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January 17, 2011

Introduction & 1st question: American Indian or Native American?

Guests are drawn to the National Museum of the American Indian for a kaleidoscope of reasons and intentions. One is to experience Native cultures, an experience that is enhanced when visitors have an opportunity to speak with staff members face-to-face. People working at the museum’s welcome desk, as cultural interpreters, in visitor services, and at the resource center all serve on the front lines, meeting, greeting, and answering questions.

I am an American Indian and one of these liaisons for the museum. My name is Dennis Zotigh. I am Kiowa, Santee Dakota, and Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo. I grew up receiving cultural knowledge from both my maternal and paternal grandparents. My parents further made sure that I was well acquainted with first-hand knowledge of other, diverse tribal cultures and their aesthetics, across North America.

Enlarged Blog Photo by Travis Helms caption With this rich foundation, I became the director of an internationally known professional Native dance company and traveled to 26 countries representing American Indians. Recognizing my working knowledge, the Oklahoma Historical Society hired me to help develop the Indian gallery of the new Oklahoma History Center as a researcher and historian. While presenting a conference paper at the British Museum in London in 2004, I was approached by co-presenter, Terry Snowball, who’s now my colleague. Terry encouraged me to apply for the advisor position for the 2005 National Powwow.  I got the job, and my personal Native history began a new chapter.

My experience both traveling abroad and speaking daily to guests who visit our museum has shown me that there is a worldwide fascination with Indian cultures. I believe in the philosophy that the only bad question is the one that is never asked. I’ve been asked the gamut of questions pertaining to Native culture, from the insulting (a good test for that theory) to the academic and cultural-specific.

Beginning with this blog, I’d like to share a series of questions that I’ve been asked, give my answers, and invite you to discuss, debate, and add your personal ideas and experiences.

The first question is, “What do we call you, American Indian or Native American?”

My answer? Ultimately, I would like to be referred to by my tribal names of Kiowa, Santee Dakota, and Ohkay Owingeh! Most Native people also appreciate being associated with their particular tribes. But I know this is difficult. In actuality, the reference of Native American vs. American Indian is largely generational. My grandparents and other Native elders first referred to themselves by their tribes, although I also heard them less frequently refer to themselves as American Indian.  I refer to myself by my tribal affiliation first, but don’t mind being called Indian.

The generation younger than mine refers to themselves as Native Americans. Others have followed their politically correct identity. Were you born in the United States? If so, you are technically a native American, a label that literally describes anyone who was born in and remains a citizen of a country in North, South, or Central America.

"Indian" is the term used in federal law. It is also the official term used by major U.S. Indian agencies and organizations, including the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Indian Health Service, National Congress of the American Indians, National Indian Education Association, and National Museum of the American Indian. In modern usage, the legal term "Indian" usually means an enrolled member of a federally recognized tribe (or one who is eligible to be enrolled in a federally recognized tribe).


Please comment and turn this blog into a conversation.


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American Indian, then maybe tribal.

Dennis's post has prompted a number of comments on the museum's popular Facebook page. If you have something you'd like to add, please do, in the comments here or at http://www.facebook.com/NationalMuseumoftheAmericanIndianinDC. We're interested in what you're thinking.

Here's the roundup for Monday afternoon:

Diana D.— North American Indian

Nancy R.— I always prefer American Indian.

Breeze W.— To me 'American Indian' implies there are two kinds of Indian. I much prefer NATIVE American since we were here first and still are going strong in the 21st century!

Nancy R.— Native!!! There are too many natives. Whites saying they're native from where ever they live or come from. Come on now! American Indian! WE'RE FROM AMERICA

Tessa T.— I agree, Breeze - that sums it up completely : )

Jolly C.— this semester i had a biology teach say that it was wrong to be calling myself Native american because we are all from africa. then he asked me what i wanted to be called. how bout the 1st people? sorry im not from india so Indian never sounded right to me

Jennifer D.— I prefer Copper River Athabascan from ALASKA for myself.


Sienna N.— I don't use either, because we were here prior to any "America".... I simply state my tribe.... but for applications and such I use Native American, because I'm "native" before I'm "American".

Art W.— Thanks, Mr. Zotigh. A good clear explanation. Sincerely,
Art Wolf (Swensk, Norsk, Volga Deutsch).

Don't care to carry the brand that Christopher Columbus gave!

I think it should be Native North American because America is a continent and if you say Native American that is a general name for all of the continent native people. But there's a difference between North, Central and South America. And as far a being called and Indian, I don't think the term is right, because we have nothing to do with India.

it is nice to read and learn about different cultures
Thank You for taking time to wright this

Lately I have heard Indian people referring to other Indian people as "Natives and Indigenous Americans."

I think you are all basically just Americans

I am one of the millions of citizens that fancied saying I had some "Indian" blood in me while I was growing up. While I'm sure there are many people in the United States with "Indian" blood in them, I'm sure many are like me and really have no proof of that statement.

