Who are Native Americans?

I always get grief when I pose this question but I think it is a reasonable inquiry.
I suspect the humans who inhabited this continent before the arrival of Europeans did not call it North America or America.
How can they be Native “Americans”?

It’s not the most apposite of names because it means something completely different from native <anything else>.

On the other hand, it’s arguably more apposite than ‘Indians’.

I like the Canadian “First Nations”, myself.

If you always get grief, it seems to mean that you are asking the question a lot. Since your question attempts to insist on some (undefined, yet rigid), definition of words with some implied but not explained logic; I can see why you would get grief for it. Language is rarely bound by external laws of logic.

Basically, the word used in English, (where the phrase occurs), to identify the two major land masses and related islands that are separated from Eurasia and Africa by the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans is “America,” (North and South). The people who lived here before the arrival of the English speaking settlers from Europe would be considered natives. Hence, the phrase “Native American” can be used to identify them in English.

This, of course, is completely separate from the matter that the people so identified do not actually choose that phrase for self-identification, generally preferring their tribal name, (either in its original form or in its Anglicized variant), or accepting the equally “erroneous” term “indian.”

See, there’s this place, right? And it’s called “America”, OK? And the people that live there, well, they’re called “Americans”. But a lot of them are descended from people who moved there recently, yes? And so to distinguish the ones that were there first, the “natives”, we combine those two concepts into the term “Native American”.

I hope that clears things up.

Not really because it doesn’t make a lot of sense.

Which of the following means something completely different to all the others.

Native Londoner
Native New Yorker
Native Californian
Native Italian
Native American
Native Texan
Native Mexican

You do realize that words in English can have more than one meaning, right?

How about “Aborigines” ?

But then, it now seems like there were people before the “American-Indians” arrived in the america’s.

Would those be Pre-Aborigines.

It would be nice if the Indians (a term most of them apparently use, however grudgingly) had some old pre-Columbian term that applied to all the tribes from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego, but they apparently didn’t and saw no need for one.

Yes, but in that case it’s generally the context that let’s you know which meaning applies.

You know: ‘I filled the pitcher with water’ is not usually understood to mean that you were torturing some baseball player at Guantanamo Bay.

If someone says: ‘He’s a native American’, it could mean he’s someone who was born and lives in the USA or it could mean that he belongs to the group of people also know as ‘American Indians’.

Whilst it’s good to try and use nomenclature that no one finds offensive it’s also a good idea to avoid picking identifiers that already have a perfectly clear (and different) meaning.

That’s also the case here. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a person born in America described as a “native American” (other than a joke on the Simpsons) because people know it might be taken as referring to Native American heritage.

This describes “Indian” perfectly.

And to the OP… they were native to the place that is now called America. See?

There are tons of constructions in English which are ambiguous on their face and require additional context to clarify. “He’s an engineer.” Does he work on a train or does he design circuits? “She’s mad.” Is she angry or is she crazy? Do you find yourself complaining about these too?

In most cases it will mean the latter, some times it will mean the former. So what?

As far as I know, most people understand what the term “Native American” is referring to, particularly if it’s in the context of the discussion they’re having. You’ve been given a clear definition of the term, and yet you somehow think that this clear definition is confusing. Your beef seems to be with the way the English language develops rather than this term in particular. ETA: Did you have trouble figuring out that “beef” here means complaint rather than the meat from a cow?

I’m not sure why you’re getting so worked up about this.

It’s really not a big deal. It’s just that I’ve heard several people opine that it’s not the most intelligent choice of name and that seems a reasonable comment.

Yes, I suppose it is a complaint about the way that stupid people take a phrase that already means something and make it mean something completely different thus creating the possibility for misunderstandings.

Do you think you could, perhaps, work out the answer to that by yourself?

Do you find any ambiguity when the two interpretations are:

“Your cow meat seems to be with the way the English language develops rather than this term in particular.”


“Your complaint seems to be with the way the English language develops rather than this term in particular.”

All of this applies to native American vs. Native American, too. Native + American can meant something other than Native American but in almost all contexts it’s obvious what people are saying. I’ve never heard anyone talk about Columbus’ meetings with people-who-were-born-in-America, or talk about people-born-in-America living on reservations, or discussing tribes of people-who-were-born-in-America.

Which is why I always refer to my Wife’s extended family as “Redskins,” to avoid confusion (except with sunburned people).

Over the phone, you hear: “I was in the US last month. I had dinner with a Ian and Dave to discuss the merger. Ian emigrated there five years ago. Dave is a native American”.

Was Dave simply someone who was born in the US or was he descended from people who were there before Columbus?

As I said, it’s not a big deal. It just doesn’t strike me as the most intelligent choice of nomenclature when, until some bright spark coined that usage, it would have meant something completely different. Something that makes the meaning of ‘native American’ quite different to the meaning of 'native <anything else>.

I’m not sure why you think you’re personal projections apply to me. Who said I was worked up?

I’ve never heard anyone express confusion over the term Native American. I’ve never heard it used in the alternate way you’re describing in my lifetime. Perhaps if I picked up a newspaper from a hundred years ago, it might be used that way, but since the majority of people aren’t confused about it, and since you yourself don’t think it’s a big deal, then what is the purpose of this discussion?

As in the stupid people who decided “mad” could either mean crazy or angry? Yeah, they were pretty stupid. And I guess the people who coined the term “Native American” were short-sighted in being unable to predict that some people would claim that there was some big confusion over the word when there really isn’t any.

Can you work out a joke when you see one? I wonder why you got so worked up about that.

Since you’re discussing national origins I’d assume he was born in the U.S. (And if I’m wrong, so what?) I understand there are situations in which this could be confusing. There are two ways to read the phrase. But most of the time the meaning is clear. It’s the same as the beef example.

But it seems that you don’t have a problem with the term “American” being used to describe someone from the U.S. Shouldn’t it really describe people from the ice floes of Canada all the way to the pointy part of Chile?

In your example, how do we know that Dave wasn’t born in Costa Rica?

This is a good point. We should actually stop using the term “American” to describe someone from the United States, since that leads to confusion. As a bonus, that would remove any confusion with the term “Native American.” Now, we just need to come up with a replacement term for “American.”