From left, Bobby Wilson, Radmilla Cody, and Kyle Blackhorse

Blackhorse: Do You Prefer ‘Native American’ or ‘American Indian’? 6 Prominent Voices Respond

Amanda Blackhorse

As indigenous peoples, names and references to our race and ethnic identity are very important – especially in a time when names and pejorative references to Native people are being challenged in popular culture.

Wherever I go, from the reservation to the city, through the halls of academia, from younger to older, to the grassroots, and in social media, I hear numerous discussions and debates around how people choose to identify with certain references, e.g., which word is the most appropriate: Native American? Native? Indian? American Indian? Indigenous?

My task here was to ask several friends and people whom I (and many others) admire what reference they feel most comfortable with.

This discussion varies in our ever-diverse culture. What I’ve learned is we can discuss this for hours on end but, when all is said and done, we call ourselves what we want because it is our choice. In fact, choice is something we did not have or were able to practice throughout the annals of U.S. history.

Each time we choose to elect our own names and references we are empowered. This discussion does not argue that the term ‘Indian’ is better, or that ‘indigenous’ is, or to invalidate being an American or not to be; it is about choice; what we choose as well as how and why we used these names. One thing is certain, we can all agree to reject pejorative references to Native people, e.g. ‘redskins,’ ‘squaw,’ ‘savages,’ etc. This discussion is complex, and I have discovered there is no singular nor simple answer:

So here we go. The people speak, and we must listen.

1. Radmilla Cody

Photo courtesy Robert Doyle, Canyon Records

Radmilla Cody is (Diné/Navajo) and African-American. She is a Grammy nominee, a multiple Native American Music Awards winner, an international performer, a former Miss Navajo Nation, and the founder of the “Strong Spirit: Life is Beautiful not Abusive” campaign.

Cody would like to be referred to as ‘Dine/Navajo,’ ‘indigenous’ and ‘Native.’ When asked why this is important to her she states, “I used to refer to myself as ‘Native American,’ but over time I have learned more about colonization and the colonial terms that came with the assimilation process which continues today. We are original people of this so-called USA, therefore we should be acknowledged as such, but also to ourselves as indigenous, as the indigenous backgrounds we identify with; indigenous, or Native of our own territories.. Not the European settlers’ or colonial settlers’ identification of who they think we should be. We must reclaim our identity and stop allowing the settler-colonialists to define who we are.”

2. Bobby Wilson

Photo courtesy Ryan Redcorn

Bobby Wilson is Sisseton-Wahpeton Dakota and is most famous for being a member of the five-piece comedy troupe “The 1491s.” Bobby’s work is heavily influenced by his Dakota heritage combined with a lifelong city upbringing. Bobby also appeared on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart last year.

“I say Indian a lot,” Wilson said. “I’m around many Natives all the time, and using Indian seems to be universal and others can identify with it.” Bobby also said he understands the confliction Native people have with the terms ‘Indian’ and ‘Native American,’ but as he states, “When I say Indian it doesn’t take anything away from me. For some people it may. I’m comfortable with myself and with it.”

He also stated he doesn’t mind being referred to as ‘American Indian,’ and references the National Congress of American Indians and the like, whom use the term ‘Indian.’

I asked him if he rejects any socially acceptable references to Native people. He said, ‘chief.’ Wilson has been called ‘chief’ several times in his life and says it is rooted in racism. He says generally people have a certain idea of what a ‘chief’ looks like and view him in this way. “If you say to someone, ‘draw me a chief,’ I guarantee they will not draw a CEO.”

3. Roxanne Thomas

Photo courtesy Roxanne Thomas

Roxanne Thomas is Diné (Navajo) and Numa (Paiute). She is currently fulfilling her personal goal of being a full-time caretaker to her son. She has a profession in social work and worked as a mental health provider.

When asked how she refers to herself, Thomas said, “It has changed throughout the years.” She refers to herself mainly as “Diné and Numa-Fallon Paiute/Shoshone Tribe, a.k.a., Navajo and Paiute.” She said she puts more effort into referring to herself by her indigenous tribes and in their indigenous language because, as she stated, “It’s about going back to our original self. Why use names that are give to us?”

When asked how she refers to all Native people, Thomas said, “It’s changing, too. I’m using ‘indigenous’ and ‘Native’ more, and before that I used ‘Native American.’” She also states she is comfortable with using ‘Native American,’ but as she said: “It is a name that has been given to us.” She also states that ‘Native American’ can be anyone who is born in the United States. As for the term ‘Indian,’ she said, “Colonizers used the word ‘Indian’ or ‘American Indian’ and this could describe Indian citizens from the country India.” She states she is not protective of that term because it is important we know whom we are and where we are from. She to teaches her 3-year-old son how to say his four different tribes he is born of in the indigenous language.

