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Native American vs. Indian

Five prominent Natives discuss Native American vs. Indian and other names in this article from Indian Country Media.
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Recently I submitted an article of interviews with six prominent Native people throughout the nation on the subject of naming, including Native American vs. Indian and other names. This created much discussion throughout Indian country, so I’ve decided to keep the conversation going.

The question asked: “What do you prefer to be called? Native American, Native, American Indian, Indian, etc.?” References of us are important and this discussion differs throughout Native communities.

We know there is not one simple or singular answer. What we can all agree upon is to reject pejorative references to Native people (e.g. “redskins,” “squaw,” “savages,” etc.).


I want to reiterate, this discussion does not argue that Indian is better or indigenous is better, vice versa, or to invalidate being an American or not to be; it is about what we choose as well as how and why we used these names. So, here we go again, the people speak and we shall listen.

Native American vs. Indian vs. ? Courtney Tsotigh-Yarholar

Courtney Tsotigh-Yarholar is a proud Kiowa, a mother of two, and a wife to the Cortney Yarholar original. She is a higher education professional, currently working at the University of Central Oklahoma in Career Services. She is dedicated to supporting students to reach their educational, leadership and career goals. Courtney is one of four plaintiffs in the case against the Washington football team that stripped six of its seven trademarks in 2014. Courtney and the four plaintiffs, myself included, are currently being sued by pro-football.

When asked how she refers to herself, Tsotigh-Yarholar said, “I've been asked this question many times, dating back to grade school. The question is usually posed as, ‘do you prefer to X,Y, Z?’ To which I am expected to choose from one and categorize who I am, further marginalizing myself, and possibly someone else. It’s always difficult to answer this question because ‘I’ do not necessarily identify with any of these terms. I refer to myself as Kiowa. Depending on the setting it may be appropriate to refer more broadly to the term of ‘American Indians,’ but it is also important for non-Natives to refer to me by my tribe rather than one of the umbrella terms because it is respectful and accurate. By doing this, it demonstrates a learning and understanding of who I am. ‘Indian country’ isn’t one umbrella term; it is made up of many tribes. While Indian people may share some cultural similarities, each tribe is very distinctive. If this mind-set were adopted, it would serve as a pivotal shift in our country and how we view Indian country.”

Native American vs. Indian vs. ? Frank Waln

Frank Waln is Sicangu Lakota, an award winning hip-hop artist, producer, and performer from the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota. He is recipient of the Gates Millennium Scholarship and attended Columbia College Chicago where he received a B.A. in Audio Arts and Acoustics. He has been featured on Buzzfeed’s 12 Native Americans Who Are Making a Difference, USA Today, ESPN, and MTV’s Rebel Music Native America. Waln has written for various publications, including Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education, and Society and The Guardian.

When asked how he refers to himself, Waln stated, “If you ask 10 different people you will get 10 different answers. I preface that and say, ‘My answers do not speak for everyone, I speak for myself.’ In what I believe in how I was raised, I like to refer to myself as Sicangu Lakota.”

Waln said the meaning and origin of the term Sicangu is “burnt thighs” or the “burnt thigh nation.” He says that is what his ancestors called themselves, well before colonial contact. “Our people had to run through the fire to survive, so a lot of us burnt their thighs,” he said. “By me saying that name [Sicangu], it reminds me of where I come from. I come from strong people, who survived crazy circumstances. We ran through fire to live. That’s in my blood. In my D.N.A.”

Waln then talks about the decolonization of his identity: “For most of my life, I didn’t understand I was attached to this amazing ancestry. That I came from such strong people because a lot of what media tells us is, as Native people, we are dumb, cheap, less than, we’re savages, we’re alcoholics, and I internalized that as a kid because that is the environment I grew up in. When I speak to Native kids now, I remind them that they come from greatness. Greatness is inside all of us. That myth that Natives are dumb, primitive, savages, even shy, it’s all a lie! I call myself Sicangu Lakota because to me that name is strong, that name is old; it predates the United States.”

Waln also said he feels the term ‘indigenous’ is an acceptable blanket statement of our people. He deters from terms such as ‘Sioux’ or ‘Indian,’ but knows others who use these terms. “I feel every Native should have the choice. Those conversations we need to have within ourselves, and it’s not for the outside to know everything about us or be involved in those types of conversations. Because those are for us.”

Native American vs. Indian vs. ? Kiarra Spottsville

Kiarra Spottsville is Diné (Navajo) and African-American. Her maternal family is from Balookai, Arizona on the Navajo Nation, and her paternal family is from Alexandria, Louisiana. She is the Public Relations Officer for the Morning Star Leaders Youth Council, an organization based out of Phoenix, Arizona that connects Native youth with their cultures. She is also a high school sophomore and is also class secretary.

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When asked how she refers to herself, Spottsville says it depends on the audience. When she introduces herself to other Natives she will introduce herself in her Diné clans first, and then say she is of the Navajo tribe. She says that when she is talking to non-Natives she does not say her clans, but she will say she is Native American and then say she is Navajo. If she is speaking at a public event she will first introduce herself with her clans and then her name, then her tribe.

