Have you been stymied in trying to figure out correct terminology to refer to our Native American brothers and sisters? In trying to be more respectful, we may not know which words to use. Among those in common usage are:

  • first American,
  • Native American,
  • American Indian,
  • First Nations,
  • indigenous,
  • native people and
  • aboriginal people.

Savages? Red Indians?

Never nowadays, but in the 1700s and 1800s, racial sensitivity wasn’t considered, so native peoples were “red indians or “savages,” words which may shock today’s readers. (They shock me, anyway.) Though used regularly in the fur trade journals and literature, they are so tainted with negative meanings that I can’t use them.

By the way: The French “sauvage” originally referred to “a person who lives in the wilderness” or “wild” or “primitive.”

In that era, many European settlers were unaware of using different words for different tribes. They said or wrote “Indians,” “red men” and “savages,” because they had limited experience — and were often afraid of their neighbors. Settlers didn’t communicate well with the native people whose land they were inhabiting, nor did they value this different way of life. They didn’t see that their growing communities threatened those of the native peoples.

From the voyageur journals at that time:

George Nelson, a fur trade clerk (at age15!) starting in 1802, was fearful at first. As he came in greater contact with various bands and nations, he noted the Sauteux, the Scioux (who were at war with those he traded with), the Ojibwa, and personal names — Ogaima Pienaincee, Le Diable Rouge, La Piste, Le Commis (Nelson’s father-in-law).

Daniel Harmon spent 19 years as a clerk and then partner in “Indian Country,” starting at age 21 in 1800. He traded with the Cree, Assiniboins, Sekanis, Carriers and Beavers. Harmon married Lizette, a Métis and Snare Indian. When he retired and went back east, the whole family left their tribe to move with him — his devotion to his native wife and children was rare among traders and voyageurs.

Sacajawea, Shoshone

John Sayer was a fur trade partner trading with Ojibwa in Wisconsin and Minnesota. His Snake River journal of 1804-05 named roles like Chiefs, Hunters and Sugar Makers, individuals like Chief Little Horn, Sha-go-bay (the Six), Miquauanance, Court Oreilles, Kis-ke-ta-wak and local bands like La Prairie or Fond du Lac Indians.” However, his wife Obemau-unoqua was mentioned only once, as “his woman.” (She did not go east with him in retirement.)

Sidenote on the spelling of the tribes:
In the 1800s, even the most literate people didn’t spell consistently, and used ssuch variants as Ojibwe, Ojibwa, Chippewa and Chippeway for the same tribe.

What words to use?

Carolyn Podruchny, author of “Making the Voyageur World: Travelers and Traders in the North American Fur Trade,” used this rationale (page xii):

  • The American terms American Indians and Native Americans are cumbersome and confusing to many non-Americans, especially when they refer to indigenous peoples living outside the current borders of the United States.
  • Likewise the Canadian term Native peoples may confuse Americans who refer to those born in the United States as Natives.
  • The popular term First Nations implies a European sense of nations that is not easily translated to Aboriginal identities.
  • I am uncomfortable with First peoples because it seems imprecise,
  • and with Amerindians because its usage is not widespread among English speakers.”

To appeal to the broadest audience and to minimize confusion, Podruchny picked two usages:

  • The term Aboriginal is clear, precise, and widespread, and despite its colonial baggage, the term Indian works well in this book because of its common usage in historic sources and its long history in North America.”

In my books

As a novelist, I intentionally used old language to give readers a stronger feel for the fur trade era. I also chose a variety of terms, realizing that no single name will make everyone happy, and stuck to consistent spelling.

My compromise was that when my main character, André, became friends with different tribes, he began using the words they preferred, indicating his growing understanding and respect for them. For example, while fur traders called them “Sioux,” the term that tribe used for themselves is “Dakota.”

More than one correct answer

  • The Smithsonian Institution named their building the National Museum of the American Indian.


  • A guide at the Mille Lacs Indian Museum in Minnesota said he and other younger members of his tribe accepted Native American, but older members of his tribe favored American Indian.
  • One group of indigenous peoples in Canada prefers First Nations.
  • Others asked to be identified by their tribal name as the most accurate description.
  • I’ve learned to ask the individual I’m speaking what their preference is.

Final Thoughts


Harmon’s Journal 1900-1819” edited by W. Kaye Lamb. Touchwood Edition (Toronto, Ontario, Canada, 2006)
John Sayer’s Snake River Journal, 1804-05” edited by Douglas A. Birk. Institute for Minnesota Archaelogy (1989)
Making the Voyageur World: Travelers and Traders in the North American Fur Trade” by Carolyn Podruchny. University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln and London, 2006)
My First Years in the Fur Trade: The Journals of 1802-1804, George Nelson” Edited by Laura Peers and Therersa Schenck. Minnesota Historical Society, (St. Paul, Minnesota, 2002)

(Images in this post are from Bigstock.)

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