Christopher Colombus has made a big mistake and I am confused when I am told there is an Indian in the US because how do I know that is a real Indian from India now working in Silicon Valley or a real Indian living in this continent for many many years and never leaving?

  • Nowadays, if someone in the US uses the term "Indian", it means someone from India. It is considered rude or at least insensitive to refer to Native Americans as "Indians". If you don't think this is the case, you should add some examples to your question. – user3169 Oct 23 '17 at 1:43
  • How about the Cleveland indians? – Ringo Oct 23 '17 at 2:07
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    I live in an area of the country where I am within minutes of several Indian reservations (they call them pueblos here) and the natives I talk with don't have any problem with the term "Indian" and in fact use it as shorthand probably most of the time. They use "Native American" in more formal contexts, and sometimes just say "native" but usually if they want to get specific they'll refer to their tribe or pueblo. – Robusto Oct 23 '17 at 2:19
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    My observations in the Pacific Northwest match those of @Robusto. An excellent article on the choice of "Native" vs "indigenous" vs "Indian" can be found here: (Note the website name) indiancountrymedianetwork.com/culture/social-issues/… Any which way you cut it though, an "American Indian" is descended from people indigenous to North America, while an "Indian American" is someone whose heritage is from the country of India, but who now lives in the U.S. – Adam Oct 23 '17 at 5:51
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    Most (so-called) Native people of the Americas refer to themselves as the Nation. The term Indian is not odious to them. Most of them prefer that to another term foisted about them by the US Gvt, "native American." – green_ideas Oct 23 '17 at 13:21

Usually, you can tell from the context of the conversation. Yes, the Cleveland Indians is a classic example of using "Indians" to mean "Native Americans". If I say, "We are playing cowboys and Indians", then you know which Indian it is. I hear Indians all the time in the U.S. when referring to Native Americans, but the person usually says "American Indians" except when talking about the Cleveland Indians. In fact, I'm wearing a Cleveland Indians shirt right now!


"Native American" might be a good term to use. But be aware that almost any name could be construed as racist or insensitive. You can read more at this Wikipedia article.

  • I think the question was "how should I understand the word Indian", not "which term should I use" – James K Oct 23 '17 at 7:36

There is an ambiguity in words. If someone says "American" does one include everyone from the continents of North and South America. Does "Indian" include the whole Indian subcontinent, or only the modern state of India.

"Indian" is used for Native Americans, and people from (or descended from) India or the Indian subcontinent. This is played for laughs in The Simpsons

Apu: I am no longer an Indian living in America; I am an Indian American.
Lisa: You know what, Apu, in a way, all Americans are immigrants; except Native Americans.
Homer: Yeah, native Americans like us.
Lisa: No I mean American Indians.

It is normally not necessary to talk about someone's race. On those rare occasions when it does become necessary you should use terms like "Native American", or "First Nation" in Canada. If someone uses the term "Indian", it is probably clear from context which meaning is meant, or it doesn't matter.

Give this paper to Kat
Who's that?
She's the Indian woman in the end cubical.

There is an ambiguity, but it doesn't matter. In fact the last speaker should have just said "She's in the last end cubical", as it wasn't necessary to mention Kat's ethnicity.

There may be very rare situations in which precision is needed. In which case you can ask for clarification. But note the warnings: It is normally not necessary to discuss someone's race, and the ambiguity, if it arises, often doesn't matter.

  • Also "American" orginally meant "Native American". George Washington would not have considered himself "American". – James K Oct 23 '17 at 8:12
  • By the 18th century, the time of GW, the French & Indian War, the declaration of independence from Great Britain, the subsequent war for independence, the inter-war period (between the revolutionary war and the war of 1812), the term American was used, on both sides of the Atlantic to refer to British subjects living in America, and after their independence, to the former subjects living there. – green_ideas Oct 23 '17 at 13:15

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