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Native American or American Indian?

A 1995 Bureau of Labor Statistics survey reported the following preferences among surveytakers who identified themselves as one or the other (or as related term):

American Indian49.76%
Alaska Native3.51%
Native American37.35%
Some Other Term3.66%
No Preference5.72%

So, again, even if you believe that members of various identity groups should generally be called by whatever term the group prefers -- a position that I've criticized -- there seemed to have been no overwhelmingly preferred term as of 1995, and I doubt that there is one now. (If you know of more recent surveys, please let me know.) And the older term, American Indian, is actually more popular than the term that I've often heard labeled as the modern preference, Native American.

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. Native American or American Indian?
  2. Black or African-American?
  3. Black or African-American?
Houston Lawyer:
All of us who were born here are Native Americans. I believe that would even apply to John McCain. American Indian is not confusing in the least.
3.4.2008 12:52pm
M.E.Butler (mail):
Just back from Canada, where they seem to be "First Nations."

That's fine, except how do you use the term? You can't really make an adjective of it, so you're always having to say "a member of the Cree First Nation" or something equally long-winded.
3.4.2008 12:55pm
Syd Henderson (mail):
Going by anecdoctal evidence, that's still about right. "American Indian" may be even more popular now than it was then. "Native American" seems a bit more formal, and the academic department here at the University of Oklahoma is called "Native American Studies." To tell the truth, none of the Native Americans/American Indians I've met have objected to either term.

Also note "Alaska Natives" may be Native Americans but not American Indians, because they may be Aleuts or some other Eskimo group. (By the way, Inuit only covers part of the Eskimo groups, so is not a substitute if you want to refer all Eskimos in general.)
3.4.2008 1:01pm
CJColucci:
Please. Stop. Now.
3.4.2008 1:20pm
HLSbertarian (mail):
Prof. Volokh: Just from memory, I believe this was an issue in the Washington Redskins trademark litigation and some surveys came into evidence. Hope to be back with a link.
3.4.2008 1:21pm
Eugene Volokh (www):
Stop. What. And. Why?
3.4.2008 1:23pm
glangston (mail):
How did we get them to go along with "American" in the description?

Aboriginal sounds about right.
3.4.2008 1:32pm
PersonFromPorlock:
There's a useful older term in anthropology that's short, neutral and descriptive: "Amerind."
3.4.2008 1:32pm
dearieme:
Once it becomes illegal to call Australian Aborigines aborigines, the term will be released for the Injuns.
3.4.2008 1:49pm
Wes:
This labelling issue is really the intersection of two socially imposed obligations.

First, if the hearer of the word has made a preference known, there is a social obligation of the speaker to try to use the preferred term. Second, if the speaker uses the non-preferred term, there is a social obligation of the hearer to presume the word was used based on habit and to let it go (unless some other inference can be drawn based on the speaker's actions).

The problem is that a very vocal minority of individuals, in just about every group that can be labelled, is ignoring the second obligation.
3.4.2008 1:50pm
Eugene Volokh (www):
Wes: I don't agree that there is indeed the obligation "to try to use the preferred term" if the "hearer ... has made a preference known." If someone tells me that he wants his group to be called "X," I have no social obligation to switch to X in his presence, and then keep track of what each person I've talked to prefers (plus decide what to do if I have multiple hearers with multiple preferences).

Thus, for instance, if a Mormon tells me that he prefers that I call Mormons "Latter-Day Saints," I don't think I have any social obligation to do so in his presence (though I might choose to do so for reasons unrelated to social obligation, for instance if I'm a salesman and want to keep my customer happy, or if the person is a close friend and I want to accommodate him out of friendship).
3.4.2008 2:02pm
Clayton E. Cramer (mail) (www):
If 30% of whites resented the term, and insisted on being called Caucasians, or European-Americans, would universities and news organization fall all over themselves to switch to the new term?
3.4.2008 2:03pm
ejo:
native american also gets the facts wrong, given that they came from elsewhere and, likely, did a number on whomever was here before them.
3.4.2008 2:07pm
Bruce Hayden (mail) (www):
Also note "Alaska Natives" may be Native Americans but not American Indians, because they may be Aleuts or some other Eskimo group. (By the way, Inuit only covers part of the Eskimo groups, so is not a substitute if you want to refer all Eskimos in general.)
Racially, is there that much difference? My understanding is that some of the American Indian tribes are closer genetically to Aleuts than to most other tribes. Something about a second immigration significantly later than the one where the ancestors of most of the tribes came here.
3.4.2008 2:11pm
CJColucci:
If 30% of whites resented the term, and insisted on being called Caucasians, or European-Americans, would universities and news organization fall all over themselves to switch to the new term?

