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Indian, Native and Indigenous

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By Thyago Ceu

Among the Decolonial school of thought, how we use words is delicate and subject to much thought and reflection. The power to name events, places and peoples, after all, was used extensively by the colonisers and almost always to the detriment of the native peoples of invaded lands. One of the cruellest and most powerful words imposed on indigenous peoples’ was “Indian”. Used since the arrival of Christopher Columbus’ expedition in the “New World”, the word Indian originally referred to the inhabitants of India, where Columbus presumed he had arrived after months of sailing across the Atlantic Ocean, until then unexplored in its latitudinal vastness. 

The history of the original peoples of the continent that would come to be called America is a history of “mistakes”, confusions, inaccuracies and misunderstandings, written by the coloniser as part of a genocidal project. This denomination began with the arrival in America of the Genoese navigator, Christopher Columbus, who was financed by the Spanish monarchy and arrived on the island of Guanahani, in the Antilles (now San Salvador). Columbus believed he had reached the “Indies”. This “mistake” by Christopher Columbus led to the name “Indian” being used to refer to a multitude of native peoples, without distinguishing between them. The vocabulary constructed by European colonisers, classifying the original people as Indians, may seem more benign than other aspects of denial, erasure, assimilation, annexation, integration and extermination, but over time, with the development of colonialism, the term was exported from the Americas to the whole world, with all of its connotations of savagery, anachronism and the refusal of many indigenous peoples to adapt to ‘modern’ times. Though this name was first used to refer to the native peoples of America,  It’s important to distinguish the word “Indian” from the word “indigenous”. Indigenous comes from the latin language, referring to being from a certain place as opposed to an alien to it. Indian implies that the native is a foreigner to their own land. 

Nowadays, it is not only the indigenous peoples of South America, but also those of Southeast Asia and people from all over the world who are fighting against the “Indian” denomination. It is inaccurate and a generic term, which does not take into account the specificities of each nation, does not respect diversity and, above all, does not consider the culture of native peoples’ who all have varied worldviews, languages and customs unique to themselves.

In less than 300 years of colonisation, Aymarás, Tupis, Guaranis, Incas, Mapuches, Aztecs, Mayans and hundreds of other peoples have been reduced to a state of pre-capitalism and pre-modernity with the generic term “Indians”, something that is far less benign than a simple Spanish navigational error. Their specificities, histories and knowledge have been relegated to the realm of the barbaric and archaic, and they have been deemed ‘non-white’ bodies that can be subjected to oppression, subjugation and murder. These are the material effects of terms like “Indian”, and they demonstrate the need for decolonial struggles to revive the names of nations, cultural elements and places that coloniality aims to make disappear.  

The name “Indian” was maintained and weaponised throughout the centuries against colonised groups. The use of this term has long been associated with a specific image of American subjects. The term “Indian” leads to an imaginary forged by the invader/coloniser of a lazy, promiscuous, savage, uneducated, illiterate, rude individual. Even when romanticised, as the “noble savage”, or when people make a fetish out of the so-called “Indians” folklore, they are only reproducing stereotypes which seek to bind the indigenous American nations and cultures in a colonial prison of perpetual ignorance. As the term “Indian” generalises and homogenises an entire continent’s worth of human development, it covers up and hides the diversity, wealth, culture and language of various peoples’. 

 Population decline is based on greed, exploitation, ethnocide, genocide and the deliberate destruction of many cultures. But terms like “Indians” are tools within these broader processes that have sought to diminish the ‘human value’ of the indigenous peoples and have aided in their elimination.

Canada’s treatment of indigenous peoples is similar to that seen in other countries that invest in an integrationist policy, seeking to absolve native peoples and integrate them into their culture, erasing their past, their histories and their culture. Within their approach, which was mirrored in many other countries of the New World, the “Indian” is seen as a being in a transitory state, coming out of their uncivilised ways to reach the civilisational state brought by the colonisers. It’s no accident that from the Inuit of northern Canada to the Mapuches from southern Chile this one word is capable of encompassing so many different cultures into one same figure. All of the indigenous people that resisted colonization were eventually lumped into this colonial category of “Indian”, as a means of amassing political power against them and demoralising their struggles.

The practice of “integrating the Indians” was seen all around America and eventually became a standard practice of colonialism in the world. The indigenous souls were considered ripe to be saved in all of the Americas which meant an open path for Christianity to be massively implanted as a means to bring the native peoples to the Eurocentric sphere of influence, always as second-class citizens. 


FANON, Franz. The wretched of the Earth.

QUIJANO, Aníbal. Coloniality of Power

NANKUPÉ TUPINAMBÁ. Indians, No! Indigenous, Maybe. Original People, yes. Available in Portuguese in;

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decolonial centre | Pluto Educational Trust | 2023