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Let's rethink "native"

Updated: Jan 25

Let's rethink "native" (background of trees with totem poles)

“There is a little frustration around non-Natives using the term 'native' to refer to them being local to an area. When I tell a lot of non-Natives that I'm Native, they'll often say things like ‘I'm native to California!' or whichever state they were born in, and then I'll have to clarify ‘No, I'm Native in the sense that I am indigenous to North America,' and it becomes a big thing. It makes a lot of Native folks' lives easier if non-Native folks don't describe themselves as native.” -Joey Clift, Cowlitz Tribe

The word “native” comes from the early 15th century. We started using it more commonly during the civil rights era of the 1960s and 1970s. It makes a lot more sense than the misplaced term “Indian,” thought to originate from Christopher Columbus. Columbus apparently thought he had arrived in “the Indies” (Asia) when he arrived in the Americas.

*”Native American has been widely used but is falling out of favor with some groups, and the terms American Indian or Indigenous American are preferred by many Native people. Native peoples often have individual preferences on how they would like to be addressed.”  -National Museum of the American Indian

I frequently came across the term “native-born” when reading Timothy Egan’s book, A Fever in the Heartland: The Ku Klux Klan's Plot to Take Over America, and the Woman Who Stopped Them. Egan uses the term when referring to people born in various American states. This unsettled me. It seems disrespectful to use the term “native” or “native-born” to refer to descendants of white settlers who decimated Native peoples and stole their lands.

I’ve been trying to avoid using this term for white people, but it seems to be an accepted part of our language.

Why not use the more respectful term “born and raised” to refer to white people whose ancestors nearly wiped out the true original natives of this land? 

Native woman wrapped in a blanket with a highway in the background

Clint Carroll, an associate professor of Native American Studies at CU Boulder and citizen of the Cherokee nation, agrees. “As far as a term, it is problematic, historical amnesia,” says Carroll. “It discounts and ignores the vibrant Native population in the Denver area and throughout Colorado and the continued relationship these people have to the land.”

I received some pushback when I asked people to consider rethinking darkness and black when they are used as negative metaphors. So lest you think this is another case of a white woman focusing on the wrong things, I consulted with some Native Americans in western states.

“Technically, the meaning of the word ‘native’ means originating from a specific area. Like many words in what is now the dominant language, it can have its meaning and also the understanding of what it means. For example, is a person born in what is now known as the USA a native American? Or is it the original inhabitants of this land who are Native Americans? I think we know the answer, but that is the problem with the language…it can have different meanings.”  –Suzanne Donaldson, CEO of Donaldson Consulting LLC and Cowlitz Indian Tribe Citizen

“Robin Wall Kimmerer talks about what it means to be Indigenous to a place. It means living as if your children’s future mattered, to take care of the land as if our lives, both material and spiritual, depend on it…While she doesn’t believe that colonizers can ever be truly Indigenous, she suggests they can become ‘naturalized,’ like a plant that is introduced from elsewhere but doesn’t become invasive. These ‘naturalized’ plants and people can harmoniously blend with the native flora and offer their own unique gifts to the network of reciprocity.” –Genevieve de Alva, resident of the Flathead Reservation, which is home to the Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribes

As a white person who has benefited from colonialism in Oregon, the best I can hope to do is to respect the wisdom of Native communities and attempt to become “naturalized.”

"Native" should be capitalized when referring to American Indian, indigenous, or Alaska Native peoples, but uncapitalized when using it for other purposes.

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