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Why Capitalizing “Native American” Matters

These days, social media is glut with excited folks who are sending off their cheek swabs to find out just what’s hiding in their DNA. Will they find out they had an ancestor on the Mayflower? Or, maybe they have a Native American ancestor?

That would make them Native American too, right? Well, the definition of Native American is a lot more complicated than the genetics chart you get from your standard DNA testing center. You see, the term Native American refers to many, many different groups of people and not all of them identify with this term.

Before we get to that, though, let’s start with the capitalization issue.

Native American with a capital

Here at Dictionary.com, our lexicographers have distinguished between native Americans and Native Americans. The first version, with the lowercase n, applies to anyone who was born here in the United States. After all, when used as an adjective, native is defined as “being the place or environment in which a person was born or a thing came into being.” If you were born in the United States of America, you are native to the country. Lowercase native American is an adjective that modifies the noun American. The lowercase native American is a noun phrase that describes someone as being an American citizen who is native to the United States. 

Simply being born in the good old US of A doesn’t make someone a Native American (capital N). Those two words are both capitalized because, when used together, they form what grammar experts refer to as a proper noun, or “a noun that is used to denote a particular person, place, or thing.” The term Native American is a very broad label that refers to a federally recognized category of Americans who are indigenous to the land that is now the United States (although some also extend the word’s usage to include all the the Indigenous Peoples of North and South America), and they make up at least two percent of the US population. They’re not just native to this area in the sense of having been born on American soil, but they have established American Indian or Alaska Native ancestry. As a general term, Native American is often used collectively to refer to the many different tribes of Indigenous Peoples who lived in the Americas long before the arrival of European colonizers. In reality, Native Americans are not a monolith, and they belong to many different tribes with their own cultures and languages. Note the words Native American should always be used together. It’s considered disparaging and offensive to refer to a group of people who are Native American simply as natives.

Another good example of common nouns vs. proper nouns is New York City. When it’s written with a capital C, it’s specifically referring to the area that encompasses the five boroughs. When it’s written with a lowercase c, as in a New York city, it can refer to any large metropolis located anywhere in the state.

Learn more about Native American heritage with these terms about their tribes, cultures, and languages.

DNA isn’t a definition

So, all you need is a DNA test, and your ancestry falls under the definition of Native American, right? Well, that’s complicated.

While the United States Department of Interior has its own rules regarding who qualifies for membership and enrollment in a tribe, the members of the tribes themselves don’t often agree with the government responsible for taking their lands and forcing them to live on reservations in the first place. Nor is there consensus among the more than 574 federally recognized tribal nations in the United States on what DNA results are required to establish heritage.

Both the United Nations and Indigenous Peoples worldwide have denounced certain attempts at tracing human origins through DNA, including the Human Genome Diversity Project.

If you feel that you have proven without a doubt that your lineage is Native American, you’ll have to turn to the individual tribe itself for the official opinion on the matter. And, even with a DNA test, you may find that you may be native American but not necessarily Native American.

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What about Indian?

The department of the US federal government that oversees relations with the many Native American tribes is named the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The United States Census uses the term American Indian to refer to a person who identifies themself as a Native American. The term Indian referring to Native Americans has largely fallen out of general usage, and many Native American Peoples consider this term offensive. That being said, there are a significant number of Native American tribes and individuals that use the word Indian or the phrase American Indian to identify themselves.

Even more common, though, is a group using the specific name of their tribe—especially the name used in their own language—to identify themselves. For example, a member of the Navajo tribe may refer to their particular group as Diné.

As is often the case when it comes to language, people often have their own personal choice as to which words they prefer. If you are unsure about what words to use, the best choice is always to ask someone what they prefer.

Native to Alaska

The term Native American is sometimes used to include some Eskimo and Aleut peoples, specifically those whose families are native to the area now known as Alaska. The United States government uses the term Native Alaskan, and many other organizations prefer the term Alaska Native. Eskimo is still used as a self-designation by some people, while others consider it derogatory. Still other peoples will often prefer the specific name for their own people, tribe, or community—typically preferring a word from their own language. As is always the case, it’s best to let the person in question share their preferred terminology.

When do you use "persons" vs. "people" vs. "peoples"? Learn here.

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