Indian (1493) means those native to the Americas, those whose families were there before 1492, when Columbus arrived. Inuits (Eskimos) are not seen as Indians in English, while Filipinos in Spanish are (or were).
Because the word can also mean someone from India, sometimes people use
- “American Indian”,
- “Red Indian” (British),
- “Native American” (U.S.),
- “First American”,
- “First Nations” (Canadian) or
- “Amerindian” (scholarly).
Because “American” in English mainly means the U.S., still further confusion is added.
Indians who come to Anglo America from Latin America are seen mainly as Latinos, Mexicans and so on by Anglos. According to this way of thinking, Mayans are Mayans only in the history books or in their native land, but not if they move to Los Angeles.
Russell Means of the American Indian Movement:
I abhor the term Native American. 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.
In the US, most Indians seem to use “Indian”, just as most blacks use “black”.
Indian is a racialized term: it not only sees Indians mainly according to race but, by putting 2,000 different cultures under one word, it leads to stereotyping and profoundly false conclusions. All those other terms, like “First American” and “Amerindian”, make the same mistake. About the only thing Indians have in common is being seen and dealt with as “Indians” by whites, which in turn makes race into reality, as socially constructed as it is.
That means if you are “Indian” in White American society it is best to own it and be proud of it. The “Just Be American” approach has been tried – it was government policy in the early 1900s – and has been found wanting. Big time.
The term “Indian” comes from a letter Columbus wrote in 1493 where, in an offhand way, he called the people of the Caribbean “Indians” – because he thought they were in India. In those days Asia east of the Indus river was called “India”, like on this map that Columbus may have used:
In 1501 Amerigo Vespucci discovered the mistake: that the Americas (named after him) were not part of India at all. But it was too late.
The word came into English in the middle 1500s from translations of Spanish accounts of the Americas. The words “negro” (1555), “race” (1580), “European” (late 1500s), and “whites” (early 1600s) soon followed.
Until the 1600s the most common English term for the people in the Americas was “savages”. That laid the groundwork for many of the ill-informed stereotypes that were poured into the racialized frame of “Indian”, leading in time to genocide and lasting down to this day.
My general practice has been to talk about Americans and then, when race is important, add “White”, “Black”, “Native” or “Asian” in front of it or, where “American” is understood, to drop it and just say “blacks”, “natives”, “whites”, etc.
– Abagond, 2012.
Sources: Robert F. Berkhofer, “The White Man’s Indian” (1979), Charles C. Mann: “1491” (2006), “Shorter Oxford English Dictionary” (2007), Harold E. Driver, “Indians of North America” (1969), especially his cultural maps where it soon becomes apparent that before Columbus Indians had very little in common, The word “race”, growing up Native American, The eight stages of genocide