American Indian vs. Native American

Which is the proper term?

In a White House ceremony Thursday morning, President Bush marked the opening of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian. Why does the new museum’s name employ the term “American Indian,” rather than “Native American”?

Though there’s a dry bureaucratic reason for the name choice, neither term is universally considered more appropriate than the other. The name was actually chosen by Congress, which passed legislation to create the museum back in 1989. That bill specifically referred to the institution as the National Museum of the American Indian, so current officials had zero input on the name. Congress chose “American Indian” simply because that’s what both the Census and the Bureau of Indian Affairs have used for years.

Despite the wave of political correctness in the 1990s, during which “Native American” was often trumpeted as a more sensitive phrase, American Indians remain split on which term is preferable. A 1995 Department of Labor survey found that close to 50 percent of American Indians were perfectly happy with that label, while 37 percent preferred to be known as Native Americans. Those who prefer the former often do so because “Native American” sounds like a phrase concocted by government regulators—note, for example, that one of the community’s most radical civil rights groups is the American Indian Movement. Those who prefer Native American, on the other hand, often think that “Indian” conjures up too many vicious stereotypes from Western serials.

Though either term works when referring to the general population, individuals often prefer to be identified according to their tribal affiliation. It would be considered good form, for example, to refer to writer N. Scott Momaday as, “N. Scott Momaday, a member of the Kiowa tribe,” rather than, “N. Scott Momaday, an American Indian.”

Perhaps the biggest goof is to drop the American from American Indian, as President Bush did at the ceremony while noting that “like many Indian dwellings, the new museum building faces east toward the rising sun.”* Native Americans/American Indians often dislike this simplest of monikers, as it can lead to confusion about whether a person is a tribal member or an émigré from the Indian subcontinent.

Next question?

Explainer thanks Amy Drapeau of the National Museum of the American Indian.

Correction, Sept. 27, 2004: This piece originally suggested that President Bush goofed when he said, “The sun is rising on Indian Country.”  Although “Indian” is an unpopular term, and Bush did use it questionably at other points in his speech, the phrase “Indian Country” is widely used. It’s a legal term that refers to areas in which tribal courts may have jurisdiction.