Since European countries started to colonize North America, the indigenous peoples have been referred to as "Indians." I'm assuming this is because, when Columbus landed in the Americas, he expected to land in the East Indies. Afterwards, it was understood that he instead landed on a new continent.

So, if it is not politically correct to refer to these people as "Indian," because Columbus did not land in the East Indies, why does the government still use this term for official purposes? (i.e. Indian Health Service)

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    It's not necessarily politically incorrect. "American Indian", "Native American", and "First Nations" are all terms that are used in North America: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/…
    – user1530
    Jan 24, 2016 at 22:50
  • 2
    @Paraney Does the government still refer to them as "indian americans"? I know that some laws well into the 20th century were called "Indian whatever act", but I thought the official term was now "native americans". Can you provide examples for the systematic use of the other term from the past few years?
    – Philipp
    Jan 25, 2016 at 10:01
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    I don't know about whether it's politically correct or not, but it's darn confusing to never know if someone means "native American" or "American with family from India"... Jan 26, 2016 at 17:04
  • 3
    @user568458 An American with family from India would be "Indian American", not "American Indian". The confusion would occur if there were an (Asian) Indian whose family came from America.
    – Readin
    Jan 29, 2016 at 5:08

5 Answers 5


Source: Wikipedia

Further information: Native American name controversy

Common usage in the United States

Native Americans are more commonly known as Indians or American Indians. The term Native American was introduced in the United States in preference to the older term Indian to distinguish the indigenous peoples of the Americas from the people of India, and to avoid negative stereotypes associated with the term Indian. Some academics believe that the term Indian should be considered outdated or offensive. Many indigenous Americans, however, prefer the term American Indian.

Criticism of the neologism Native American comes from diverse sources. Russell Means, an American Indian activist, opposed the term Native American because he believed it was imposed by the government without the consent of American Indians. He has also argued that the use of the word Indian derives not from a confusion with India but from a Spanish expression En Dio, meaning "in God".

A 1995 U.S. Census Bureau survey found that more Native Americans in the United States preferred American Indian to Native American. Most American Indians are comfortable with Indian, American Indian, and Native American, and the terms are often used interchangeably. The traditional term is reflected in the name chosen for the National Museum of the American Indian, which opened in 2004 on the Mall in Washington, D.C.

Bottom line:

Columbus chose that name... and it stuck, even five centuries later. And it doesn't seem like many Native Americans are complaining. (Still... I am.)

  • 7
    When I've spoken with American Indians and asked this, they've never had strong feelings on American Indian vs Native American, but if you add the option of their own tribe, they've always jumped on it as their preference.
    – Karen
    Jun 27, 2016 at 0:20
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    No surprise really. Indian was never meant to be insulting, just an error. When I have occasion to be precise I would indeed use a tribe name (most commonly with Navajo -- go figure) but what other term is there for the behaviors of many tribes in a region? I retained Medicine Man despite its error (should be magic man) because the Indians translated it themselves.
    – Joshua
    Jun 27, 2016 at 21:41
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    While this reason isn't wrong, it understates the importance of the U.S. legal framework to what terminology is used by the U.S. government as noted in the answer by phoog. What American Indians/Native Americans want has rarely been the dominant force in U.S. policy towards this population.
    – ohwilleke
    Jun 2, 2018 at 7:59

Another reason is inertia. Indian is a legal term established by long use; the word permeates Title 25 of the United States Code, which is even called Indians. For at least one chapter, chapter 21, the term is explicitly defined (at 25 USC 1903(3)). Replacing or rewriting this code would be a huge undertaking.

In comparison, Canada has undertaken to make a change similar to the one contemplated by this question. The Indian Act Amendment and Replacement Act was enacted in 2014, but it seems to be slow going: the Indian Act is still in force as of this writing.

  • 2
    This is indeed big. It is even bigger when you consider that most Indian Law in the U.S. comes in the form of treaties that would have to be renegotiated wholesale if they were amended for style and cannot be amended unilaterally by Congress. A change would also make searches for case law on key terms like "Indian Country" significantly harder.
    – ohwilleke
    Jun 2, 2018 at 7:56

It's not only an American issue. In Canada the "correct" term is First Nations. When starting out as a developer, one of my first jobs was to modernize the tribal database and genealogy management software of an Indian Tribal Council. (Specifically these guys: https://nuuchahnulth.org/). I noticed that all of their terminology used Indian, e.g. %Indian ancestry, etc. I asked them if I should change it all to First Nations. The said no, we're used to it, First Nations is too long/inconvenient and First Nations is ambiguous as to Indians vs Inuit(which in itself lumps the Yupik people in the Inuit category, even though they are traditional enemies with the Inuit). So let's say it's a matter of bureaucratic inertia and self-preference.