I don't know. And neither do you. That a particular answer fits one's preconceptions doesn't count as knowledge.
3.4.2008 2:19pm
A. Zarkov (mail):
" … native american also gets the facts wrong, given that they came from elsewhere and, likely, did a number on whomever was here before them."

That's right. The current theory based on DNA analysis coupled with historical and anthropological data says that a small group left southern Africa about 50,000 years ago. The descendents of this group then migrated to all the continents. At that time the sea level was much lower and North America was connected to Asia. Thus under this theory all so-called "native" Americans are the descendents of migrants just like everyone else.
3.4.2008 2:21pm
Eugene Volokh (www):
ejo: If you're being literal, both American Indian and Native American "get the facts wrong."
3.4.2008 2:21pm
calmom:
How about this? If you hold an American passport (or could if you had one) you are American. No hyphens. No adjectives. No qualifiers.
3.4.2008 2:35pm
Wes:
Professor Volokh: The first social obligation I referred to was one where, in the context of two alternate acceptable terms, if you know a hearer has a preference and you have the time/presence of mind to make a decision as to which term to use, social norms would dictate that you use the preferred term.

Of course, there are many factors that would alleviate such an implied obligation. Costs, such as remembering who prefers which term, mixed audience preference, and the general acceptance of the preferred term are all such factors. Whether or not you, the speaker, even remember that there is a preference would certainly alleviate the obligation. These are all reasons that the hearer should not infer any negative basis for use of the non-preferred term.

My theory is that when these (or other) costs are not present, and you do have actual knowledge of a person's preference and time/presence of mind to choose between the preferred and non-preferred word, the speaker should choose the preferred word.
3.4.2008 2:43pm
New World Dan (www):
If 30% of whites resented the term, and insisted on being called Caucasians, or European-Americans, would universities and news organization fall all over themselves to switch to the new term?

I prefer to be called a cracker. Just for when EV gets around to taking that survey. Actually, there was an excellent Bloom County strip on the subject 20 years ago, though I haven't been able to locate a link on it.
3.4.2008 3:00pm
Nathan_M (mail):

Just back from Canada, where they seem to be "First Nations."

That's fine, except how do you use the term? You can't really make an adjective of it, so you're always having to say "a member of the Cree First Nation" or something equally long-winded.


Saying, for example, "Bob is First Nations" is acceptable, especially when speaking, albeit clunky. I tend to use "aboriginal" instead of turning "First Nations" into an adjective when talking about a specific person.

It's interesting that "American Indian" is so popular in the US. I would never use it, and I can't remember the last time I've heard it used in Canada. I suspect it has the potential to cause offence if you use it north of the border.
3.4.2008 3:22pm
JRL:
I always choose Native American when offered because I am born and raised here, but never American Indian.
3.4.2008 3:35pm
Randy R. (mail):
"How about this? If you hold an American passport (or could if you had one) you are American. No hyphens. No adjectives. No qualifiers."

then Justice Scalia wouldn't be able to refer to himself as an Italian-American.

It's notable that the Museum of American Indians is named as such. The Washington Post asked them why not Native American, and the reply from the director was that most preferred American Indians. Apparently, he is correct.
3.4.2008 3:43pm
Syd Henderson (mail):
Racially, is there that much difference? My understanding is that some of the American Indian tribes are closer genetically to Aleuts than to most other tribes. Something about a second immigration significantly later than the one where the ancestors of most of the tribes came here.

The proto-Inuit arrived in the Western Hemisphere in the first millennium AD and in Greenland a couple of centuries the Vikings did. There were people in Greenland before that, but they weren't related closely to the Eskimos.

