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Indigenous Identity: More Than “Something Else”

November 24, 2020 | 4 min read

Indigenous Identity: More Than “Something Else”

During live coverage of the 2020 U.S. election, CNN posted a graphic that identified Native Americans as “Something Else”. Native people were frustrated and reacted swiftly, denouncing the blunder (and coming up with some truly hilarious memes in the process).

“Something Else” quickly became the latest symbol of the misrepresentation and damaging lack of understanding by the broader public that Native people and their communities face every day.  

It’s ironic that this gaffe happened during Native American Heritage Month, however, it has opened up a nationwide conversation about how Native people are referenced and understood 

This is why we created a guide of identifiers that refer to Indigenous peoples. We understand and want to emphasize that collective terms and labels for Indigenous people are complex and have important nuances. As you navigate our guide, we encourage you to think of these names in the following categories: 

  1. Labels that an Indigenous person prefers for themself. 
  2. Labels that an Indigenous community prefers for itself. 
  3. Labels that have a specific political and legal meaning. 
  4. The label(s) given to Indigenous peoples and communities by the broader public, academics, and popular culture.  

A good rule of thumb is to always ask an Indigenous person how they prefer to be described. It’s good to also be aware most Indigenous individuals prefer to be called by their specific tribal affiliation(s) and many may also prefer to use their tribe’s traditional name said in the tribe’s traditional language.  

These are some guidelines to help you navigate these identifiers and labels:

Aboriginal – Aboriginal (with a capital ‘A’) is commonly used to describe the Indigenous peoples of mainland Australia. However, “aboriginal” with a lower case ‘a’ is synonymous with Indigenous as both words describe the original inhabitants of a geographic location. 

Alaska Native - Alaska Natives are the Indigenous peoples of Alaska. It is also a very distinct legal and political classification under U.S. law. 

American Indian – A term that refers to the Indigenous peoples of the contiguous United States and usually excludes Alaska Natives and Native Hawaiians. This term is more commonly used in academia and as a demographic label. According to the Indigenous Futures Survey, this term has fallen out of favor with Indigenous people as only 4% of those surveyed choose to identify as “American Indian”. However, like “Alaska Native,” it has a very important legal and political classification because this is the term referenced throughout U.S. statutes that govern the nation-to-nation relationship between tribes and the federal government, grounded in the constitution and individual treaties.  

First Nations - A term that refers to the Indigenous peoples of Canada.  

Indian – Some Natives use “Indian” or “NDN” as a colloquial or slang name for each other and it can be a very common and personal reference among Native people and communities. However, it is almost never acceptable for non-Native people to use this term outside of the following appropriate contexts: 
          •   Organizational names such as Bureau of Indian Affairs or Indian Health Services 
          •   Names of federally recognized tribes e.g., Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin, etc. 
          •   “Indian Country” is a legal reference for tribal lands and jurisdictions but it's also used as a collective name for Native communities in the U.S. 

Indigenous – The original inhabitants of a geographic location. It is often used as an umbrella term for Native peoples no matter where they originate from. Also, when referring to Indigenous peoples, be sure to capitalize the word.  

Native American – A term that refers to American Indians and Alaska Natives and usually excludes Native Hawaiians. This term is also often a broader reference to people from tribes that are not federally-recognized. 

Native - This term has recently gained popularity as many feel it is more appropriate and accurate than “Native American” as a descriptor for peoples whose ancestry predates America as a country. Native is also sometimes used as a synonym for Indigenous.  

Native Hawaiian - Native Hawaiians, or Kanaka Maoli, are the Indigenous peoples of Hawai’i. It is considered inappropriate and inaccurate to address Native Hawaiians as Native Americans since the Kingdom of Hawaii was a sovereign nation overthrown in a coup led by American businessmen with the help of US troops. 

We hope this basic guide helps you as you consider your terminology for Native peoples. We also hope it’s a good starting point for further education and exploration about our rich people, nations, and cultures. To explore further, please visit our Investing In Native Communities platform.  

For more information about how Native peoples today choose to identify themselves (and their experiences, attitudes, and priorities), please read the Indigenous Futures Survey, a new Native-led effort by several of our partner organizations. 


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