American Indian versus Native American
A once-heated issue has sorted itself out
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:
Russell Means, the Lakota activist and founder of the American Indian Movement (AIM), has strongly rejected Native American in favor of Indian:
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."
As Christina Berry, a Cherokee writer and producer of the website All Things Cherokee, counsels:
The American Heritage® Book of English Usage. A Practical and Authoritative Guide to Contemporary English. 1996. "Names and Labels: Social, Racital, and Ethnic Terms."
"American Indian vs. Native American: Which is the proper term?"
"Watch Your Language: Words Have Power"
Tom Arviso Jr.
Society of Professional Journalists
"What's in a Name? Indians and Political Correctness"
by Christina Berry, All Things Cherokee
"A Statistical Analysis of the CPS Supplement on Race and Ethnic Origin," Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Census Bureau Survey, May 1995. (PDF)