I do remember when I was saying that as a kid I was thinking about how proud I was to say that and said it as a part of the bragging every kid does.

When I think of "Indians" now I think of a noble and proud race of people that, even though there were many different tribes, I would love to be associated with.

I definitely hate the way Indians were treated by the europeans that settled here and stole the lands.

But this is a great question, "What should the people who lived here before the arrogant europeans arrived be called?"

I think they should be called, with all respect, whatever they want to be called.

But it would be great if there were a name invented or dragged up from their past that conveyed what a proud and noble people they truly are.

Great post!

It is nice that you are moderating this blog, otherwise spammers fill it with garbage.

Although my genealogy goes back to Indian blood about 10-11 generations back, I don't feel native, but I do think to be called Native Americans commands more respect from Joe-public.

Native American is both descriptive and referential, as a "native" is a natural inhabitant of a place. I work with people from India, and I find it hard to even use the term Indian, after all these strange misnomers! I have to use East-Indian.

Human Being

Dennis truly seeks to preserve the past, to broaden how Native Americans are viewed in the present and to create new opportunities for Indian youth in the future.

Dennis's post has prompted a number of comments on the museum's popular Facebook page. If you have something you'd like to add, please do, in the comments here.

American Indian or Native American?
Really fantastic post...
Keep on Going...

Love this topic. Thanks for posting.

Native American is apt as it implies that the Indian tribes were there first, before the settlers from the old England, European etc origins. Land should in theory belong to the indigenous, 'native Americans.'

Dennis is a great man and a truly great American. This country seems to forget our "native" people and are totally ignorant to the richness of their history.

Great article highlighting common but interesting issue. I agree that One should not be ashamed of being affiliate himself openly to his tribe or belongings. My father used to say the same thing and he did not feel any shame in highlighting his tribal background.

It shows how clearly you fully grasp this matter. Bookmarked this page,many thanks god someone that basically knows what they are talking about – thank you

I love this article and have shared it with my family. My great grandmother was full-blooded Cherokee. I personally like Native American.

It is surely Native North American.

there is nice information.

great article to highlighted here.

it should be Native North American !!!!!

hi nice site

Dennis is an example of a real patriot. Dennis truly seeks to preserve the past, to broaden how Native Americans are viewed in the present and to create new Although my genealogy goes back to Indian blood about 10-11 generations back, I don't feel native, but I do think to be called Native Americans commands more.

Living in Central America, although most people are referred to as Panamanian, Nicaraguan or which ever country they were born in, when it comes to classification, it is proper to refer to them by tribe such as the Kuna People for example.

Isla Pergola

Cool Article... 100% agree

In Colombia, the tribes have been displaced by violence and this has led to gradually lose the ancestral traditions of them all, and greatly increased poverty. is a shame.

One should not be ashamed of one's origin. That's what I feel. Today you find people trying to blend into the herd and losing their distinctive identity. Preserving your identity is not bad though you may be the butt of jokes by insensitive people. Every culture has something to offer to the world and we can learn from them.

I like the American Natives, they have a very nice culture.
In Mexico there are a lot of Mexican Tribes

I like the article.

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It’s a happy day to be able to read an article that is so clearly researched and written. I have very much enjoyed this informational content. Your layout is excellent. I will come back again.

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William Shakespeare wrote: "A rose by any other name would smell as sweet." Meaning no matter what people are actually called as a group, they are still individual characters with personalities all their own.

So whether it is American Indians or Native Americans, you are still a group of people with a rich heritage.

Best wishes,


Whilst the debate rages, as an African living away from Africa, the same sort of issue reared it's head with me. As far as I am concerned, I am African first and foremost, irrespective of what anyone else thinks.

Pride in ones own heritage is great to see, and its shows in this article.

Best wishes from all at Elliptical Trainers

Nice information for me I have to
bookmark it thanks buddy

Native American history is unbelievably rich and yet movies, television and media rarely focus on it. And it's a big part of why America is what it is today.

I appreciate your article.One should not feel inferior regarding his origin as every culture has something to learn from it.


Dennis has done something worthwhile to try to preserve the history of the past and this is something that is important for the future.

En Colombia, las tribus han sido desplazadas por la violencia y esto ha llevado a perder poco a poco las tradiciones ancestrales de todos ellos, y la pobreza aumenta considerablemente. Es una vergüenza.

wow character, Comprendo. ¿Quizás de ahí que algunos tribus de la selva escojan mover más profundo en la selva y no tener contacto con el mundo del exterior?

Until I read this post I really didn't think it mattered whether the terms Native American or American Indian were used. But now that I know there is a legal definition for Indian and it seems to be a very generic association to a tribe, then I would have to say that being called by their name and tribe would be the best and Native American also a respectful way to reference a person or tribe. What I do know is they need to be recognized for their incredible contribution to America through their culture. We can remember there history through their art and prints of their life.

