American Indian versus Native American

A once-heated issue has sorted itself out

by Borgna Brunner

More on what style and usage guides say

More Naming Conventions

for Native North Americans of Canada
  • Aboriginal People
  • First Nations
  • Métis
  • Inuit
for Native North Americans of Alaska
  • Eskimo
  • Aleut

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?

Culture Wars

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.

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