Indian Americans and American Indians

American Indian | History, Tribes, & Facts | Britannica

We Americans often use terms that may puzzle English speakers elsewhere in the world. Our usages for two immigrant groups are easily confused with two minority groups.

Probably the most confusing relates to the word “Indian.” The word has been used for several centuries to mean the aboriginal peoples of the Americas, even since Columbus allegedly mistook islands in the Caribbean for India in Asia.

‘Indian’ is somewhat controversial in the United States. Many people prefer to use ‘Native American,’ or the Canadian term, ‘First Nations.’ An obvious problem is that anyone of any ethnicity born in the U.S. is also a native American, but not a Native American. There are nearly 600 tribal peoples recognized by the federal government, and nearly 100 more recognized by states but not yet federally recognized. Some of the groups prefer Indian to Native American. Formal recognition results in substantial benefits relating to education, tribal autonomy, medical care and other items. Many of the tribes have formal reservations. Some are doing well and some experience severe poverty. 

In recent decades, there has been a substantial stream of immigration into the U.S. from India. These immigrants are Indian, but they are not Native American. We Americans mostly do not call them Indian, because ‘Indian’ is mostly used for American Indians. What’s evolving is we call immigrants from India “Indian Americans.” You can see what this can mean for Americans with roots in India. They will be Indian Americans but not American Indians. They will be native Americans but not Native Americans. There’s also a tendency to call immigrants from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh “South Asians.”

Something similar is the case with African Americans and immigrants to the U.S. from Africa. Native born Black people in the U.S. are often also called “African American.” Immigration to the U.S. from countries like Nigeria is fairly substantial, but Americans recently immigrating from Africa don’t quite fit the term “African Americans.” You sometimes see the term “American Africans.”

We Americans are a nation of immigrants, with a fifth of us currently having being born outside the United States or first generation born in the U.S. Ultimately, all of us except descendants of the aboriginal peoples are immigrants or descend from immigrants, voluntary or forced (note that Americans rarely use the word ‘aboriginal’).

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