While the term “Oriental” is almost universally frowned upon by Asians, the same isn’t true of the term “Indian” when used to describe Native Americans. Award-winning writer Sherman Alexie, who is of Spokane and Coeur d’Alene ancestry, has no objection to the term.
“Just think of Native American as the formal version and Indian as the casual one,” he told a Sadie Magazine interviewer who asked the best term to use when referring to America’s indigenous peoples. Not only does Alexie approve of the term “Indian,” he also remarked that “the only person who’s going to judge you for saying ‘Indian’ is a non-Indian.”
While many Native Americans do refer to each other as “Indians,” some object to the term because it is associated with explorer Christopher Columbus, who mistook the Caribbean islands for those of the Indian Ocean, which were known as the Indies. As a result of the error, people indigenous to the Americas overall were dubbed “Indians.” Also problematic is that many hold Columbus’ arrival into the New World responsible for initiating the subjugation and decimation of Native Americans, so they don’t want to be known by a term that he’s credited with popularizing.
It’s worth noting, though, that the term “Indian” is far less controversial than the term “Oriental.” Not only haven’t states banned the term, there’s also a government agency known as the Bureau of Indian Affairs, not to mention the National Museum of the American Indian. On that note, the term “American Indian” is more acceptable than simply “Indian” because, in part, it is less confusing. When someone refers to “American Indians,” everyone knows the people in question don’t hail from Asia but from the Americas.
If you’re concerned about the kind of reception you’ll receive by using the term “Indian,” consider saying “indigenous peoples,” “native peoples” or “First Nations” peoples instead. But the wisest thing to do is to refer to people by their specific ancestry. So, if you know a particular person is Choctaw, Navajo, Lumbee, etc., call him that rather than using umbrella terms such as “American Indian” or “Native American.”