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 there was a Native American who played a role in their genes along the way.

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.

Let’s start with the capitalization issue.

Native American with a capital N

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 a common noun, which refers to people, places, and things in general; it doesn’t get the extra treatment of a capital letter.

That’s because 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 they’re what grammar experts refer to as proper nouns, or “nouns that are used to denote a particular person, place, or thing.” Native Americans, likewise, are a specific category of Americans who were born in the United States (although some also extend the word’s usage to incorporate all of North and South America), and they make up at least two percent of the population. They’re not just native to this area in the sense of having been born on American soil, but they’re specifically from a group of people who have established American Indian or Alaska Native ancestry. Note the words 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, it can refer to any large metropolis located anywhere in the state.

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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 570 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.

Why not Indian?

One thing you won’t be is Indian. Even though the US Department of the Interior still calls the department that Native Americans deal with the “Bureau of Indian Affairs,” the term is largely used for citizens of the Republic of India today. Most Native Americans prefer the more recently adopted Native American descriptor.

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. Eskimo is still used as a self-designation by some people, while others consider it derogatory. It’s best to let the person in question share their preferred terminology. 

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