Using social media, or even browsing the internet, exposes you to any number of new terms and phrases. Even when you recognize what these terms mean, it’s not always easy to know when — or if — you should use them.
“NDN” is one such term you may have come across. This endonym, or self-designated identifier, is a shortened form of the word “Indian,” as in “American Indian.”
This section features a quote about Indigenous Americans that some may find upsetting. We’ve included it to provide historical context but invite readers to skip ahead to the next section as needed.
There’s no clear consensus on who first used the term “NDN,” or when. Some online sources note that it appeared in various places across the internet, including chat rooms and other forums, in the early 2000s. Others note its prevalence on sites like Tumblr.
In the book “Indigenous Writes: A Guide to First Nations, Métis, and Inuit issues in Canada,” author Chelsea Vowel explains that NDN is a more recent self-identifier mostly used on social media or in other text communications.
The Newark Public Library offers an alternate explanation and definition for the term: NDN might also stand for “Non-Dead Native,” a response to the abhorrent quote attributed to Civil War general Philip Sheridan: “The only good Indian is a dead Indian.”
The term “NDN” is mainly used in the United States, where “Indian” was once widely used to describe all Indigenous peoples.
Like other shorthand terms, NDN appears most commonly on social media, though you might see it in other contexts, too. You’ll often see it written as “NDN,” in all caps, but it also appears in lowercase, as “ndn.”
By and large, NDN appears as a self-descriptor, used in place of “Indian.” So, you might see it used in phrases like “NDN rights” or “NDN country.”
The Environmental Protection Agency says that “Indian country” historically refers to the government-designated reservations. While some consider the term problematic because the United States in its entirety is, in fact, Indigenous land, many Indigenous Americans embrace the term.
Some people consider NDN a reclamation of Indian, a term historically used to refer to Indigenous Americans. The U.S. Department of Interior Indian Affairs says that while the U.S. government still uses “Indian” in official language, many prefer other identifiers, such as Indigenous or Native American.
In a 2017 article for Real Life magazine, Lou Cornum explains:
“NDN is a subtraction made substantive, marking how terms made to describe Indigenous peoples are always lacking — indeed how we are made to lack and always feel lacking. But in the word’s notes of subversion and irreverence, as well as its widespread use in forming digital collectives and connections, NDN also signals the ways in which NDNs build worlds even as ours are invaded and denigrated.”
You’ll also find the term in the name of the Indigenous-led nonprofit NDN Collective. The organization works to promote Indigenous power and voices and create a more equitable and sustainable world through activism and community development.
Now that you know what NDN means, you might wonder when to use it.
If you’re Indigenous, you may or may not choose to use NDN as shorthand on social media, the broader internet, and in other text-based communications.
- NDN folks
- NDN rights
Nothing says you have to use NDN, of course — it’s totally up to you.
If you’re not Indigenous, you’ll want to avoid using this term in reference to Indigenous people. Again, it’s a form of self-identification, so using this term when you aren’t Indigenous isn’t appropriate.
You may not think it matters all that much. After all, you might reason, it’s just shorthand for Indian, which many Indigenous people use themselves.
Yes, plenty of Indigenous people do identify as Indian. But that doesn’t make it the best, or most respectful term, for non-Indigenous people to use.
If you used NDN in the past before you realized you shouldn’t, there’s no need to worry — it happens! Life is a learning experience, and most people don’t get everything right the first time. What matters most is learning from the experience and carrying that knowledge forward.
You might know someone who calls themselves “Indian” and uses the shorthand “NDN” on social media, but that doesn’t mean everyone should use those terms.
Self-identifiers aren’t the same as respectful terms of address. Indigenous Americans, or members of any other community, might identify themselves one way when speaking to other insiders and another way when speaking to outsiders.
For example, an Indigenous person might refer to themselves as Native but ask you to describe them as Indigenous.
This in-group language offers one way to reclaim terms once used as slurs or in other offensive ways. When people not part of the community use similar language, it can have an entirely different impact by sending messages of disrespect (or even hate, depending on the context).
Avoid using Indian or Native as nouns on their own unless someone specifically asks you to refer to them by those terms. In that case, you’ll still want to use American Indian, Indigenous, or Native American to refer to anyone else, according to their preferred identifier.
Accidentally offend someone? Again, it happens. Simply apologize and ask what term they prefer. When in doubt, it’s always best to ask someone how they’d like to be addressed. When you don’t have an opportunity to ask, default to accepted terms, like Indigenous American or Native American.
NDN might offer a clever shorthand term and useful social media hashtag, but you’ll want to skip it if you aren’t Indigenous yourself.
Keeping up with the sheer amount of new terms regularly introduced on social media, and the internet in general, can prove something of a challenge. When you encounter a new term for the first time, doing some research on its origin, meaning, and context before using it yourself can help you avoid inadvertently giving offense.
Ready to learn more? These resources can get you started:
- NDN Collective
- 21 Things You Can Do to Be More Respectful of Native American Cultures
- Native American and Indigenous Peoples FAQs
- 100 Ways to Support — Not Appropriate from — Native People
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.