4. Douglas Miles

Photo courtesy Daniel Tulley

Douglas Miles is the owner at Apache Skateboards and is San Carlos Apache/Akimel O’odham. Douglas is an artist, designer, curator, muralist, and public speaker. He utilizes art as social practice to motivate and inspire positive processes.

Miles said, “I refer to myself as American Indian.” He said he grew up in an era where that was the common term. “People look at it in both ways; ‘Indian’ is from India, and when this country was ‘discovered’ the people were looked at as godly people (Indios). I also refer to myself as ‘Native American.’ I’m comfortable with both of them.” Doug then goes on to say, “What would be the better title is ‘First Americans’ because, in reality, we are the first Americans.”

Miles also spoke of love of the land that is now the continental United States. “We are also Americans, and we love America. Natives serve at a higher rate in the military because Native people know in their heart this is their country and it will always be. They will stand up and fight for the land. It’s not really about American patriotism, but it’s for the love of the land.”

Miles added he does not feel comfortable with “anthropological terms, because they weren’t written for us. Words such as ‘nomadic,’ ‘hunter gather,’ ‘urban Indian,’ ‘rural Indian,’ ‘reservation Indian,’ – they don’t accurately explain the Native experience in 2015.”

5. Chase Iron Eyes

Chase Iron Eyes

Chase Iron Eyes (Lakota Sioux) is co-founder of Last Real Indians, a media resource for original indigenous content. Chase is a Tribal Economic Consultant, Lakota Peoples Law Project Staff Attorney and 7th Generation fund grant recipient.

Iron Eyes said he refers to himself in his original Lakota language (Oyate Ikce), most people understand it as Sioux. He uses the term Sioux to describe himself at times because that is what people generally understand.

Iron Eyes said when he named his blog and media outlet originally, “The Last Real Indian” (as he was the only writer) he was speaking from a place of wanting to voice his thoughts of the injustices in Native country in an uncensored manner. He felt “The Last Real Indian” was catchy and grabbed the attention of the reader. He wasn’t invalidating other Natives weren’t legitimately ‘Indian,’ but that the under-represented voice of indigenous people must be heard. As more writers were incorporated, they became “The Last Real Indians.” “Anyone can be the last real Indian,” he said.

He said the term ‘Indian’ is that of popular culture, and although it is a debated term, it is one that is commonly used and known. He also believes the term which should be used is ‘original people,’ but the term ‘indigenous’ is very appropriate as well.

Iron Eyes also acknowledged: “Naming is very important because we are the archetypes of our reality, but now we do that in the English language. For those of us who learned English as a first language, things are different because we speak English.”

6. Kyle Blackhorse

Kyle Blackhorse

Kyle Blackhorse is Diné, Tlingit, and Yurok. Blackhorse, 18, is of the Eagle Tribe and Brown Bear Clan of the Tlingit and Yurok Nations and born for the Black Streak Wood People and Edgewater of the Navajo. Blackhorse and the youngest Native American elected Precinct Committeeperson and State Committeeperson of the Arizona Democratic Party, where he is in involved in the Native American Caucus that provides education, voice and advocacy for Native American people.

He said he refers to himself by his own tribes: Diné, Tlingit, and Yurok, and then by his clans of his tribes. He does not use the term ‘Indian’ because as he said “India is on the other side of the world.”

He stateed he uses the term ‘Navajo’ to explain ‘Diné’ because most know it as such. He also prefers to use the term ‘Native American’ versus ‘American Indian.’ “It is very important to identify ourselves in our way,” he said. Blackhorse said he received this knowledge from his parents and his grandparents who instilled a strong sense of identity in him from a young age. He also stated he refuses to be called, ‘Chief’ because, “I am not a chief of a tribe. It’s a sacred thing.” He added, “I would also like to be called by my name, Kyle.”

Amanda Blackhorse. Photo courtesy Malcolm Benally.

Amanda Blackhorse, Diné, is a mother and activist. She and four other plaintiffs won a case against the Washington football team that stripped it of six of its seven trademarks. Follow her on Twitter @blackhorse_a. She lives in Phoenix, Arizona.

