American Indian v. Native American

by Pete Talbot

Someday in this great country of ours, people in news stories will be referred to by their names only — “John Doe” or “Jane Smith” — without modifiers like: “African American” or “Latina.” Until that day, however, the media tend to give titles to folks (except for Caucasian or white, you rarely see that).

So, I’m having trouble with the modifier for folks from Montana tribes.

Some years back in a conversation with two outstanding Montana legislators, Carol Juneau (Blackfeet) and Norma Bixby (Northern Cheyenne), I heard them disparage the title Native American in favor of American Indian. But lately, especially from candidates for higher office, I always hear “Native American.”

In my posts, I’ll usually write “Montana Indian” because, hey, who doesn’t want the modifier, Montana, next to their title. Sometimes I’ll put Assiniboine or Crow, if I know which tribe the person is from but that can be problematic, too. There are Northern Cheyenne living on the Salish-Kootenai Reservation and Crow living at Rocky Boy’s, etc.

I notice that the Lee Enterprises correspondent for Montana newspapers, Jodi Rave, uses both Indian and Native, so that doesn’t help.

Please, some clarification here, so I can get it right. Thanks.


  1. My preference probably wouldn’t be too popular because it’s a mouthful:

    Indigenous American.

  2. JC

    I guess to complicate matters, we should consider that “native Montanan” has already been co-opted by those of us (descendants of immigrants) who were born here.

  3. Skylar

    The AP, according to their 2007 style guide, writes: American Indian is the preferred term … Where possible, be precise and use the name of the tribe … Native American is acceptable in quotations and names of organizations …

  4. One of my favorite humans of all time – mr. woody kipp, said it best when accosted by two very charming, nervous and well meaning albeit somewhat naive coeds from the U of M at one of his readings concerning this exact topic years ago:

    coeds: “what should we call you, Mr Kipp? Native american or american Indian.”

    a long pause as Woody looked them over carefully. They squirmed as the question lingered in the air a few seconds. Woody managed to avoid smiling in order to maximize their dicomfiture.

    “Human.” Woody finally answered with a straight face.

  5. Wulfgar’s answer reminds me of my visit to Mesa Verde National Park a few years ago. The National Park Service has officially stopped using the word “Anasazi” to describe the builders of the cliff houses in the Southwest. Instead, on every plaque, in every brochure, and from the lips of every ranger comes “Ancestral Puebloan”. Sure, it’s accurate, but hoo boy, is it a mouthful.

  6. Boris Resnick

    A few years back, when I moved to Ronan from Missoula, I asked Vic Charlo what he preferred to be called; native American or Indian. He said he watched a lot of John Wayne movies and cowboy moves growing up and he thought the best description of himself was, ‘pesky redskin,’ or just ‘pesky.

    Gee, its not as funny now as I remember it being back in 1998, but its all I got.

  7. Ed Childers

    Personally, I prefer “Landbridge American.”
    Oh: and should it be “tribe” or “nation?”

  8. There is no right answer. Ideally, one should use what the person wants to be called, whether it is Indian, Native, First Nation, tribe, etc.

  9. The way I read the post, Pete, you have two Montana legislators – both of Native descent – saying that they prefer the term American Indian. Given that’s what they prefer….I know I’ll be sticking with that.

    Now – I appreciate Native American researcher’s input – because I have, in the past, just used some of the terms he suggested – Native, Indian and tribe (and tribal)….

    Whew! What a conundrum – and I hear ya’ – you don’t want to offend anyone, but I’ll pose this: Maybe American Indians are like Democrats – getting them all to agree is as difficult as herding cats. At least on this issue.

  10. Jim Lang

    You probably couldn’t go wrong by referring to someone’s tribe, and skipping the whole indian/native thing altogether.

  11. goof houlihan

    Well, I’ve never liked “native american” for it’s obvious conundrum. Most people in america are native to this country, that is, they belong to it by birth. The use of “Native Montanan” by people who were born here is exactly correct in the preferred definition of “native”.

    American Indian solves that problem.

  12. Craig Moore

    I think Canada his it right — “First Nations.”

  13. Ochenski

    Pete –

    During my 12 years as a tribal lobbyist to the Montana Legislature, I’d say far and away most of the legislators and tribal representatives I spoke and worked with would refer to themselves as “Indians.”

    As you know, whenever the press or politicians or tribal members speak of the areas in which they live, it’s called “Indian Country.”

    Having testified tons of times on bills, I generally stuck with Indian in reference to my clients and, of course, always referred to tribes by their correct name when speaking or addressing someone specifically.

    That’s about all the help I can offer on this question, but I have to agree with the post above that the bottom line is that you should address people by whatever name or title they prefer.

  14. K.

    “We were enslaved as American Indians, we were colonized as American Indians and we will gain our freedom as American Indians and then we will call ourselves any damn thing we choose.”

    From “I am an American Indian, not a Native American!” by Russell Means http://www.peaknet.net/~aardvark/means.html

    I originally read this short essay when I was living and teaching on the Navajo rez. The folks there called themselves Dine, Navajo, and Indian (and probably in that order). I took my cue from them.

  15. The way it was explained to me is that Native American isn’t adequately representative of the North American nations. To try to put Inka, Lakota and Atzec under one generic banner I think is the part that doesn’t sit well. Especially when some of us draw our ethnic identities from small island nations in relatively small continent, but never have trouble being identified as Irish or Scottish.




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