Is the term "Indian" offensive?

Yesterday, I was talking to my girlfriend and happened to mention that “old littering PSA with the Indian standing by the side of road,” and her mouth dropped open as if I’d just sprouted a third arm. She proceeded to inform me that “Indian” is horribly offensive and un-PC, and that they should be called “Native Americans.”

Now, I was stunned, because it just never occurred to me; all my life, everyone has always called them Indians, with no pejorative intent. I’ve even met actual Indians/Native Americans who didn’t particularly care either way. I argued that the AP Stylebook recommends “American Indians” and even the 1995 Census indicated that a majority preferred it to “Native Americans,” but she was unswayed. The informal poll at her office was unanimous that it was very offensive (though it’s a small sample size, and one of them doesn’t believe in the moon landings, so the usable sample is probably even smaller still).

I can understand that Indian is not desirable because it doesn’t distinguish them from the Subcontinent, but Native American doesn’t seem much better. I was born in the U.S., I’m a native American too. But let’s set the merits of each nomenclature aside for now–what’s your initial gut reaction? Horribly offensive? No big deal? I’m worried that my internal compass been desensitized by watching the “Redskins” play for 20 years (yes, horribly unacceptable, I agree).

The current state of English provides:

  1. refer to the tribe if possible
  2. if you wish to collectively refer to people from more than one tribe of the people that were here before Columbus, or, like int he case of the littering PSA, no tribe is knowable, “indian” is preferable to “native American.”

There are old threads about this.

Right, but I said that the merit of the nomenclature is to be ignored. It doesn’t do me much good if the AP Stylebook backs what I say if nobody else knows or agrees. For example, I have to say “Octopi” instead of the more correct “Octopuses” because people will think I’m a moron for the latter.

So I’m just trying to assess the current…mood, I guess. NOT which is more authoritative.

The current mood is that anything that anyone is offended by should be offensive to all. Racism is whatever anyone says it is, and arguing to the contrary makes you a racist.

FWIW, all the Indians I’ve known (and that’s a fair number - lots of 'em here in ex-Indian Territory) used Indian.

The only people I know who call them Native American are people who don’t know any, or people who work in Human Relations / Race & Ethnicity Studies / etc.

YMMV, of course.

Why would “Indian” be preferable to “native American?” I think native American is a better descriptor of the people who lived in America before European settlement. Indian was a term borne out of mistaken identity.

I went to high school with quite a few Native Americans and I used the two terms interchangeably and so did they. Nobody seemed to give it a second thought. Though there were a few (white) kids who were trying to raise a fuss about the nearby Squaw Peak, now called the Piestewa Peak.

Every Indian I have ever known, including family members and friends uses “Indian.” “Native American” is for official documents and correspondance or fro “polite” society.
Just like saying “black” instead of “African American” or “white” for “Caucasian.”

And yet everyone claims to have Native American blood. From what tribe? Assiniboine? Lummi? Twatwa? Hell, no, Cherokee! You know, the “cool” tribe.

I don’t know the answer to the question, but years ago my parents were visiting Taos. They went on a tour of one of the local pueblos. The guy giving the tour insisted that they liked to be called Indians, and not some politically correct name.

I shouldn’t have said “English” - what I meant was not grammarians in an ivy tower - I meant English as spoken out in the trenches - rubber-meets-the-road English. Contrapuntal’s term “mood” is perhaps a better term, although I disagree with his statement.

Well, there’s a small issue of “America” getting its name from Amerigo Vespucci, Italian guy. The fact is, there’s not a great term for referring to all the people that lived here before contact with the old world. “Indian” is preferable to “native American” according to an old thread here , and according to a book I read called “The Beginning of the End - The Battle of Little Big Horn.”

The “Indian” in those happened to be from the Sicilian tribe. I wouldn’t use either Indian or Native American to describe him.

One problem with “Indian” is that it’s ambiguous. It can mean either Native Americans or people from India.

This museum opened in 2004 and nobody complained.

I should hope it’s not offensive, though I won’t use the word Indian at all, being actually from India myself. Or at best I’ll say American Indian.

But I do wonder why they would WANT to be called that. It’s completely incorrect and put on them by the oppressor, as it were. And it would certainly avoid the “Indian? What tribe?” questions I get constantly. However, it’s certainly not up to me to tell a people what they should be called.

I used to work on an Indian reservation – all the people I knew used “Indian” for a general sense and the name of their tribe in specifics. I asked a few people what I should use and they all told me “Indian” is fine as long as it’s not said rudely. Even “oh, they’re not late, they’re on Indian time” was okay when said with affection. :slight_smile: (Yours, and others’, mileage may vary.)

If it makes you feel weird to use “Indian,” you can use their tribe’s name (e.g., “I had lunch with two Crow ladies yesterday.”).

The few that I’ve asked about it prefer Indian because that’s what they’ve always used. They don’t really care that much about how it happened.

As far as they were concerned, there were Indians and East Indians. They only occasionally added “American” in front of “Indian”, since that was the default.

I’d imagine they would expect to be called American Indian in India, but here, they get the default name.


Yeah, I don’t think Indian is offensive. It wasn’t intended to be offensive. But I consider it the same as if we called them Atlanteans because European explorers thought they had found Atlantis.

I’m complaining. That website SUCKS.

They also have an exhibit about African-Americans. Right next to the blurb is a picture of Jimi Hendrix.

As far as usage is concerned, I can’t rember the last time I heard “Indian” unless it was in reference to someone from India (or with ancestors from there). I usually hear either “Native American”, or just “native” or “indigenous”. And I have on a few occasions heard “First Nations”. But haven’t known a ton of people who were (American) Indian/Native American/native/indigenous/etc., so YMMV.

Personally, I don’t think “Indian” is offensive, so much as potentially confusing. It’s also wrong in origin, but so are thousands of other words, so I figure I have to let that go.

Funny story: a friend of mine (who’s India-Indian, btw) was a grad student and talking with some other students about research she was doing. She mentioned she was going to India, and one of her friends said (jokingly), “Uh, excuse me. Don’t you mean Native America?”

There’s a powwow coming up here in a few weeks, and all the information about it is referring to it as “American Indian”.

I don’t know about anyone else, but the small share of native blood I have in me (about three pounds worth) is Shawnee. I don’t think the Cherokee were ever anywhere near where any of my ancestors lived.

Interestingly enough, it was the SD column that actually spurred me to watch the commercial, because I didn’t exist when it initially aired and knew nothing about it for a long time. But, at any rate, “that PSA with the Sicilian by the side of the road” just requires more explanation than it’s worth.