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shotwell77's picture
Submitted by shotwell77 on
"American Indians" are united by related languages and genealogy; they are all Indigenous peoples of the Americas except Aleut, Yupik, and Inuit peoples, who have their own language family and histories. "Native Americans" are the Indigenous peoples of the United States, so American Indians, Alaska Natives, and Native Hawaiians.

bullbear's picture
Submitted by bullbear on
As a history major, I can say that the terms Native American or American Indian are debatable as to which is more appropriate. In the context of historical documentation American Indian took precedence to wholly capture all tribal nations and lump them into one big box. Does that sound right? Of course not. Native American has come about in more recent years, but also is subject to a second of third generation of U.S. citizen who can claim they are now Native American. Now, we also see Alaskan Natives as separate nations from American Indians, but they are cast into that box, also. Is this right? In actuality it may not be a question of right or wrong, rather what the preference is. However, it is not the choice of tribal nations or Alaskan natives as to how they prefer to be known, when it comes down to it, it is how the government will categorize your race. So it goes that when tribal nations come together, we like to know each others tribal affiliation - not if we are Indian, Native, or indigenous. When you really think about it, 600 years ago, there was little tribal mixture. If you were Mohawk, you did not wander too far to the north central area and marry into tribal nations thereabouts. My! How time has changed all that. You can look at the tribal affiliations of those who are listed in this article and it is very evident at how we criss-cross the country, intermarry, and yet, we still proudly and distinctly declare each of our multiple tribal heritages. American Indian? No such thing exists. Native American? Show us a birth certificate that your foreigner parents were born here and you can call yourself Native American. So the U.S. government or history books can put us into that big box, but it cannot contain the blood that passes through our veins from the many tribal nations that were here long before there was ever - - America !

Tomas Camacho
Tomas Camacho
Submitted by Tomas Camacho on
Although I am half-white, I refer to myself as Puerto Rican of Taino origin. I feel that using the word 'American' as part of ones' native ancestry is tantamount to white-washing your ancestral identity. Before the white man came, our ancestors did not call themselves neither Indian nor Native American. Just my opinion, as everyone should refer to themselves with whatever term with which they feel comfortable.

Chooj's picture
Submitted by Chooj on
When I go back home (what is now NE "Oklahoma"), I always hear "Indian" when people are speaking English. I have never heard "Native" or "Native American" back there. I only here these terms from urban Indians, PC people, and online.

Roy G Cook
Roy G Cook
Submitted by Roy G Cook on
another view

Jim McCallum
Jim McCallum
Submitted by Jim McCallum on
I have always wondered about the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian ... Is this the standard, or does it diverge from the standard and preferred term? Thanks -

Joni Zeiler Bretz
Joni Zeiler Bretz
Submitted by Joni Zeiler Bretz on
As a non-Indigenous person, it's important to look at words that I cannot include myself in. I would call myself a native, because I was born is Colorado and am still here. I also would call myself an American. I would not call myself Indigenous so in general terms I would think it could be chosen clearly to most when speaking to non-Indigenous people. So in order to find out about the person I'm speaking with is it okay to ask, "Are you Indigenous?" and "What tribe are you part of?" Thanks.

tmsyr11's picture
Submitted by tmsyr11 on
How about asking 6 every-day 'average' Indian/Native/Indeginous hard-working tribal members? I bet you'll get collective responses especially in light of your motives to Redskins, i.e. Red Mesa community, Arizona.

1Spirit's picture
Submitted by 1Spirit on
I used to work with a man who rejected all terms that lumped different tribes together. All that seemed to matter to him was that he was a Toltec and apparently viewed everyone else as other.

Robin Finesmith
Robin Finesmith
Submitted by Robin Finesmith on
Thank you for this. And a question -- as a white person, I'm often at a loss about how to refer to American indigenous peoples. I want to call people by the names *they* prefer, but there seem to be so many individual preferences that I'm not sure where to start, or -- if it's relevant -- how to ask. I know Canada now refers to "First Nations," and I recently saw a wonderful map that shows where American tribal nations were located, pre-Western influence. (I.e., genocide.) If I don't happen to know someone's tribal affiliation, should I ask? Or more likely, wait until / if they bring it up? And generally speaking -- how does ''Tribal Nations," or "American Tribal Nations" sit with some of you? Thanks.