P.S. the funny thing is that they still gave me crap for using Indian in a meeting with our sales guys, instead of First Nations.

  • 2
    Your postscript is a nice illustration of the complexity of the problem, or more precisely of one aspect of the complexity.
    – phoog
    Mar 17, 2020 at 14:19

The largest problem is that both names fly in the face of how actual tribal members identify themselves. Both names have a common component, "American." But the tribes identify themselves individually as Cheyenne or Apache, not commonly based on continental grouping. The American grouping is an artificial construct of the Europeans. The name itself is based on that of Italian explorer Amerigo Vespucci.

Why would one name bestowed by an Italian explorer be better than another name by a different Italian explorer?

The very construct of a name for everyone who is descended from people living in the Americas in 1491 is a very eurocentric approach. France and Germany are adjacent to each other and no one would characterize the French by German actions in, say, 1942. But people have no problem lumping together the diverse tribes under the Native American label. That label would of course fit just as well for the hundreds of millions of people who were born in the Americas, whose immediate ancestors were born in the Americas, and have no connection with relatives elsewhere.

Why would tribal members prefer a label that lumps them with the descendants of their oppressors over a label that lumps them with other victims? Neither is really accurate. Neither is based in their own words.

  • 1
    Not to mention the large number of us who have both European and American Indian ancestors.
    – jamesqf
    May 30, 2018 at 17:41
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    There is a fair amount of criticism of European colonialism which lumps historical France and Germany together (the other word their descendants might use jointly is "white"), and there are several pan-tribe organizations that seem to represent both Cheyenne and Apache interests, some of which seem to have opinions on word choice.
    – user9389
    May 30, 2018 at 19:32
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    But the American continent objectively exists, whatever its name, even if its inhabitants didn't realise the fact. So it's correct to call them Native Americans; the argument can only be about the practical usefulness of such term. It's not any worse than "Europeans": and this terms does have many practical uses, despite French/German/etc. distinctions.
    – Zeus
    Jun 20, 2018 at 11:37

Yet another reason for not using so-called politically correct terminology for American Indians (or anything else FTM) is that a large majority of Americans dislike political correctness. According to the study "Hidden Tribes: A Study of America’s Polarized Landscape" (Hawkins, Yudkin, Juan-Torres, & Dixon) as quoted in a recent Atlantic Magazine article https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2018/10/large-majorities-dislike-political-correctness/572581/

"Among the general population, a full 80 percent believe that “political correctness is a problem in our country.”"

"Whites are ever so slightly less likely than average to believe that political correctness is a problem in the country: 79 percent of them share this sentiment. Instead, it is Asians (82 percent), Hispanics (87percent), and American Indians (88 percent) who are most likely to oppose political correctness."

So why would the government want to make a disruptive change which a) costs money (e.g. reprinting all the "Bureau of Indian Affairs" literature); and b) is going to irritate the great majority of people, especially the people whose description is being politically corrected?

  • 2
    People opposing political correctness doesn't mean they oppose every instance of what some might call "political correctness". People seem to have vastly different ideas on what is "PC", just as people seem to have different ideas on what constitutes e.g. sexism. Very few people are in favour of sexism, but there is disagreement on what constitutes sexism, so being "against sexism" doesn't mean "against [specific instance of alleged sexism]". The same applies to PC. In other words: your conclusion (specifically "point b") does not necessarily follow from your source.
    – user11249
    Oct 18, 2018 at 3:21
  • @Martin Tournoij: But if you look at how a lot of American Indians feel about being labeled with the PC term "Native American", you'll find that it's rather offensive to many, whereas "Indian" is fairly neutral.
    – jamesqf
    Oct 18, 2018 at 17:20
  • I'll take your word for it @jamesqf; I'm not from the US and not very familiar with the topic at hand, and have no real opinion either way. It's just that for the casually interested European (i.e. me) it just seems that your conclusion makes a leap from its source (which doesn't mean it's false, just not evident that it's true).
    – user11249
    Oct 23, 2018 at 5:26

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