Are the terms American Indian and Native American essentially synonyms, in the same way that the terms black and African American are often used interchangeably? Or is using the term American Indian instead of Native American the equivalent of using Negro instead of black—offensive and anachronistic? Is the insistence on using Native American to the exclusion of all other terms a sign of being doctrinaire?
While these were once raging questions in the culture wars, they have now happily sorted themselves out. Over the years, the people whom these words are meant to represent have made their preference clear: the majority of American Indians/Native Americans believe it is acceptable to use either term, or both. Many have also suggested leaving such general terms behind in favor of specific tribal designations. As the publisher and editor of The Navajo Times, the largest Native American–owned weekly newspaper, puts it, "I . . . would rather be known as, 'Tom Arviso Jr., a member of the Navajo tribe,' instead of 'Arviso, a Native American or American Indian.' This gives an authentic description of my heritage, rather than lumping me into a whole race of people."
A Medieval Misnomer
As we learned in grade school, Indian was the name Columbus mistakenly applied to the people he encountered when he arrived in what he believed was the "Indies," the medieval name for Asia. Introduced in the 1960s, the term Native American offered a way of eradicating confusion between the indigenous people of the Americas and the indigenous people of India. The term American Indian also served that purpose, but raised other problems: the use of Indian in any form had begun to be seen by some as pejorative.
Doing Away with Cowboy-and-Indian Stereotypes
Particularly in academic circles, the term Native American became the preferred term of respect, and a remedy for avoiding dehumanizing stereotypes, whether of the bloodthirsty savage or the Tonto-like Noble Savage. For a time, using Native American signaled a progressive and enlightened consciousness, in much the same way that using Asian instead of Oriental does. Use of Indian struck some as out of touch, or worse—a mark of ignorance or bigotry.
A "Generic Government Term"
But objections to the term Native American also arose. The term struck many as dry and bureaucratic, in much the same way that some dislike the Census Bureau's use of Hispanic as an umbrella term to cover the whole of the U.S.'s diverse Spanish-speaking population. As the Bureau of Indian Affairs elaborates:
The term, 'Native American,' came into usage in the 1960s to denote the groups served by the Bureau of Indian Affairs: American Indians and Alaska Native (Indians, Eskimos and Aleuts of Alaska). Later the term also included Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders in some Federal programs. It, therefore, came into disfavor among some Indian groups. The preferred term is American Indian.
Answers to Frequently Asked Questions, from the Bureau of Indian Affairs
I abhor the term Native American. It is a generic government term used to describe all the indigenous prisoners of the United States. These are the American Samoans, the Micronesians, the Aleuts, the original Hawaiians, and the erroneously termed Eskimos, who are actually Upiks and Inupiats. And, of course, the American Indian.
I prefer the term American Indian because I know its origins . . . As an added distinction the American Indian is the only ethnic group in the United States with the American before our ethnicity . . . We were enslaved as American Indians, we were colonized as American Indians, and we will gain our freedom as American Indians, and then we will call ourselves any damn thing we choose.
As The American Heritage Book of English Usage points out, "the acceptance of Native American has not brought about the demise of Indian. Unlike Negro, which was quickly stigmatized once black became preferred, Indian never fell out of favor with a large segment of the American population."
Now almost every style and usage guide describes these terms as synonyms that can be used interchangeably. In recent decades, other terms have also come into use, including Amerindian,indigenous people, and Native, expanding the vocabulary for referring to indigenous people of the United States rather than circumscribing it. Many people will no doubt favor one appellation over another—and will have strong reasons for doing so—but such choices are (or should be) no longer accompanied by a sense of righteousness that one term is superior to the other. This simply isn't true.
"We Will Call Ourselves Any Damn Thing We Choose"
No doubt the most significant reason that an inclusive attitude toward these terms of identity has developed is their common usage among Native peoples. A 1995 Census Bureau Survey of preferences for racial and ethnic terminology (there is no more recent survey) indicated that 49% of Native people preferred being called American Indian, 37% preferred Native American, 3.6% preferred "some other term," and 5% had no preference. As The American Heritage Guide to English Usage points out, "the issue has never been particularly divisive between Indians and non-Indians. While generally welcoming the respectful tone of Native American, Indian writers have continued to use the older name at least as often as the newer one."
The criticism that Indian is hopelessly tainted by the ignorant or romantic stereotypes of popular American culture can be answered, at least in part, by pointing to the continuing use of this term among American Indians themselves. Indeed, Indian authors and those sympathetic to Indian causes often prefer it for its unpretentious familiarity as well as its emotional impact, as in this passage from the Kiowa writer N. Scott Momaday's memoir The Names (1976): 'It was about this time that [my mother] began to see herself as an Indian. That dim native heritage became a fascination and a cause for her.'
As Christina Berry, a Cherokee writer and producer of the website All Things Cherokee, counsels:
In the end, the term you choose to use (as an Indian or non-Indian) is your own personal choice. Very few Indians that I know care either way. The recommended method is to refer to a person by their tribe, if that information is known. The reason is that the Native peoples of North America are incredibly diverse. It would be like referring both a Romanian and an Irishman as European. . . . [W]henever possible an Indian would prefer to be called a Cherokee or a Lakota or whichever tribe they belong to. This shows respect because not only are you sensitive to the fact that the terms Indian, American Indian, and Native American are an over simplification of a diverse ethnicity, but you also show that you listened when they told what tribe they belonged to.
When you don't know the specific tribe simply use the term which you are most comfortable using. The worst that can happen is that someone might correct you and open the door for a thoughtful debate on the subject of political correctness and its impact on ethnic identity. What matters in the long run is not which term is used but the intention with which it is used.