American Indian or Native American?

This is probably the most frequently asked question I get. It usually comes out of good intentions and genuine curiosity to be respectful. I get it, however, I can’t just answer one or the other with conviction because like our history with the federal government… it’s a little more complicated than you realize.

There are several situations I have been in where American Indians/Native Americans have debated this for days! Emotions were high and some felt very strongly for one against the other. Then, there are those that don’t really mind being called one or the other since, the term is a name in which they grew up with themselves. Some, altogether think that American Indian/Native American is a name(s) wrongly given to the Indigenous Peoples of North America and would rather be called by their respective tribe. For instance, I am Diné (Navajo). The tribes in the United States are so vastly different from one another that to lump us all into one category is really careless and inconsiderate. So, it really depends on who you encounter with their knowledge of the real history of American Indians with the United States, their knowledge of colonialism, and their level of assimilation with American culture.

What’s the confusion? Does it really matter? I was first introduced with the idea of using the term American Indian solely by my mentor Dr. George Blue Spruce (1st American Indian Dentist in the U.S.). Dr. Blue Spruce created the Indian Health Service scholarship for American Indians pursuing a professional degree. He came across many scholarship applicants that were claiming they were “Native American” because they were born in the United States, regardless of their European descendency. I have heard this with fellow classmates when they introduced themselves — as a “native of -fill in state here-”. Conversely, I have also heard from other school professionals that the term American Indian has been used by Indian people from India that feel they are “American Indian” since they were born in the United States. Of course, when federal tribal documents are asked of these individuals they cannot produce them.

It does matter and if you want to know the legal name it’s — American Indian. This is the name that is used with all the U.S. government documents and treaties between federally recognized tribes. If you want to claim the status then you will have to prove it with the respective tribe you are claiming to be from. They all have their own blood quantum amounts that they require to be put on their enrollment list. Once you pass that hurdle then you will be given a census number on a certified document from your respective tribe that confirms you are in fact an indigenous person of the United States that is entitled to receive certain benefits depending on what your tribe has negotiated. For example, the Diné (Navajo) Nation provides a Certificate of Indian Blood (CIB) and a wallet tribal ID card.

If you want to be strictly PC then I would use the term Indigenous People and when you get to know whomever ask them what they prefer. I’m always interested in constructive criticism or questions. Please like and share. Thanks.