Indian Country Style Guide


The terms American Indian/Alaska Native, Indigenous, Native, Indian, and Native American are used interchangeably when referring to the Original Peoples of the United States. Many people who identify as Indigenous have their own personal preferences and/or use the terms they grew up hearing within their families and communities to express their identities. Importantly, many of these terms are a direct result of colonization, created with intent to racialize and exert power over Indigenous peoples and Indigenous land. When identifying and writing about Indigenous peoples, be as tribally specific as possible to make visible the diversity of peoples and cultures of this land. It is important to note that as language evolves over time, best practices will also continue to evolve.


Why do we need a style guide?

This style guide is meant to provide context and a foundational understanding of terminology used across Indian Country. This guide is our interpretation of best practices for Indian Country media and communications regarding Native peoples. However, when possible, always ask the specific group/person/tribe/nation for their personal preference and respect their choice.


Best Practices

Capitalize “I” in Indigenous and “N” in Native when referring to people.

  • Natural resources and wildlife are very important to Native peoples.
  • Many Indigenous peoples live in Washington state.


How to Refer to Native Peoples

The best way to ensure respect is to use “Native” or “Indigenous” when speaking about the Indigenous peoples of the Americas until a tribal identity has been specified. It’s best practice to avoid using the term “Indian” as a noun alone. The term “Indian,” in reference to Native peoples, originated with Columbus’s arrival to the so-called Americas. Instead, American Indian is used most commonly in legal policy.

Alaskan Native is often used in the same contexts to refer to Native peoples originating in the land now known as Alaska. Both American Indian and Alaskan Native are sometimes used by Native organizations and tribal governments, but take care to verify this is their choice before replicating this language.


Prioritizing Native Languages

Whenever possible, we recommend prioritizing Native languages by putting the Native language first and the English translation after, possibly in quotes or italics. This practice can be a site of reclamation for Indigenous ways of knowing and crucial language revitalization.

For example, s’gʷi gʷi ʔ altxʷ: House of Welcome at The Evergreen State College frequently prioritizes the Lushootseed word and name for their longhouse, arts, and cultural center and the English translation comes after.

Terms to Know

After Congress passed the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act in 1971, Alaska Native Corporations (ANCs), like Sealaska, became a crucial part of Alaska Native communities, culture, and economy. These corporations act as economic directors and cultural preservation systems for Alaska Native villages, overseeing the development, maintenance, and inclusion of traditions into tribally owned assets.

There are 229 federally recognized Alaska Native Villages, which are home to many unique tribes and nations throughout Alaska. There are different land rights and government procedures in comparison to the lower 48 states, due to there being no treaties between Alaska Villages and the U.S. government.

Currently, there are 574 American Indian Tribes in the U.S. that are federally recognized by the government. Federally recognized tribes are eligible for government funding and other resources. As a result, the term is a signifier of identity and broader legal ramifications, i.e., the census.

The BIA was formed in 1824, and is in charge of providing the proper services to federally recognized tribes, for example, disaster relief and tribal court funding. The BIA also has oversight of most federally recognized tribes, and is tasked with ensuring the proper functioning and funding of certain tribal programs, such as Indian Health Services.

Tribes/nations/villages use the term member or citizen to acknowledge their peoples, for example, tribal member or tribal citizen. Thus, connoting enrollment status of a person from a sovereign tribal nation.

Federal Indian Law refers to rhe guiding doctrines of the federal trust relationship that serve as the foundation for the modern legal relationship tribes have with the Federal Government. These laws essentially create a ward-to-guardian relationship.

Federal-trust responsibility upholds treaty rights and protects tribal lands and other resources, while also maintaining proper fiduciary duties and legal obligations to act in the best interests of tribal nations, when not acting as a sovereign in their own interest.

First Nations is a term most commonly used to describe Indigenous peoples of Canada, and sometimes used within the context of the U.S. Aboriginal is also a term that is used in Canada for Indigenous peoples.

Officially used in Title 18 of the U.S. Code, the term Indian Country encompasses all Indian Reservations, and lands held in trust. Indian Country has its own jurisdiction and legalities and is used as a general term for Indigenous communities as a whole.

Indian reservations are portions of land that are exclusively for Native use. Reservations are secured by treaties with the federal government in exchange for vast sessions of land. However, the “reserved” land is still owned by the federal government and Native ownership is considered merely the right to occupy.

Native peoples from Hawai’i are legally grouped as separate from the tribes from the mainland of the U.S. and Alaska. Due to this, there are differences in legalities for Native Hawaiians; they often do not get equal access to funding, laws, and other resources from the federal government as federally recognized tribes in the lower 48 states do. They also do not have their own reservation or land base.

Tribal sovereignty refers to the inherent right of Tribal Nations to determine what is best for their nation and peoples. Tribal sovereignty is recognized and secured by the U.S. Constitution, article 1 Section 8 — also known as the commerce clause.

These terms are used to legally name and describe Indigenous groups as a whole. However, each group is different in the terminology they use. Some may use the term nation or village, instead of tribe, and it is important to be mindful of this. When possible, use the full name of the village, tribe, or nation.

Currently, 71 percent of American Indians and Alaska Natives are living in cities and other urban areas. Due to the 1953 Termination Act that led to the coerced removal of Native peoples from their homelands and into cities, then terminating reservations, the term “urban Indian/Native” was coined.


“Tribe” is capitalized when referencing a specific tribe.

  • Capitalize: Pascua Yaqui Tribe
  • Capitalize: “The Ute Indian Tribe will give their recommendation to Tribal Council.”
  • Capitalize: “The Tribe should consider participating in this program because x, y, and z.”

“Tribe” is also capitalized when mentioning Tribal governments or Tribal leaders.

  • The Kickapoo Tribe of Oklahoma
  • Lummi Nation Tribal Chair Jason Doe said, “Go Blackhawks!”

When not referring to a specific tribe, “tribe” or “tribal” is a common noun, and should be lowercase.

  • “Projects on tribal lands are …”
  • “The tribal perspective …”

Only capitalize “Indigenous” and “Native” when referring to the Original Peoples.

  • “At tonight’s exhibition, works created by Indigenous artists will be featured.”
  • “The red cedar tree is indigenous to North America.”
  • “Native-led organizations serve the urban Native communities.”

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