Working as Allies with American Indians: Naming

As renewed concern over the educational experiences and outcomes of American Indian students becomes a focal point of education policy, we are pleased to be writing a series of blogs for the National High School Center focused on working in alliance with American Indian students, tribes, and leaders in both tribal schools and public schools that serve American Indians.

This first blog kicks off the series by examining naming conventions and terminology.  The terminology we use to refer to one another matters tremendously to the ultimate success of any collaboration.  In the field of education and education policy, it is especially important to share common terminology in order to create a foundation for alliance.

The identifiers “American Indian,” “Alaska Native,” and “Native Hawaiian and other Pacific Islander” are used on federal forms and current census documents to refer to indigenous people of the United States.[1] (In some cases, in addition to “other Pacific Islander,” forms will distinguish among Guamanian, Chamorro, Samoan.)  Given their federal usage, these terms will be the signifiers used in the upcoming Central Regional School Improvement Grant Conference, which will feature presentations on rural schools and schools serving American Indians and Alaska natives.

Another common signifier is “Native American.”  As the formal definitions of “American Indian” and “Native American” are virtually identical, these terms still are often used interchangeably by non-natives.  However, the informal meanings and implications of these terms are deeply meaningful to many American Indians.  Indeed, many American Indians prefer terms such as First Nations People, First People, Indigenous People, and Native People.  Interestingly, “Native American” has rarely come up as a stated preference when we have asked our American Indian colleagues over the past two years.

So, how does one choose a naming convention when working with diverse audiences?  As white women working as allies with American Indians, we have been advised that, when referring to individual American Indians or tribes, it is best to identify them by their specific tribal affiliation.  Among other things, this acknowledges the uniqueness of one’s tribe, culture, and history among the multiplicity of diverse tribes, cultures, and histories in the United States.

For example, Donald Rosin, director of the Native American Center at Wisconsin Family Assistance Center for Education Training and Support (FACETS) identifies as a member of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians.  When we have written about him, we wrote, “Donald Rosin, of the Bad River Band, has successful strategies to share for how to help American Indian students persist to graduation.”

However, when we do not know a group’s tribal affiliation or when we are referring more globally to American Indians as a group, it is generally appreciated if you ask the American Indians in your audience what terminology they prefer.  This again acknowledges the diversity of opinion among American Indian tribes and acknowledges the individuals in the room.

If it is not feasible to ask your colleagues or audience of their preferences—perhaps because they are not with you in the moment (like, you are writing a blog post) or because it can be difficult to shift your own language on the spot—it is prudent to state your terminology choices as you begin your conversations.  For example, we use “American Indian” rather than “Native American” because “American Indian” is the preference of specific American Indians with whom we work the closest.  It is in alliance with them that we are working to change our terminology from Native American to American Indian.

The language used to identify one another is crucial to building bonds that will foster good ties and positive relations when constructing and implementing policy.  Therefore, the basic understanding of what terms mean and where they come from is essential to creating positive change.  

Circe Stumbo is president of West Wind Education Policy Inc., where much of her work is focused on racial equity.  Circe serves on the editorial team for this blog.  Tiffany Armitage is a graduate student at Roosevelt University.  As Tiffany was growing up, her mother worked with the Mille Lacs band of Ojibwe in Minnesota, during which time the tribe built a new K-12 school.  She has long been committed to working as an ally with her American Indian counterparts.

Note: This blog post was originally authored under the auspices of the National High School Center at the American Institutes for Research (AIR). The National High School Center’s blog, High School Matters, which ran until March 2013, provided an objective perspective on the latest research, issues, and events that affected high school improvement. The CCRS Center plans to continue relevant work originally developed under the National High School Center grant. National High School Center blog posts that pertain to CCRS Center issues are included on this website as a resource to our stakeholders.

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