Life in the Old West

True stories, tall tales, memorabilia of the American West

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Which term to use — Indians or Native Americans?


My experience has been that all, and I mean ALL, every one of the Native American people I have known personally are quite comfortable with being called “Indians” or “American Indians,” rather than “Native Americans.” In fact, of the hundreds of folks I’ve personally known among the Lakota, absolutely none would have referred to himself/herself as “Native American” outside of a university or other classroom setting. They would feel awkward with the term, and some of them would be downright offended. I have had some Lakota people speak the term “Native American” as though they were offended by it, or as a bit of humor to poke fun at non-Indian associates.

Most of the tribal people I met during the three years I lived on the Rosebud Sioux Reservation in South Dakota grew up as “Indians” and actually felt they were forsaking their heritage to call themselves “Native Americans.”

But that’s all pretty much anecdotal evidence, isn’t it? I am telling you upfront this was MY experience, and my experience is very isolated. (I would love to have some comments by someone who is a bona fide “Indian/Native American” to give his/her perspective.)

On a broader note, in his huge entry for “Indian” in the “Dictionary of the American West,” writer Winfred Blevins catches this same dichotomy of terms. According to that entry, “Indian” does tend to be the term favored by tribal people, who feel awkward using the term “Native Americans” to speak of themselves. He makes reference to “The Lakota Times” newspaper (published until the early 1990s in South Dakota) saying the paper’s policy was “returning from Native American to Indian.” In that same entry, Blevins references a 1979 instance in which a U.S. congressman’s legislative assistant told him (Blevins, that is) that it was impossible to get away with saying “Indian” instead of “Native American” in the capital then.

Finally, given the nature and purpose of this website, “Indian” is the term which was used universally, both in a good way and in a bad way, during that period we call “the Old West.” Certainly “Indian,” therefore, would be the preferred term and common term in the historical sources and references we make here.

Indians or Native Americans? I would favor — and will favor throughout the articles on this website — the term “Indians” over “Native Americans.” I do so because of personal acquaintance (see above) with many Indian people who are put off by “Native American.” And I do so to be faithful to the historical period as much as possible. You certainly are free to do what you wish.

But please understand this: I am not in anyway trying to be patronizing to tribal people. Nor is my use of “Indian” intended in any way to be disrespectful or racist.