Native American vs Indian vs Indigenous: What to call the first Americans

While there are 574 federally recognized Native American tribes across the country, there are 39 tribal nations in Oklahoma.
Published: May. 28, 2023 at 8:37 PM CDT
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LAWTON, Okla. (KSWO) - There’s an age-old debate involving what to call the first Americans.

You may use the words “Native American”, “Indian” or “Indigenous” interchangeably, but what’s the “right” answer, if there is one?

“There’s a lot of terms that have been bounced around, and you’ll never find any universal acceptance from that, from anybody because it’s just too complex,” said Kiowa Tribe Chairman Lawrence Spottedbird. “It’s not simple because of the complexities of the history and our relationship with Europeans and the English people coming to America.”

Indigenous people have suffered throughout history.. From assimilation to mass genocide. Hundreds of tribes were obliterated.

While there are 574 federally recognized Native American tribes across the country, there are 39 tribal nations in Oklahoma.

Of the tribal leaders 7News spoke to, some had looser preferences of what to be called.

“I kind of tend to use American Indian,” said Spottedbird.

While others want to be identified in their own language.

“My preference would be Nʉmʉnʉʉ, which is the term of the Comanche people for themselves,” said Comanche Nation Vice Chairman Dr. Cornel Pewewardy.

Culturally speaking, the term ‘Indian’ is incorrect due to the simple fact that Indian people come from the continent of Asia, but where does the term “Indian” even come from?

“Columbus was looking for a so-called ‘new world’ and that he landed on the coast of the Indies or South Asia,” said Pewewardy.

While generally accepted terms exist, and it’s important to appropriately label Indigenous people, some tribal leaders touched on what they say really matters.. How they identify themselves.

“So people would like to know what is the precise term or the most accurate, whether it be culturally or politically correct. It would be the terms for the people themselves, not a term given to them outside,” said Pewewardy.

“Caigu, which is what we call ourselves. Caigu, which is the principle people,” Spottedbird said.

While you may never be able to come up with a one-size fits all term, there are definitely terms to avoid. Most derogatory terms have a dark meaning behind them.

“There was one state that actually paid bounties to the European people to kill an Indian and bring a part of that Indian to get money,” Spottedbird shared. “That’s where the term redskin came from.”

For those who are curious, and have no Indigenous Heritage, Dr. Pewewardy encourages just starting a conversation.

“Because you’re asking a question of inquiry. You want to know rather than to have somebody tell you or pick up a book and read it and ‘oh, that’s how these people are.’,” the Vice Chairman added.

Simply put, there is no universal term or “right” way to identify Indigenous people. The best thing to do is be mindful, and respectful, no matter who we’re talking to.