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What Do I Call Native Americans?

By: Andy Kovaleski

Based on Yellow Bird’s 1999 Piece, What We Want to Be Called: Indigenous Peoples' Perspectives on Racial and Ethnic Identity Labels, and Blackhorse: Do You Prefer ‘Native American’ or ‘American Indian’? 6 Prominent Voices Respond.  Though I believe I have written a valid summation of these two pieces, I highly recommend reading them yourself.

There are various names for the groups we used to call “Indians”. Even when attempting to be politically correct (or as I like to call it, kind), there seem to be many sources saying which name or phrase is right or wrong. Because of this, it can be incredibly difficult to know what term to use. So, I thought I would lay out what is correct and what isn’t, what you should say and what you shouldn’t, and why this is all so confusing for non-natives.

First of all, there is no right answer. Native peoples are not a monolith, and each person has their own preference in what to be called and what term to use around them when discussing the Indigenous peoples of North America as a whole. The short answer is, ask what someone prefers when you are talking to them.

“Although European American colonizers often continue to regard Indigenous Peoples as a single racial group, Indigenous Peoples in the United States represent more than 550 distinct tribes, including 223 Alaska Native villages. Such diversity makes a universally agreed upon, general racial label for these populations difficult, if not impossible, to achieve.' For example, a survey conducted in 1995 by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, called "Preference for Racial or Ethnic Terminology: by Group," found that Indigenous Peoples preferred a variety of different racial identity labels. For instance, 49.8 percent preferred "American Indian," 37.5 percent preferred "Native American," 5.7 percent had no preference, 3.7 percent preferred some other term, and 3.5 percent preferred ‘Alaska Native.’"(Yellowbird, 1999)

Tribal Identity:

When you meet a Native person, ask what tribe they are from and from that point forward refer to them with their tribal identity, not broadly as “Native” or “Indigenous” or “Indian”. For example, when I refer to a professor at the University of Minnesota where I got my degree, I would say “I had Sisoka Duta as my professor, he's Dakota.” Not, “I had Sisoka Duta as my professor, he’s native.” If you also know the reservation, clan, or larger family that someone is from it can be useful to mention that as well. 

The real issue comes when you are discussing someone whose tribal identity you don’t know or Native people as a whole.

Native American:

The term Native American is the preferred term by most white people. However, it is not the preferred term among native people because it is a term forced onto them by colonizers and refers to America, which was created long after any native tribe. Using Native American tends to communicate to Native people that you have not met many Native people and are not engaged with any community, rather you are a well-meaning but uninformed individual. If you are genuinely uninformed and do not know what is best in the context you are discussing, Native American is a safe bet.

Radmilla Cody, a Diné/Navajo and African-American woman who is widely known for her music and “Strong Spirit: Life is Beautiful not Abusive” campaign, has said “I used to refer to myself as ‘Native American,’ but over time I have learned more about colonization and the colonial terms that came with the assimilation process which continues today. We are original people of this so-called USA... We must reclaim our identity and stop allowing the settler-colonialists to define who we are.”

Along with this, a significant number of white Americans have tried to claim the label “Native American” because they were also born in America and therefore are native to the geography. This has been happening since at least the 1990s (see Yellowbird, 1999) and continues to be a small but persistent irritation.

Indigenous and Native:

The terms Indigenous and Native are widely accepted by Native people, but they have their drawbacks. Firstly, they do not give any indication of the geographical location of the people you are talking about. When I say “Indigenous people” without taking the time to specify that I am discussing North American Indigenous people, I could be referring to the Indigenous peoples of any or every continent. Similarly, when I say “Native Peoples” I am not specifying if I am discussing Native peoples of North America, Africa, or Guatemala. 

Despite these drawbacks, in my experience most Native people prefer to be referred to as Native or Indigenous when using their tribal identity is not possible for any reason. Whether the situation is interpersonal or broad, these are the terms to revert to. It takes more time and context, but it is also more respectful.

It is also important to note that saying “Native people” is referring to all people as individuals and “Native peoples” refers to the tribal nations as groups, the same when using “Indigenous”. Simply saying “Natives” is incredibly rude, the same way that “Black people” is completely acceptable but “Blacks” is not.


The term Indian is probably the most controversial of the terms. For many people, it is what they grew up with and is integral to their identity as a Native person, as an Indian. Many others feel that white people referring to them as an “Indian” is unacceptable, though it is generally accepted that if you yourself are Native, calling yourself and others “Indians” is absolutely acceptable. 

There is also an issue of conflicting definitions because both Native people and people from India are referred to as Indians. One way to mitigate this is to refer to Native people as “American Indians” and people who have emigrated from India “Indian Americans.” This is also confusing, but less so. It does also bring back the problem many Native people feel with “Native American” in that it refers to America as a piece of Native identity.

“Kyle Blackhorse is Diné, Tlingit, and Yurok. Blackhorse, 18, is of the Eagle Tribe and Brown Bear Clan of the Tlingit and Yurok Nations and born for the Black Streak Wood People and Edgewater of the Navajo. Blackhorse [is] the youngest Native American elected Precinct Committeeperson and State Committeeperson of the Arizona Democratic Party…

He said he refers to himself by his own tribes: Diné, Tlingit, and Yurok, and then by his clans of his tribes. He does not use the term ‘Indian’ because as he said “India is on the other side of the world.”(Blackhorse, 2018)”


I am fully aware that anyone willing to read this article is informed enough to know not to use slurs, but I have found that most white people don’t even know what terms are considered to be slurs for native people. I have laid some out with short explanations below, but many slurs are geographical, so I would encourage you to educate yourself based on where you are. The long and short of it is this: Do not use these words under any circumstances. I promise there is another better word you can substitute.

Redsk*n - A racist term originally used to refer to Native people in North America when bounties were placed on their scalps. Despite this well-documented history, the word is still used consistently and was only recently removed from the Washington football team. (Many white sources dispute the claim that it was originally used for those bounties. Whether it is the origin or not, the word was used in that way.)

Savage - Used to characterize Native people as inherently violent to justify genocide by multiple means.

Sq*aw - A gendered and racist term used to refer to Native women, used to characterize them as inherently sexual and lesser than white women. Also, used to justify the continual rape and murder of Native women.

Prairie/Timber N****r - Combines the slur n****r, usually for Black people, with the natural surroundings of a Native person or tribe. Used to imply equal dehumanization to Black people and Native people as well as tying Native peoples to ever-shrinking natural spaces.


What We Want to Be Called: Indigenous Peoples' Perspectives on Racial and Ethnic

Identity Labels By: Michael Yellow Bird

Source: American Indian Quarterly, Spring, 1999, Vol. 23, No. 2 (Spring, 1999), pp. 1-21

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