indian are you?”
Sometimes, the best way to ask is not to ask at all. In other words, listen first to how someone introduces themselves and hold off on asking until the subject comes up naturally.
Say, for example, your co-worker mentions being Native American. You might then ask, “What nation do you belong to?” or “What’s your tribal affiliation?”
If someone corrects you
No one’s perfect: You might make a mistake at some point and unintentionally use a term that someone doesn’t like.
If an Indigenous person corrects you or asks you to use a different term when talking about them, consider it a learning opportunity. You might say:
- “Thanks, I’ll be sure to use that term going forward.”
- “I had no idea, thank you for telling me.”
Respect their preferences and don’t get defensive.
“Native American,” “American Indian,” and “Indigenous people” are all acceptable terms.
Some terms, on the other hand, simply aren’t polite, accurate or acceptable in any context. These include:
- “Indian.” On its own, “Indian” refers to people from India, so you wouldn’t use it to describe an Indigenous person.
- “Natives.” Someone might say, “I’m Native,” dropping the “American,” but white oppressors have traditionally used the plural “natives” in negative and dismissive ways. Don’t call people “natives,” even if they refer to themselves with that term.
- “Eskimo.” Many Alaska Natives, Inuit, Yupik, and other Indigenous peoples from the Arctic region consider this colonial term racist and derogatory.
- “Spirit animal.” Don’t refer to anything as your “spirit animal,” no matter what level of affinity you feel for it. This term isn’t just appropriative. It also turns Indigenous cultural traditions into jokes and meme fodder.
- “Tribe.” Call your friends your friends, your besties, your crowd, your mates — but not your tribe. “Tribe” carries connotations of “primitive” or “savage.” It’s a microaggression toward Indigenous Americans as well as Indigenous peoples of other countries who also suffered white colonization.
- “Savage.” OK, maybe you absolutely wouldn’t use “savage” to refer to someone in a negative way. But before you praise someone for their “savage” takedown of that social media mutual, remember that settlers used this term to oppress Indigenous Americans and strip them of their humanity to better justify the theft of their land and the dismissal of their traditions.
- A few others to skip. Other no-gos include “powwow,” “chief,” and “Indian giver.” Also, traditional clothing worn during dances is called regalia, not a “costume.”
Some Indigenous people may favor the term “Native American,” while others prefer “American Indian.” Many people may not mind which term you use, as long as you speak with respect.
If someone does tell you their specific nation, state a preference, or explain they find a certain term offensive, simply apologize and use the correct terminology going forward.
Honor their right to label their own identity instead of insisting on the term you consider correct.
Want to learn more? It’s always best to do your own research rather than expect Indigenous friends or acquaintances to educate you.
- 100 Ways to Support — Not Appropriate From — Native People
- 21 Things You Can Do To Be More Respectful of Native American Cultures
- Native American vs. Indian
- Native American and Indigenous Peoples FAQs
- Native America Today
Crystal Raypole has previously worked as a writer and editor for GoodTherapy. Her fields of interest include Asian languages and literature, Japanese translation, cooking, natural sciences, sex positivity, and mental health. In particular, she’s committed to helping decrease stigma around mental health issues.