There's also a good possibility the American Indians arrived in two migrations millennia apart, the second of which would have been 4000-6000 BC. I'd be surprised if there weren't more migrations than that.
3.4.2008 3:51pm
Syd Henderson (mail):
a couple of centuries after the Vikings did.
3.4.2008 3:52pm
Donna B. (mail) (www):
My poor granddaughter... she'll be trying to fit Scots-Irish-Filipino-French-Cherokee on some form someday if we don't stop with all the "identity" crap.
3.4.2008 5:35pm
Bill Poser (mail) (www):

Just back from Canada, where they seem to be "First Nations."

That's fine, except how do you use the term? You can't really make an adjective of it, so you're always having to say "a member of the Cree First Nation" or something equally long-winded.


Actually, you can. You'll find courses offered on "First Nations Art" in the "First Nations Studies" program, and as a previous commenter mentioned, people do say "He is First Nations." The term is rarely used by Indians, except in formal contexts. My Indian friends virtually all say "Indian". Outside of formal contexts, the rare Indians who say "First Nations" are invariably ones who are both politicized and strongly assimilated to non-native culture.

"First Nation" is also used with a meaning something "band" (which in the US would be "tribe"). Thus, people will say things like "Each First Nation sets its own policy on X." The national organization of chiefs is the "Assembly of First Nations". Many bands now call themselves the "such-and-such First Nation", e.g. the "Alderville First Nation".
3.4.2008 5:56pm
JBL:
1. It seems the adjective of 'First Nation' would be 'First National'. The term would never work in the U.S. because First National Bank would suddenly alienate much of their clientele. And everyone would think the First National Gaming Center had a Federal charter.

2. Suppose I insist on being referred to as His Royal Highness JBL, Duke of #Z Nth Street. It's entirely possible I have a profound historical and religious reason for preferring this designation. It's also entirely possible I could find a reasonably large group of people who would insist on being similarly identified. Would others have any obligation to use our preferred designation, and if so, if those others are government employees does that violate Article I Section 9?

Incidentally, for uh pre-Columbian Americans the generic term I hear most often is Indian; when referring to specific individuals or establishments I usually hear Choctaw or Tlingit or Zuni or whatever the appropriate name may be. I get a sense that the tribal name is preferred if applicable in context.

And BIA is still BIA.
3.4.2008 6:40pm
Luke:
I was born here, and I'm a bit of a stickler for language.
I greatly enjoy checking the "Native American" box whenever possible.

No, I am not of American Indican descent, but I am very much a native American.
3.4.2008 7:53pm
Tracy W (mail):
Wes: The first social obligation I referred to was one where, in the context of two alternate acceptable terms, if you know a hearer has a preference and you have the time/presence of mind to make a decision as to which term to use, social norms would dictate that you use the preferred term.

Do social norms dictate this? Why? Why doesn't the preferences of the speaker count for something in this complex calculus? Is it possible to change the social norms, or are they written down somewhere in stone?

How about if I use a term to refer to myself that the hearer finds unacceptable?

And of course, it strikes me that the main debate is not about times when there are "two alternate acceptable terms" but when one or more members of a group claim that one term is not acceptable, and when that term is one you have been accustomed to regarding as acceptable and have been using with non-bigoted intentions for years.
3.4.2008 8:00pm
Richard Nieporent (mail):
A question to ponder is why would anyone who is not a Leftist want to acquiesce to the use of the term Native American that was invented by Leftists to challenge the legitimacy of the white man's ownership and control of the land of the United States. If only Indians are Native Americans then it follows that the white man is an interloper who does not have a legitimate claim to the land.
3.4.2008 9:46pm
Michael Edward McNeil (mail) (www):
Myself, if I'm writing about American Indians, I like to use both Indian and Native American in rough alternation, just to ease up on having only a single phrase to interject at opportune moments in the text.

Syd Henderson writes:
The proto-Inuit arrived in the Western Hemisphere in the first millennium AD and in Greenland a couple of centuries [after] the Vikings did. There were people in Greenland before that, but they weren't related closely to the Eskimos.

