How to distinguish between American Indians and Indian Indians in native English (language) parlance?

Can I say Indian Indian to say Indian from Asia compared to the Native Americans?


6 Answers 6


"Native Americans" is the preferred term. These days it's less common to refer to them as "American Indians" or "Indians". However that isn't to say that they don't refer to themselves as "Indian" or use their own, tribal name (like Lakota, Sioux, etc.).

A full discussion of this is probably too much, but you can see this article for an alternate point of view. Or this one for another perspective. Apparently "Indigenous" is also acceptable.

Nevertheless, I suggest you use "Native American" when referring to people from that ethnic group, and "Indian" when referring to people from India (although, sometimes we are forced to say "Indian from India" to clearly distinguish what we mean).

If this sounds confusing, it is. In the multicultural mix that is the United States, it's often difficult to know the exact term to use that won't cause offense to any particular group.

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    I don't know that "Native Americans" is the preferred term. I live in "Indian country" in the Western U.S., and the natives I know seem to use that term only when talking to whites. Believe it or not, they commonly refer to themselves as Indians, and even 'skins (short for redskins). In one of the pueblos around here I recently saw a bumper sticker on a pickup truck which read "Skins are In" ...
    – Robusto
    Commented Nov 29, 2016 at 23:40
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    @Robusto I'd caution that (as you know) any ethnic group can call themselves whatever they want. It's the media and others who have to tread lightly and pick some non-offensive term. Many Natives might say they don't care -- until you meet one who does, and you get in trouble.
    – Andrew
    Commented Nov 30, 2016 at 0:17
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    Notably, the Smithsonian Institute museum devoted to this topic is the National Museum of the American Indian (very interesting museum, also, best food on the Mall).
    – KRyan
    Commented Nov 30, 2016 at 3:12
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    "Native American" is preferred only by the politically correct. Many American Indians dislike the term, e.g. nativetimes.com/index.php/life/commentary/… Per a US Census Bureau, 49% of Indians preferred to be called Indians, vs 37% for "Native American". And many think of themselves as belonging to particular tribes, and aren't too fond of being lumped together with people who might be their traditional enemies. It's sort of like referring to the people of Scotland as 'English' :-)
    – jamesqf
    Commented Nov 30, 2016 at 4:37
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    @jamesqf: Note that the statistic you cite is over 20 years old (it's item 4 in this bibliography). It would be interesting to learn of updated results to such surveys. In any case, the conclusion ""Native American" is preferred only by the politically correct" seems like an overreach; the stat itself contradicts it, and "the politically correct" is a designation without any fixed meaning. Commented Nov 30, 2016 at 6:00

If your meaning of "Indian" is clear from context, you can use "Indian".

If you need to be more specific, you can use:

  • "American Indian" (A descendant of the peoples who inhabited the American continents before 1492, but not including the Aleuts, Eskimos, and related tribes. "American Indian" can also be used as an adjective. The ancestors of the Aleuts and Eskimos arrived in North America long after the ancestors of the American Indians arrived.)
  • "West Indian" (A person from the West Indies -- the Bahamas and the islands along the north and east edges of the Caribbean Sea. "West Indian" can also be used as an adjective.)
  • "East Indian" (A person from the Indian subcontinent. "East Indian" can also be used as an adjective.)

If you need to be more specific, you can. For example:

  • Utes, Cherokee, and Mohawks are just a few tribes of American Indians.
  • Cubans, Jamaicans, and Puerto Ricans are just a few groups of West Indians.
  • Punjabis, Gujaratis, and Bengalis are just a few groups of East Indians.
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    "East Indian" isn't commonly used in British English, and would more likely refer to smaller countries and regions not India itself. Confusingly, it can also mean people from the Indian subcontinent who are living in the West Indies! In BrE, "Indian" on its own means "from the Indian sub-continent." Also, "Afro-Caribbean" would be now more politically correct in the UK than "West Indian."
    – alephzero
    Commented Nov 29, 2016 at 23:14
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    @alephzero Surely you oversimplify, and Geoff Greenidge would not be referred to as an Afro-Caribbean simply for being from Barbados.
    – choster
    Commented Nov 30, 2016 at 2:36
  • @choster "Afro-Caribbean" is widely understood in BrEnglish (and in some technical fields, such as medical literature, in the US) to refer to someone now living in the Caribbean (or more recently from the Caribbean) whose ancestors are from Africa. That doesn't mean that anyone from the Caribbean is therefore "Afro-Caribbean". Commented Nov 30, 2016 at 17:10
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    Without the explanation I would have taken "East Indian" to mean someone from the East Indies - i.e. Indonesia or some nearby part of south-east Asia. Commented Nov 30, 2016 at 18:45
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    East Indian isn't particularly common in the US, either, in my experience. It mostly makes me think of the East India Company.
    – 1006a
    Commented Dec 1, 2016 at 0:50

This is actually a question native speakers (particularly in the USA) struggle with. Often times, you have to rely on context.

There are some who say that you should use the term "Native American" instead. Some of the people who will tell you that are Native American themselves.

However, Native Americans are divided on the subject (as Robusto mentioned in the comments). Many quite proudly prefer the term "Indian".

For people from India, sometimes you will hear people say things like "dot, not feather" to disambiguate, but that's so informal I wouldn't suggest being the first person in the conversation to do it (unless you are one of the two ethnicities in question). The other term I've heard is "Asian Indian". The third thing I've seen people do is contort the sentence to identify the person's heritage geographically, rather than ethnically. eg: "His parents are from India." or "of Indian extraction".

