Section 1: Introduction

The people featured in this unit have been called by different names. Examples are “Indian,” “American Indian,” and “Native American.”

The story of Columbus tells us that when he landed in North America, he thought he was in India, so he called the people living here “Indians.” This was confusing because people who live in India are also called “Indians.” In order to avoid confusion, the native people of North America were often called “American Indians.”

In the 1970s, the government and some other groups began calling the American Indians “Native Americans.” People are called natives if they are born in a certain place or country, so actually, anyone born in America could be called a native American. If “Native” is capitalized, it refers to American Indians.

A survey in 1996 found that most American Indians preferred to be called “American Indian” rather than “Native American,” although many Indians did not care one way or the other. The very best way to refer to American Indians, however, is by their tribes. People from Norway, Germany, and other countries on the continent of Europe are all called Europeans, but they have different histories, languages, and cultures. In the same way, American Indian tribes each have their own history, language, and culture that are different from those of other tribes.

It is most respectful to use the names of the tribes when known, but no matter what terms are used, the greatest possible respect is intended for the people who are featured in this unit.

The different tribes each have their own rules of defining who is an Indian of their tribe, but many people who consider themselves to be Indians are not members of any tribe. So who is an American Indian? Someone having a parent or grandparent who is an American Indian would qualify. The Bureau of Indian Affairs defines an Indian as anyone who states that he or she is an Indian. People who call themselves American Indians share a feeling of belonging to a special group that non-Indians cannot really understand.

Earthlodges at On-A-Slant village.

Figure 1. Earthlodges at On-A-Slant village near the present-day city of Mandan, North Dakota. (ND Tourism, JL 217-5)