There's also a good possibility the American Indians arrived in two migrations millennia apart, the second of which would have been 4000-6000 BC. I'd be surprised if there weren't more migrations than that.


Actually, the previous inhabitants of Greenland and eastern and northern Canada, the so-called Dorset culture, which to all appearances disappeared before the arrival of the Vikings, were related to the Eskimos, being apparently an earlier cultural radiation from western Alaska (around 2000 BC) than the later Thule culture which again spread east around 1000 AD, giving rise to the modern Inuit language and people (in northern Alaska, Canada and Greenland).

The intermediate of three migrations of American natives referred to (the latest being the Eskimo) consisted, according to a linguistic classification system and theory of migration developed by Joseph Greenberg, in the ancestors of the Na-Dene language family, otherwise generally known as Athabascans (with several spelling variants), who broadly live across central, eastern, and southeast Alaska (including, e.g., the Tlingit) as well as northern and western Canada (excepting the Eskimo Inuit), but outliers of this extensive family can be found in the Navajo and Apaches of the southwestern U.S. (extending into northern Mexico), Kiowa Apache of Arkansas, the Athapaskans of (northwest) California (Hupa, et al.), and western Oregon and Washington.  Greenberg went on to find further connections linking the remainder of American Indian languages into a third group of original immigrants — but which finding is much more controversial among linguists than the linkages found amongst the first two groups.

What's extremely fascinating is that despite the controversy concerning the relationships Greenberg claimed to have found linking the non-Athabascan, non-Eskimo native languages in America, recent mitrochondrial DNA evidence appears to back up the theory.  A discussion of this can be found in Bryan Sykes' 1999 book The Human Inheritance : Genes, Language, and Evolution here (p. 30).
3.4.2008 11:52pm
Syd Henderson (mail):
Did the mitochondrial DNA also support the later date for the migration of the Athabaskans?
3.5.2008 1:48am
Minnesota Transplant:
In Minnesota, where there are many American Indians/Native Americans, the preference is either for American Indian or for the particular nation (Lakota, Dakota, Ojibwe, etc.)

As I remember, the reason for this is an appropriation of a more POLITICAL, not racial identity. Native American just sounds like other racial categories, i.e., Asian American. But Indians claim that they belong to sovereign nations living within the United States. And this is what the (unenforced) law says. That is, while my nationality is American, a Lakota person in Minnesota may understand himself or herself to be a member of the Lakota nation. The term "Native American" obscures this difference in nationality, focusing on race, making "Natives" only one group among many different racial groups in the US. The term "American Indian" highlights that Indians are different from other groups in how they are constituted politically, not necessarily the color of their skin.

Activist Indians chose the term "American Indian Movement" but I think had the label "Native American" imposed on them by well-intentioned white liberals who didn't get the distinct political point that Indians were trying to make. Indians didn't want integration and public school desegregation in the 60s; they wanted their land and treaty rights to be respected.

And, on a practical level, it doesn't probably make a lot of difference today. I just remember coming from Minnesota, where I had several self-described "Indian" friends, and then being told by p.c. college friends on the East Coast that the proper term was "Native American." My perspective is probably extremely regional, and I don't know if this is different in other areas of the country—I just know that it is typical for the Wisconsin/Minnesota/South Dakota region.
3.5.2008 2:13am
Bill Poser (mail) (www):

Greenberg went on to find further connections linking the remainder of American Indian languages into a third group of original immigrants — but which finding is much more controversial among linguists than the linkages found amongst the first two groups.


More bluntly but accurately, all but a tiny minority of historical linguists consider Greenberg's claims about the languages of the Americas to be complete and utter hogwash. His methodology is thoroughly discredited, and his handling of the data appalling. The existence of Eskimo-Aleut and Eyak-Athabascan-Tlingit (Na-Dene minus Haida) is uncontroversial, but neither group owes anything to Greenberg.
3.5.2008 3:00am
Aultimer:

EV: If someone tells me that he wants his group to be called "X," I have no social obligation to switch to X in his presence, and then keep track of what each person I've talked to prefers.