Robin Finesmith
Robin Finesmith
Submitted by Robin Finesmith on
Thank you for this. And a question -- as a white person, I'm often at a loss about how to refer to American indigenous peoples. I want to call people by the names *they* prefer, but there seem to be so many individual preferences that I'm not sure where to start, or -- if it's relevant -- how to ask. I know Canada now refers to "First Nations," and I recently saw a wonderful map that shows where American tribal nations were located, pre-Western influence. (I.e., genocide.) If I don't happen to know someone's tribal affiliation, should I ask? Or more likely, wait until / if they bring it up? And generally speaking -- how does ''Tribal Nations," or "American Tribal Nations" sit with some of you? Thanks.

tmsyr11's picture
Submitted by tmsyr11 on
To Robin, why not just address 'them' by their FIRST NAMES, their given names? You can/should worry about 'color' later. See people for who/what their character than just color. Of course, some wear their 'culture' around their neck on their left hand. To talk with the REAL-DEAL "peoples" than the instigators and propergators of racial division, you will find they (the peoples) are too busy trying to survive by making that dollar stretch (from paycheck to paycheck - like most americans). They are living their years despite empty promises (tribal government), and irrelevant issues as race/divide/or as i can "indian-ness".

Mel Malone
Mel Malone
Submitted by Mel Malone on
Native for me....Then Sugpiaq (Alaska) not Aleut ....I feel we are the same as all Natives on the Continent ...We are all from and live on ''Turtle Island" Thus I feel we Natives from Alaska should NOT be separated from the rest

arw00's picture
Submitted by arw00 on
american indian. native american can also be used for anyone born here, but american indian says indiginous

quakerite's picture
Submitted by quakerite on
Nican Tlaca is the Nahuatl term for all indigenous peoples living on the North, Central, and South American continent (Cemanahuak).

Anselmo Viotti
Anselmo Viotti
Submitted by Anselmo Viotti on
Takahi! Great article I might add! First I would like to say that I too like Native sisters Radmilla Cody and Roxanne Thomas identified with Native American and Amerindian(which is short for American Indian). However, as I also addressed this interesting question in my facebook forum, Indigenous Turtle Island Culture, Heritage, Roots, and Spirituality, I came to the realization that Native American and American Indian are Euro branded labels which were given to us. Plus America was never the indigenous name for the land mass our people inhabit from North America to South America and the Caribbean adjoining islands, it was recognized as TURTLE ISLAND. Therefore, America is a newer name to us Natives we are not really Americans. America came to us not we came to America. So like other individuals of Indigenous blood I choose to identify as Aboriginal, Indigenous, and Native. Not Native American as it can apply to anyone born in America, and certainly not Indian as I am not from that country formerly named Hindustan, and I am not of God as we did not address the Creator as such, BUT rather as the Great Spirit. We are the First Nations in this land mass aho! So I am a proud Arawak/Taino Native! To each its own still.

Wulfe N. Straat's picture
Wulfe N. Straat
Submitted by Wulfe N. Straat on
My Respects, Really: I admire your work in this field, but please stop perpetuating the racist label of Native Americans or, just as awful, Tribal Peoples or Indigenous Peoples, since they all have that same disgusting connotation of being "native"on the American continent before the great civilizing nations of Europe took over. It's demeaning and disgusting, because those terms all suggest unwashed and uncultured and savage, whereas the word Indian is continentally incorrect and ridiculous. The actual term for the people who populated the Americas for more than ten thousand years before anyone else arrived is FIRST AMERICANS! It is not Native Americans. It is not American Indians. It is not Tribal Peoples or Indigenous Americans...but simply FIRST AMERICANS! Please respect their primacy in America. Call them by their rightful name of First Americans, with all the grandeur and historical significance that the name implies. Respectfully Submitted, John LaChance, esq. 18819 Billings Ave. Carson, LA, Calif. 90746

jt_tyrrell's picture
Submitted by jt_tyrrell on
For me personally, I hate being called an 'indian'. I find it incredibly disrespectful to my people, and myself. It shows me how ignorant people are. I will always tie that term, 'indian', to Christopher Columbus, the monster I was taught to view as a hero. We all know that he murdered, raped, and started the destruction of the Native culture, so why do we allow ourselves, and others, to refer to us as 'indians'?

Everett Tsosie
Everett Tsosie
Submitted by Everett Tsosie on
It is important as to how we see ourselves. Personally, I am Dine First, but Native American to everyone else. Several point to this conclusion. The word "indian" was given as a mistake by Europeans. In recent history, another word was introduced which is "indigenous"... I thought of this word for a long time and researched it. From what I found, that is what Australians call the native of that country. Looking into the meaning, it is an outsiders way of describing native of the land. This word is another way of committing genocide to native ways by trying to make it okay to say the word. If that continues, several generations later, indigenous will mean anyone born in the states and the assimilation is complete and native rights die. Those are my beliefs. We has natives have to look into the future. Far ahead of our lives and what we want for future natives.

Don Gamache
Don Gamache
Submitted by Don Gamache on
My preference is the Canadian term of First Nations. At least they acknowledge that our people were here when they arrived on the scene.