What do native American’s prefer to be called?

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The issue of what to call Native Americans is one that has been debated for decades. With the increasing awareness of cultural sensitivity and political correctness, it is important to understand the preferences of the indigenous people of the Americas. In this article, we will explore the different names that have been used to describe Native Americans and the reasons why some are preferred over others. We will also examine the impact that these names have on Native American identity and cultural preservation.

What do native American's prefer to be called?

Indigenous Peoples: A Complex Identity

The term Indigenous Peoples refers to a diverse group of people who share a common history of colonialism, discrimination, and displacement. This group includes Native Americans, Alaska Natives, and Indigenous Peoples of Central and South America. Indigenous Peoples have a complex and varied identity, which is shaped by their unique cultural practices, languages, and traditions. However, despite these differences, they all share a common struggle for recognition and respect.

Native American vs. American Indian

The terms Native American and American Indian are often used interchangeably to describe Indigenous Peoples of the United States. However, the preference for one term over the other varies depending on the individual or community. Some prefer Native American because it acknowledges their connection to the land, while others prefer American Indian because it recognizes their status as the original inhabitants of the continent.

The term American Indian has a controversial history, as it was coined by European colonizers who mistakenly believed that they had reached the East Indies. Despite this, some Native Americans have reclaimed the term as a way to assert their sovereignty and resist erasure. Others, however, see it as a reminder of the violence and oppression that Indigenous Peoples have experienced.

Native vs. Indigenous

Another term that is often used to describe Native Americans is Indigenous. While this term has gained popularity in recent years, some Native Americans find it problematic. One issue is that it is a broad term that includes Indigenous Peoples from all over the world, which can lead to erasure of the unique cultural practices and traditions of Native Americans. Additionally, the term Indigenous has been used historically by colonial powers to justify their control over colonized territories.

However, some Native Americans prefer the term Indigenous because it acknowledges their connection to the land and the fact that they are the original inhabitants of the Americas. This term also has a more global perspective, which can be empowering for Native Americans who see themselves as part of a larger movement for Indigenous rights and sovereignty.

Tribal Affiliation

Many Native Americans prefer to be identified by their tribal affiliation, rather than a broad umbrella term like Native American or American Indian. This is because each tribe has its own unique history, culture, and traditions that should be respected and acknowledged. Additionally, using a tribal name can help to combat the erasure of Native American identity and promote cultural preservation.

However, it is important to note that not all Native Americans are affiliated with a tribe. This is often the case for those who have been displaced from their ancestral lands or who have lost their tribal affiliation due to colonialism and assimilationist policies. For these individuals, using a broad term like Native American may be more appropriate.

The Impact of Language on Native American Identity

The language that is used to describe Native Americans has a profound impact on their identity and sense of self. Historically, Native Americans have been subjected to erasure and assimilationist policies that sought to eliminate their cultural practices and languages. This has resulted in a loss of cultural knowledge and a disconnection from their ancestral lands.

Using respectful and accurate language is one way to combat this erasure and promote cultural preservation. It also shows respect for the sovereignty and agency of Native Americans, allowing them to define their own identity and determine the terms that are used to describe them.

The Importance of Respectful Discourse

Language has the power to shape perceptions, reinforce stereotypes, and perpetuate harmful narratives. It is crucial, therefore, to approach discussions about Native Americans with sensitivity and respect. By actively seeking out the preferred terms and perspectives of Native Americans, we can avoid perpetuating harmful stereotypes and contribute to a more inclusive dialogue.

Respecting Tribal Affiliations: Embracing Diversity

Native American tribes are diverse and distinct, with their own languages, customs, and histories. Recognizing and respecting this diversity is crucial in honoring their cultural heritage. Using specific tribal names, such as Navajo, Cherokee, or Lakota, acknowledges the unique contributions and struggles of each community.

Moreover, understanding the significance of tribal affiliations can help address issues of erasure and cultural preservation. By acknowledging the individual tribes, we can encourage the preservation of cultural practices and languages that might otherwise be lost to time.

Navigating Historical Context: Understanding the Legacy

To understand the complexities of the terminology used to describe Native Americans, it is essential to consider the historical context. The colonization of the Americas by European powers resulted in the marginalization and oppression of Indigenous Peoples. Terms like “American Indian” and “Indigenous” were imposed upon them by colonizers, perpetuating a legacy of cultural erasure and subjugation.

For some Native Americans, reclaiming terms such as “American Indian” serves as a way to assert their resilience and reclaim agency over their identity. However, others find these terms deeply problematic due to their historical associations with colonialism and cultural assimilation.

Informed Consent and Self-Identification

Ultimately, the most respectful approach is to defer to individuals’ self-identification and the terms they prefer. Native Americans have diverse opinions and perspectives on how they wish to be addressed, reflecting the complexity of their identities and experiences. By allowing individuals to choose how they want to be referred to, we empower them to assert their agency and self-determination.

It is important to recognize that there is no universal consensus among Native Americans regarding preferred terminology. Some individuals may identify strongly with their tribal affiliation, while others may embrace broader terms like Native American or Indigenous. Respecting individual choices and preferences fosters a climate of inclusivity and cultural sensitivity.

Moving Towards an Inclusive Future

As society evolves, so too should our understanding of the language we use to describe Native Americans. It is essential to remain open to learning, to engage in respectful dialogue, and to listen to the voices of Native Americans themselves. By centering their perspectives and honoring their choices, we can contribute to a more inclusive future that celebrates the diversity, resilience, and cultural heritage of Native American communities.


In conclusion, the question of what Native Americans prefer to be called is nuanced and multifaceted. By embracing diverse tribal identities, understanding historical context, and respecting individual preferences, we can foster a more inclusive and respectful discourse. The journey towards cultural understanding and sensitivity is an ongoing process, and it is incumbent upon all of us to actively engage in it.

What do native American’s prefer to be called?
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