As a non American, maybe my comments mean little, but nevertheless here goes:
the American Indians are true Native Americans with a supremely rich background and History.

I feel that their past knowledge of how the Earth and its Vibratiobs etc should be resurrected - they were in touch with Universal Energy.

People from Germany = Germans
People from Italy = Italians
People from Greece = Greeks
People from INDIA = INDIANS

Calling Native Americans "Indians" is just perpetuating an error that Columbus made over 500 years ago. If he had thought that he had reached China, would we now be calling Native Americans "American Chinese?"

My great-grandmother was a full-blood Delaware. I was born in Wisconsin.

Am I "native American" because of my place of birth or my genealogy?

The best-known organization that advocates for descendants of indigenous people, the group that shot it out with the FBI at Wounded Knee in 1973, is known as:


Case closed. "Native American" is just another term invented by white liberals to stroke their sense of moral superiority.

Hi everyone,
I am always in quest for knowledge, and this article enforced the reason; I finally understand the difference between Indian and American indians concept. I would like to subscribe to your newsletters.

Stay blessed!

i dont know about indian obvious problem of introducing the culture of the nation's struggle indian inspired me to intriduce my own culture in indonesia succesful greeting for you

Dennis has done something worthwhile to try to preserve the history of the past and this is something that is important for the future. Great Post

I'm at work, so I don't have time to read all the comments, and apologize if someone has already addressed this. I've always been passing fond of the Canadian designation "First Nations." Sidesteps the whole question of who's native (I'm of Irish and Italian descent, but both my parents and I were born in the USA, so I think I'm entitled to be call myself a native of this land) and also bypasses the "Indian" controversy, while granting historical respect to those whose ancestors were here long before Europeans showed up.
I hope that makes sense--I'm writing rather on the fly here...

I think you are all basically just Americans
Don't care to carry the brand that Christopher Columbus gave!

Does it really matter what tribe you belong? it may be native Indian or American Indian. It all boils down to on think that everyone is an American.


Yes, it does matter what tribe each individual Native belongs to, because that is who we are. An overwhelming majority of Native people would quickly correct you if you assumed or called them by the wrong tribe(s). We are very proud of the tribes affiliations.

It is interesting that a good many people believe that Columbus made an error when using the name Indians. People, in that time period, were not known as Indians, (India, Pakistan & Nepal were one.) However; indigenous people south of the U.S. were known as Indios. Therefore, Indians are American. In researching for my novels, I learned this tidbit of info.

Thank you for such an interesting blog. I wrestled with which term to use until I interpreted (sign language) at a conference (all tribes, almost no white) regarding tribal cultures, about 1998. Many speakers there hated the term "native American". So, for years I've tried to use American Indian. Living in Oklahoma most if my life, I've never thought negatively about being "Indian"...in fact, in my family we were quite proud to say we had some tribal bloodlines, although not much by my time. I do think it is more difficult to mention multiple tribes, rather an a single phrase, but I will do my best to be respectful and set a good example for others.
Beth Ward

I taught college for many years in Albuquerque New Mexico. During the first day of each class I always asked the students two questions. First, if you are a descendent of the Americans that were here before the Europeans arrived, what would you like to be called? Second, if you are a woman, would you rather be included in the term “guys”, or is there another term? I was somewhat drowned in the flood of political correctness that has happened over the years, and while residing in the Northwest I had been told that the answer to the first question was Native American. I was wrong. All students over the years told me that they used the term Indian, and wanted to be referred to as Indians. Second, the women preferred to be included in the term guys, rather than have a separate equivalent term for women. Alternatively, when a group of people was to be divided by sex, the women preferred the use of the words women and men. I was initially surprised at the answers to both questions... If you are even in doubt, I suggest that you do what I did – ask.

Native American is very appropriate because it implies that the Indian tribes there first, before the settlers of old England, etc. European origin. Soil should be held communally theory, 'American original.

I don't know how about indian however i think know more about Indonesia, because im native Indonesia

I think you are all basically just Americans, Thank you for such an interesting blog

Very nice article you presented here. !!!

I appreciate your article.One should not feel inferior regarding his origin as every culture has something to learn from it.
Great Entry!

I hail from the Caribbean where my indigenous Taino (and Island Carib) people had the misfortune of the First a Encounter in 1492 with Columbus and the a Spanish who named the indigenous Amerindians, "Indio". This differentiated them from their term "Indu" for the "true Indians" of the Asian Subcontinent, as people from India often remind me. The ethnocentric English preferred the word "Indian" then "Red Indian" to differentiate the Caribbean Amerindians to their genetic Asian cousins in Asia.
You may read my researched article titled "Are 'Indians' Indians?" in our Hu'un Magazine at http://powhatanmuseum.com/Magazine.html.

It should be a Native North American.

nice post

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