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.


Labels that an Indigenous person prefers for themself.


Labels that an Indigenous community prefers for itself.


Labels that have a specific political and legal meaning.


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. 



Aboriginal (with a capital ‘A’) is generally not used to describe the Indigenous Peoples of what is now known as North America and is more widely used to describe the Indigenous Peoples of what is now known as Australia. However, the appropriate language and terminology used to name Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples is a nuanced issue that is NOT explored in this guide and we encourage you to seek out additional resources.

Alaska Native

Alaska Natives are the Indigenous Peoples of what is now known as Alaska.

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 what is now known as Canada.


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.

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


A term growing in popularity that many feel is more appropriate than “Native American” as a descriptor for Peoples whose ancestry predates America as a country. It is also used as a synonym for Indigenous. The “N” should always be capitalized.

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 Hawaiian

Native Hawaiians or Kānaka Maoli, are the Indigenous Peoples of Hawai’i. It is considered both inappropriate and inaccurate to address Native Hawaiians as Native Americans since the Kingdom of Hawai’i was overthrown in a coup led by American businessmen with the help of U.S. troops. In 1993, the U.S. Government officially apologized in a resolution that acknowledged the coup as illegal and “further acknowledges that the Native Hawaiian people never directly relinquished to the United States their claims to their inherent sovereignty as a people over their national lands.”



Intersectional Indigenous Identities: Afro-Indigenous and Black Indigenous Peoples

We want to emphasize that collective language concerning Indigenous people is complex and has important nuances. This guide is intended as an introduction and starting point.
 We also invite any feedback you might have so we can continue to share.  

Black Indigenous/Black Indian/Black Native

Terms that refer to peoples who have both Indigenous and African lineage. These terms can be but are not always synonymous with Afro-Indigenous. Ultimately, their usage depends on how an individual chooses to describe themselves.

Blood quantum

A system developed by the United States federal government to determine how much “Indian blood” an Indigenous person has and if they are qualified for tribal enrollment. Blood quantum limits accessibility to citizenship and is designed to decrease enrollment numbers. Today, some tribes still use blood quantum as criteria for tribal enrollment. As part of their sovereign status, every federally recognized tribe determines its own criteria for membership and enrollment.


A term that refers to people who were formerly enslaved. This is also an important legal and political classification whose contemporary usage refers to the descendants of people enslaved by Indigenous people or descendants of former enslaved people who lived among Indigenous people. For tribes like the Cherokee Nation, this is an especially complicated issue. Most recently, the Cherokee Supreme Court struck a portion of its constitution that formerly restricted freedmen from enrolling and running for office. 

One-drop rule

A social and legal principle that declared a person with even one Black ancestor is classified Black themselves. This concept led to many Afro-Indigenous peoples having their Indigenous identities and even their tribal citizenship denied. It is now another complicating factor when Afro-Indigenous people are required to prove lineage for tribal enrollment and other matters.  

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