The best advice for what to call indigenous Americans I've seen is what my sister, Osage anthropologist Jean Dennison set down in the introduction of her book Colonial Entanglement*. I'll try to get an exact quote later, but IIRC her rule was basically:

  • Use the actual tribal name, if you can. (Some Native American tribes are as unrelated to each other as Swedes are to Chinese).
  • Use Native American if talking in grand general terms, rather than about a single person. Otherwise...
  • Use what they use themselves. For Osages, her contention is that is "Indian". (I'll add in my experience I agree, but I don't have an Anthropology degree to back me up).

* - shameless plug

  • I've been wondering how much of a mistake "Indian" really is recently. If we suppose all the "yellow" in Asia comes from Mongolia we end up with the west and the east Indians being rather closely related. Collaborating evidence: the Japanese didn't pick up much yellow either.
    – Joshua
    Commented Nov 30, 2016 at 20:03
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    @Joshua - As I mentioned, a lot of Native American peoples are quite unrelated to each other, so this kind of global racial talk about them really makes no sense whatsoever. Linguists and Geneticists have both come to the conclusion (from very different directions) that there were at least 3 separate waves of pre-Columbian immigration, all three by seemingly-unrelated peoples.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Nov 30, 2016 at 20:16

There are a couple of ways to do this with varying degrees of political correctness.

Saying "India Indian" to clarify, is one of them. Note, "India", not "Indian" as in your question. I've certainly used this before. This is probably between the following two on the "appropriateness" scale. It's less formal than the second option and more than the last.

You could also refer to the part of the globe, typically "South Asia", so you could say "South Asian Indian". This would be a very correct and proper way of saying it and doesn't have the repetitive nature of the previous version.

If you're less interested in "proper" and you say it with a smile, you can do what they did in Good Will Hunting and say "Dot, not feathers". This is questionably appropriate as it runs the risk of making you look bad but, personally, I find it amusing. Not everyone may agree. Regardless, this is very informal.

At some point in the future it may be more normal to be understood to mean "someone from India" when you say "Indian", but for now, there still tends to be confusion as we're transitioning away from "Indian" towards "Native American" or "First Nations".

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    "Dot, not feathers"... but, personally, I find it amusing. You might, but Sikhs and Muslims (not to mention Christians!) from India might not.
    – alephzero
    Commented Nov 29, 2016 at 23:18
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    Why "India Indian" and not "Indian Indian"? You'd never say "America Indian" for the other kind. Commented Nov 29, 2016 at 23:52
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    @DavidRicherby Because the word you're trying to disambiguate is Indian. Repeating it twice doesn't help... or at least it doesn't in my mind. Plus, "American Indian" is a phrase that's been used regularly. It's a set thing. Neither "India Indian" nor "Indian Indian" is.
    – Catija
    Commented Nov 29, 2016 at 23:58
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    But "India Indian" makes no grammatical sense. Commented Nov 30, 2016 at 0:01
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    @DavidRicherby: It makes grammatical sense. You can use nouns as clarifying adjectives in English. E.g. 'book knowledge' vs 'street knowledge', 'cat person' or 'dog person'. Commented Nov 30, 2016 at 0:12

This by no means an authoritative answer, just my personal experience:

It is clear to me that Native American is widely understood to mean descendant of the indigenous people of the Americas and doesn't have the confusing connotation with India.
So, where possible, I avoid using Indian for people from the Americas altogether.

But I have visited the USA and Canada several times in the last 2 years and had the opportunity to ask the locals in person which term they preferred.

Seems that both in the USA (Nevada, Utah, Arizona) and Canada (Vancouver Island, British Columbia area) every single Native American I asked (and I asked at least 30 people) preferred the term First Nation.
The term is also seen frequently in museums and tourist guides. (Far more than Native American.)
I got the distinct impression that Native American might be politically correct, but not to the Native Americans themselves.

As I understand it it is mainly a sort of group-identity thing: the First Nations people consider "Native American" a designation foisted upon them by others, while they consider "First Nation" (we were here first) as more their own designation for themselves.

  • Indian Country Today tried a similar survey, and found opinions were all over the map. There were more anti-Indian than pro, but again they mostly surveyed activists, so it might be skewed a bit that way too.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Nov 30, 2016 at 16:57

I generally use one of the terms "first Americans", "first nations", or "aboriginal Americans" (or Red Indians if I'm talking with someone from England) in contrast to "Asian Indians" or, indeed, "Indian Indians".

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    I would suggest not using "red Indian", it is not considered appropriate, when talking with someone from England or otherwise.
    – Nat
    Commented Nov 29, 2016 at 21:38
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    First Nations is a term common in Canada, but will induce confusion, probably followed by eye-rolling, in the U.S., Aboriginal is an umbrella term which encompasses Amerindians, Eskimos (Inuit in Canada, somewhat problematically), and the Métis.
    – choster
    Commented Nov 29, 2016 at 22:15
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    Er, speaking as somebody from England, I'd be quite shocked if you used the term "Red Indian" to me. I wouldn't know whether you were being racist towards Native Americans or being racist towards me by assuming that I only understand racist terms for Native Americans. Commented Nov 29, 2016 at 23:58
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    Additionally, I associate "aboriginal" (without qualificiation) primarily with Australia. So maybe not the best word either. Commented Nov 30, 2016 at 4:53
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    Funny, but I've never confused people nor given offence by my language use except in online fora, as here. Perhaps it's because when in person it's clear that I have more than a little aboriginal-American ancestry myself.
    – MMacD
    Commented Nov 30, 2016 at 13:09

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