If "politeness" is a social obligation (and that's far from clear these days), you certainly do. An analogy would be two men named Richard - do you have a social obligation to call the one who prefers it "Ricky" and the other "Dick"? Or would you say that you're free to call each Richard despite their protest?

Or do you really advocate a social rule that any technically correct label is entirely acceptable - permitting the revival into "proper" usage of "Jewess", "octaroon", "bastard" and the like?
3.5.2008 9:50am
Eugene Volokh (www):
Aultimer: I take a different view as to people's names, which generally are chosen by the person himself. Among other things, I'd have to know Ricky's name in any case, and once I know it, I could use it in all circumstances in which I'm referring to him. If Ricky, who's a Mormon, insists that I refer to Mormons as Latter-Day Saints around him, then he's claiming a right to control what I call not just him but lots of others; he's asking me to use different names for the group under different circumstances (if others oppose this name); and he's also asking me to use a label that (unlike the name Ricky) carries ideological significance that I may not wish to endorse. Incidentally, if Ricky insisted that I call him Sir Ricky, because he's a knight and demands such treatment, I would not feel obligated to do that, either.

Archaic terms, and terms that have traditionally been used as insults, are a different matter. If someone calls Jews "Hebrews" around me, then this naturally raises the question of why he's calling me that, given that this term is virtually never used today, and for many decades. I wouldn't consider that per se insulting, but it would raise questions about what subtle message he's trying to send. Not so for black, African-American, Hispanic, Latino, American Indian, Native American, and the like; they are all modern terms that have not traditionally been used as insults, and there's no good manners obligation to use any one of them in preference to the others, regardless of what demands some particular listener may choose to make on you.
3.5.2008 2:10pm
Aultimer:
If certain African-American's didn't feel "black" had some ideological significance, they wouldn't object to it's use. That you, tradition, or some percentage of African-Americans don't share the position, doesn't change the polite thing to do once you know of the objection.

As for Sir Ricky, the more common "Honorable", "Dr.", Kentucky Colonels and similar honorifics, I can't see why it isn't required by politeness to use a deserved title upon request. Maybe it's an east coast thing?

Leaving aside terms that have traditionally (or only-recent) negative meaning - some feminists object to being called "ladies" as that is laced with implications of the inequalities of Olde England. I don't get it, and it's a clear minority position, but it would be rude, IMO, to use the term after the hearing the objection made.
3.5.2008 3:12pm
CJColucci:
So I'm passing under the treehouse -- complete with a "No Gurlz Aloud" sign -- and overhear the occupants arguing earnestly over what "we" get to call "them." Let's not over-think this. It just isn't a real-world problem for anyone who has:

(a) minimally decent breeding, and;

(b) a reasonably diverse circle of acquintances.

Now and then your word choice may get you some grief from some asshole, but that isn't a real-world problem because it is:

(a) only now and then, and;

(b) at the instance of some asshole.

So go around the block a few times, talk to some people, listen to them, and you'll find the "problem" solves itself. You don't need a "position" on it.
3.5.2008 4:06pm
Suzy (mail):
I agree with Aultimer: up with Politeness. If you have principled reasons for preferring a certain term for larger groups, like Mormons vs. Latter Day Saints, then you're welcome to bring them out. In the absence of such reasons, err on the side of politeness.
3.5.2008 5:46pm
Steve2:
Minnesota Transplant, I'm inclined to agree with you about it being regional. For me, until I spent a year in Minnesota, it was entirely academic since the closest I'd ever come to meeting someone the term applied to were a handful of "My (great)-grandmother was a Cherokee" sort of white people. Pre-Columbian Aboriginal Indigenous Native American Indians of the First Nations just aren't very numerous around Atlanta. Or many other places.

I'm not a member of the groups involved, and as I've just said don't often meet people who are, but I hope that in the end "some other term" wins out. 'Cause if I'm not being specific about someone being Cherokee or Creek or Chickasaw or whatever else they are specifically, I just think it's fun to take "Indigenous People" and shorten it to n'dig. I think it's fun to say.
3.5.2008 8:48pm
Cecil Moon (mail):
Here in Southwest Missouri we prefer the term "Casino Americans."
3.6.2008 11:54pm