A native person is someone who was born in a place or whose people came from that place. It is acceptable when applied to whites, possibly racist when applied to others. Compare:
- native of England
- native of Kenya
That bad colonial smell comes mainly from the British Empire.
By the 1630s it meant “a non-white original inhabitant of a country” – in other words, the people whose lands whites were taking over, like the American Indians.
By the 1800s it gained a clear racist edge as white rule spread quickly across North America, Australia, the Pacific, Africa and Asia.
By 1950 it meant something like the following at its worst, as the “Oxford English Dictionary” informs us:
‘Native’ can be approximated … Greedy for beads … and alcoholic drinks. Suspect of cannibalism. Addicted to drumbeating and lewd dancing. More or less naked. Sporadically treacherous. Probably polygamous and simultaneously promiscuous. Picturesque. Comic when trying to speak English or otherwise ape white ways.
Stereotypes like these helped to excuse their dispossession by whites. As British world power sank after 1945, so did use of the word.
By the 1980s “indigenous peoples” had become more common than “native peoples”.
“Indigenous” means pretty much the same thing but it does not sound as racist since whites did not use it much in their skinhead glory days of the 1800s and early 1900s. But already in the 2010s “indigenous” sounds like a well-meaning white person’s way of saying “tribal”, meaning “not civilized”. Even worse, “indigenous” is applied to plants and animals but almost never to white people, which makes it seem like indigenous people are part of nature, not a part of human society with rights.
Enter “Native”: By the 1950s American Indians began reclaiming the word “native”, writing it with a capital N. Thus the term “Native American”. “Native” is now applied more generally to all peoples native to the lands of the present-day U.S. and Canada before the European Expansion: Alaska Natives, Native Hawaiians, etc.
Beyond North America the word seems less common. This is partly because other terms are used for pre-Expansion peoples in other countries:
- Australia: Aboriginal, Aborigine
- New Zealand: Maori
- Israel: Palestinians
- South Africa: black South Africans
In New Zealand and Israel natives belong to a single ethnic group; in South Africa, to the same (Western-defined) race. Thus no need to use a more general term. Many would not regard Palestinians or black South Africans as “indigenous” because they are seen as “civilized” (living in cities).
Does it make sense to have a common term for these people? Yes, because they all face issues of settler colonialism taking over their land and, in many cases, the education of their young. It is a process that goes back to Columbus and is still going on. “Indigenous” is already the wrong word. “Native” still sounds too racist, but that seems to be changing. Best would be a word that makes clear their cultural and land rights.
- Other terms:
- Christopher Columbus
- White Saviour trope
- Natives through the National Geographic lens – here “native” means non-Westerner
- Native Americans according to Western thought: a brief history