• 4-minute read
  • 19th December 2020

Writing Tips: Native American or American Indian?

Attitudes toward words can change over time. For example, when referring to the indigenous peoples of North America, the term ‘American Indian’ was once common. But ‘Indian’ is now widely seen as culturally insensitive, with ‘Native American’ becoming the standard term.

Which terms should you use in your writing, though? In this post, we take a quick look at the history of these terms and offer some helpful tips.

Where Does ‘American Indian’ Come From?

When Christopher Columbus set sail in 1492, he was aiming to find the East Indies. And he believed he had found them when he hit land.

This is why he referred to the local population as ‘Indians’.

Columbus was actually in the Caribbean (a fairly big navigational error). Despite this, the word ‘Indian’ stuck for a long time, with white Europeans adopting it as a term for the native peoples of North America.

However, many Native Americans came to reject the term. This was in part because it casually lumped together ethnic groups from the Americas and India, but also because it was a label applied by the people who colonised the Americas and treated its indigenous peoples so brutally.

This led to a movement to find a more sensitive term to use instead.

Alternative Terms: Native American and Indigenous American

Two main terms have emerged as alternatives to ‘American Indian’:

  • Native American – The most common term in modern English for the indigenous peoples of North America, especially in the USA.
  • Indigenous American – A rarer term, but one that can also encompass indigenous groups in Canada as well as Central and South America.

We suggest using one of these if you need to refer to indigenous North Americans in general, with ‘Native American’ the standard term.

However, many indigenous people reject terms like ‘Native American’, as they feel they don’t reflect the cultural diversity of North America’s numerous tribes.

As such, if you are referring to a specific group or individual, it is often best to use a tribe name (e.g. Cree, Lakota, or Hopi).

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In addition, individuality is important. Thus, when referring to an individual person or community, you may want to use their favoured terminology.

Some people still see themselves as ‘American Indians’, for example, and they may prefer others to use it when writing about them.

How to Capitalise Ethnic Group Names

Whichever term you use, it is important to capitalise it correctly.

The general convention is to capitalise ethnic or cultural group names, including any modifiers that are part of the term. For example, you would write ‘Native American’ rather than ‘native American’.

Different style guides may have different rules on this, though. As such, if you’re using a specific style guide or style sheet, you may want to check what it says about capitalising ethnic and cultural groups.

Summary: Native American or American Indian?

While the term ‘American Indian’ was once common, many now consider it offensive. The same applies to words like ‘redskin’ and ‘squaw’, which have often been used as slurs. As a result, it is best to avoid these terms.

Instead, if you are discussing the native peoples of North America:

  • Native American – The standard term for indigenous groups in the USA.
  • Indigenous American – A broader alternative to ‘Native American’.

However, if you are talking about an individual or specific group, you can also use the name of their tribe. Or you can just follow the example of the person you’re writing about and use the same terminology as them.

Don’t forget, though, our editors are available to help you with your writing, including offering advice on terminology. Sign up for a free trial today.

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