What Does Indigenous Mean? Definition, How to Use It, and More (2022)

What Does Indigenous Mean? Definition, How to Use It, and More (1)Share on Pinterest

This word “Indigenous” has seen increasing use in recent years, and you may have gathered from context clues that it refers, at least in the United States, to Native Americans.

Perhaps you’ve even noticed people using it to describe themselves.

“Indigenous” describes any group of people native to a specific region. In other words, it refers to people who lived there before colonists or settlers arrived, defined new borders, and began to occupy the land.

Many Indigenous communities worldwide have faced — and continue to face — devastation of their culture and language, along with the loss of land and resources.

Some examples of Indigenous peoples include:

  • the Māori peoples of New Zealand
  • the Ainu and Ryukyuan peoples of Japan
  • the Inuit people of the Arctic in Alaska, Canada, and Greenland
  • the Sámi people of Norway, Finland, Sweden, and Russia’s Kola Peninsula

Simply saying “Indigenous” isn’t quite the same as saying “Native American” or “American Indian.”

When used in the United States, terms like “Indigenous art” or “Indigenous land” do usually refer to Native American art or land. Still, it’s important to recognize that this term can have a much broader meaning.

The more specific term “Indigenous American” carries the same general meaning as “Native American.” Both describe the original peoples of the North American continent.

Various online sources suggest that while younger generations are reclaiming “Indigenous” as an identifier, older generations may still prefer “Native American.”

The term “Indigenous” may feel stigmatizing to some, since it can carry implications of negative descriptors like “primitive” or “uncivilized.”

“Native American” remains a respectful form of address, but some people may ask that you use the adjective “Indigenous” instead.

Things to keep in mind:

  • There’s no single correct term to use.
  • Always consider someone’s personal preference.
  • Use the specific name of their nation or tribe whenever possible.

“Aboriginal,” by definition, means people living in a region “from the earliest time,” so it has much the same meaning as “Indigenous.”

You won’t hear this term used very often in the United States, but it’s sometimes still used to refer to the First Nations, Inuit, and Métis peoples in Canada.

You might also hear “Aboriginal Australians” used to describe Indigenous people in Australia. Still, this term doesn’t include the Torres Strait Islander peoples, so it’s not all-inclusive.

Generally speaking, this term is falling out of use in North America, with “Indigenous” replacing it in most regions. Unless someone expresses a preference for this term, you may want to instead say “Indigenous peoples.”

If you do use this term, use it as an adjective, not a noun. For example, “Aboriginal art” or “Aboriginal land.” And again, it’s best to use a more specific name, such as “Inuit people” or “Inuit language,” whenever possible.

The term “BIPOC,” which stands for Black, Indigenous, and People of Color, came into use as a more specific and descriptive person-first identifier than “People of Color.”

“People of Color” implies that it’s possible to compress the unique and varied range of experiences of all nonwhite people into a single group. Of course, this couldn’t be further from reality.

In the United States in particular, Black and Indigenous people have suffered the devastating impact of white supremacy — including slavery, genocide, and the dismantling of their cultures — for centuries.

Today, Black and Indigenous people still face disproportionate levels of systemic racism, oppression, and other injustices.

“BIPOC,” then, helps highlight the significant discrimination and oppression Black and Indigenous people continue to face.

This can be a useful acronym, particularly on social media, but you shouldn’t use it in every situation — only when you’re speaking about issues affecting all communities of color.

Learn more about what BIPOC means and when to use this term.

“Indigenous” is an umbrella term, so it’s best used when you want to refer to more than one group of Indigenous people.

You might say “Indigenous” or “Indigenous Americans” in the following situations:

  • When you need a respectful umbrella term to refer to more than one nation of Native American people — for example, “We live on Indigenous land.”
  • When you want to talk about Native American culture in a general way — for example, “Indigenous rights” or “issues affecting Indigenous communities.”
  • When someone has asked you to use it.

Note that this term should be capitalized.

As a broad umbrella term, “Indigenous” isn’t the best choice for every situation.

Avoid using this term:

  • As a noun. It’s an adjective, so you’ll always want to follow it with a noun — for example, “Indigenous art,” “Indigenous culture,” or “Indigenous peoples.” Don’t say “the Indigenous” or “an Indigenous.”
  • Whenever you can use a more specific term. When speaking about one specific person or Indigenous nation, you should always use their tribal affiliation whenever possible — for example, “a member of the Lakota nation” or “Hopi pottery.”
  • When someone has asked you not to use it.

Remember, not everyone prefers the term “Indigenous” or “Indigenous American.”

If someone corrects you, simply apologize and adjust your language to reflect their preferred terminology.

Keep in mind that it doesn’t matter which term you consider most respectful. If someone asks you to refer to them by another term, using the term they request is the best way to show respect for their identity.

The following terms and sayings are always unacceptable:

  • Natives. While an Indigenous person might say “I’m Native,” to describe themselves, you shouldn’t use the term “Native” by itself. Also avoid the plural form, since “natives” carries plenty of negative, racist connotations.
  • Indian. Referring to Indigenous people as “Indians” is inaccurate. “Indian” describes someone from India.
  • Eskimo. Many Indigenous groups from the Arctic region, including the Inuit, Yupik, and Alaska Native peoples, consider this term derogatory and racist.
  • Spirit animal. Calling animals or other things you love and appreciate your “spirit animal” appropriates Indigenous traditions and culture by turning them into jokes. If you aren’t Indigenous, don’t say you have a spirit animal.
  • Tribe. Referring to your friends as your “tribe” makes light of the fact that this term still carries many negative connotations of “primitive” or “uncivilized.”
  • Savage. White settlers called Native Americans savages because they thought of them as less than human. Calling someone or their behavior “savage” ignores and dismisses the harmful implications of this term. It’s best to clip it from your vocabulary, even if you mean it in a positive way.
  • Costume. The correct term for clothing worn during dances and other ceremonies is “regalia.”

Also avoid the terms:

  • powwow
  • chief
  • on the warpath
  • Indian giver

You should also stay away from any other words that reinforce stereotypes.

This list certainly doesn’t include every harmful or problematic term, so it never hurts to do some research of your own (more on how to do this in the next section).

Keeping up with new terms and familiarizing yourself with when you should and shouldn’t use them might feel a little challenging at times.

Remember, though, that doing this work only increases multicultural awareness. It also enables you to extend deeper respect and empathy to all people.

These resources can help as you work toward greater sensitivity and understanding:

Crystal Raypole has previously worked as a writer and editor for GoodTherapy. Her fields of interest include Asian languages and literature, Japanese translation, cooking, natural sciences, sex positivity, and mental health. In particular, she’s committed to helping decrease stigma around mental health issues.

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