She also says that when she tells others, Native and non-Native, that she is “Native American,” they look confused. Then she will say she is “Native American and Black,” then she will get a nod. Spottsville said that whenever she says “Indian” people usually think she is from India. This brought us to the discussion about the terms ‘Native American’ and ‘American Indian.’ She is mostly comfortable with them except for “Indian.” She feels most non-Natives don’t understand it’s not a socially acceptable term any longer. She says, “We aren’t Indian. When other people [non-Natives] say ‘Indian’ it’s because they don’t know any better. And sometimes it comes out of ignorance.” She states that when she hears non-Natives use the term “Indian” it reminds her of how people use the term “redskin” out of ignorance. “Some people just don’t know the history of the name and they think it is just the name of a football team.” She states that non-Natives should refer to us as Native American or indigenous.”

Spottsville says naming is important to her because when people take more care in how they reference certain ethnic groups it shows they care and shows they are knowledgeable of other cultures. “It is out of respect to call us how we want to be called,” she said. “When people are more mindful of their references they are more willing to learn.”

Native American vs. Indian vs. ? Dyani White Hawk

Dyani White Hawk, from Shakopee, Minnesota, is Sicangu Lakota and an enrolled member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe. White Hawk graduated with a M.F.A. from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a B.F.A. from the Institute of American Indian Arts. She is an award-winning artist widely exhibited throughout Indian country with exhibitions in Italy and Russia. Former Gallery Director and Curator of the All My Relations Gallery in Minneapolis, White Hawk recently transitioned into a full-time studio practice.

White Hawk identifies herself first and foremost by her tribe, Sicangu Lakota. When she identifies as this, most non-Natives respond with a look of confusion. She believes it's because they don’t understand the term ‘Sicangu.’ When she gets this reaction she will explain, “I’m a member of the Rosebud Sioux tribe in South Dakota.” Then they will nod.

When she identifies herself to other Natives as Sicangu Lakota, it is understood. In either scenario, sometimes confusion comes from her appearance instead of terminology; she will then say, “My dad is German and Welsh” and she gets a nod. White Hawk says she identifies more with her Lakota side since it was her mother who primarily raised her.

When asked how she refers to Natives as a whole, White Hawk explains: “I always say ‘Native,’ and I do that as a conscious choice because we are Native to this land before it was the U.S. The name ‘American’ is a construct of our current state. We're also Americans, but our indigeneity pre-dates that. I don’t take offense to the term ‘Native American.’ If the audience is primarily from the U.S., then the context is understood and I just use ‘Native.’ If we are talking to a global audience, I say ‘Native American.’”

White Hawk says this about the term American Indian: “I never use the term American Indian by speech, but maybe in writing. In the written word, American Indian is still used in many ways. In government and academic circles we’re still American Indian,” she said, then named notable national organizations and academia. White Hawk says this about the term ‘Indian’: “If we're in a causal setting with family and friends we say Indian all the time. We use it casually because in that situation it’s just us and we're not making a political statement. We have to also remember and respect that it was the common term one generation ago.”

White Hawk says naming is important because, “Understanding our names is a base level of understanding of who we are. It’s not about political correctness. P.C. has a bad wrap. It’s about having knowledge of the term you are using. How people use these terms shows their competency. We aren’t just people crying around about the past; the effects of the past are still very real and it didn’t just happen to our grandparents. When people don’t respect your request to be identified by your name, by your own definition, it’s hurtful and de-validating.”

Native American vs. Indian vs. ? Willow Abrahamson

Willow is from Salmon, Idaho, the traditional homeland of the Lemhi Shoshone "Aqai- dika" people. She is the last Lemhi Shoshone to be born there. On her mother’s side, she is a proud descendent of chiefs of the Lemhi and Boise Shoshones, as well as the famed Shoshone woman Sacajawea. On her father's side, her Interior Salish ancestry extends throughout the Northwest and Southern Canada. Willow is also a part of the pow wow circle and currently resides on a ranch on the Fort Hall Indian Reservation. Willow is a mother, jingle dress dancer, sun dancer, as well as an intermittent artistic model. She is also a Master's level social worker.

When asked how she refers to herself, Abrahamson said: “I am an indigenous woman representing numerous bloodlines, which I proudly carry from my paternal and maternal sides. Much like many matrilineal tribes, I carry the relation to the mother’s side as first clan (Agai-dika and Bahnite'h). Bahnite'h means I am Bannock (Boise Valley Bannock). Therefore, I identify as a Lemhi Shoshone and Bannock as my first and primary tribe, which is also my son's first and primary tribes. Second, I come from bloodlines of the Colville Tribes (Wenatchee and San Poil Bands), Coeur d'Alene Tribe, and Spokane Tribe of the great northwest on my father's side.”

When asked which references she feels most comfortable with she says, “I prefer indigenous, but I am comfortable with 'Native American' or 'American Indian'. The reason I prefer indigenous is because being indigenous means you are of a place, one place on earth, which is unique to you. It identifies our peoples well because we referred to ourselves as from a place or location.”

She also says naming is important to her because, she said, “I acknowledge and represent all of the nations and will keep my children and next generations updated. I am sure that in this day and age, knowing your bloodlines is very important, given that any marriage or union of, or formation of, a family with any one of these nations will affect your future generation’s identity. My future generations have to have a strong identity and knowledge of their unique identity because it is the way we are known to [the] creator. It directly affects our well being and relationship with [the] creator. It affects how we pray or interact during specific times or events.”

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.

This article was first published in 2015 and is updated as needed.