So what’s correct? Either? Neither? Or something altogether different? To learn the answer, we need to travel back to the ’60’s when, as a people, we were trying to distinguish ourselves and also identify others. Culture groups like African-American, Asian-American, Latin-American, and others surfaced, so it seemed natural to call America’s first citizens, Native-Americans.
The plan worked for several decades until the category became overcrowded with the inclusion of Alaskan-Americans, Hawaiian-Americans, and even Samoan-Americans. How could we ever make a distinction? It became even more confusing when someone realized that you didn’t have to be Native-American to be native-american. In fact, a person born in Cleveland this morning is a native-american. He or she was born in America, therefore native. Eventually, a new designation, American Indian, was adopted.
Why not? After all, when Columbus, who believed he had reached India, saw the first indigenous person, he declared, “Los Indios!” Not being Indians from India, and sharing the Native-American moniker, the term American Indian appeared to fit perfectly. Under most circumstances, either term is acceptable and are frequently used interchangeably.
Still, there are issues. When speaking of a “people,” either term may be used. But, when speaking about a person, The preferred method would be to use his or her tribal affiliation. “Andrew is a Cherokee,” or “Sara is Seminole.” If you don’t know their tribe, call them Andrew or Sara. If they are of a mind, they will tell you if they think you need to know.
Wait, there’s still more. Because every tribal name we use came from someplace other than tribal members themselves, we need to be sensitive to an individual’s feelings. For example, Cherokee is the name used by Creek Indians to describe people who spoke another language. By the way, Creeks didn’t call themselves Creek, either.
Cherokee called themselves “Aniyunwiya,” The first people. Very few members still use that name, but many prefer the Cherokee pronunciation of their name, “Tsalagi.” Remember, it’s their choice to determine how they should be addressed.
Finally, we need to clarify one more thing. Is Native-American or American Indian an ethnic group? On many government forms, it looks like the answer might be yes, but it’s not. Either is a term we attach to indigenous people for simplicity. They in no way, mean there is an internal cultural or pan-national unity, American Indians are composed of more than 500 hundred different nations and cultures with different identities. Homogenization does not exist.