I know someone who uses the term "East Indian" to refer to people from India, or whose ancestors are from India, lest they be misunderstood to mean Native American.

This struck me as unusual and confusing, and I am curious if others use the term this way. If I referred to someone as "East Indian," would you assume that the person was from India, from the eastern part of India, from somewhere like Indonesia -- or would you just be confused (like me) and ask for clarification? Is there another, better way of saying "Indian from India"?


10 Answers 10


I would be equally puzzled by "East Indian", guessing it was the eastern portion of India.

Perhaps it's a regional thing, but in my experience there is no longer a need to specify the usage. Indian in the Native American sense isn't going to be found outside of an obvious historical context. Unless you're reading a Louis Lamour novel, the presumption is you're speaking of a person from India.

If you really have to specify, I would avoid "Indian from India" as it's both redundant and awkward. I would simply say something like, "My co-worker Binu is from India".

Edit to add:

Based on some more research and the comments below, it's almost certainly a regional thing. Also noteworthy that the US Census calls this group "Asian Indian".

Pennsylvania: 0.1% Native American and 0.7% Asian Indian.

California: 0.8% Native American and 1.3% Asian Indian.

Arizona: 4.5% Native American and 0.5% Asian Indian.

Depending on where you're at, the likelihood of there being any ambiguity varies widely.

  • 8
    You're right that this is a regional thing. My parents live in Colorado, where there are very few people from India and quite a few Native Americans, and they use the word Indian almost exclusively for Native Americans. I used the word that way, too, until I moved to Seattle where the Indian population is very large. The growing number and prominence of Indians in America means that the "person from India" sense is becoming more common throughout the country, but there are plenty of places left where "Native American" is still the primary sense of the word. Nov 28, 2011 at 14:20
  • 1
    In eastern Washington state, Indian often means Native American, but it can be confusing. I've often said "India Indian", "<name> from India", or "East Indian" to distinguish them from a local Yakama, Nez Perce, or other Native American. Nov 28, 2011 at 22:10
  • 2
    I don't know where Lynn lives but even here in ultra-PC San Francisco, "Indian" is at best ambiguous. It's also my understanding that it is the term preferred by people actually descended from the pre-Columbian tribes of North America. (Ditto, mutis mutandis, for "black" vs. "African American".) Jan 5, 2012 at 20:54
  • See additional edit for some clarification.
    – Lynn
    Jan 5, 2012 at 21:14
  • 1
    @Zebrafish - "A 1995 Census Bureau survey that asked indigenous Americans their preferences for names ... found that 49 percent preferred the term Indian, 37 percent Native American..." Source. But despite that preference, a great many people will still see using "Indian" as being culturally insensitive. Schoolkids are taught to avoid it. And there's some evidence that the greatest preference is to be referred to by a specific tribe over both of those terms.
    – Lynn
    May 6, 2018 at 4:28

East Indian makes me think of someone from the East Indies, specifically the Dutch East Indies — now Indonesia — even though Dutch East Indies is anachronistic.

I tend to prefer to refer to people from the country of India.

(If I know enough to be specific, I say "Chandy is from South India," or "Naveen is from Hyderabad.")


It depends upon the context. Here in the U.S.A., someone from India is usually referred to as "Asian Indian," "East Indian," and "India Indian," to discern the difference from those often referred to as American Indians/Native Americans, i.e. the Aboriginal peoples of the Western Hemisphere and the native people who previously were the inhabitants of the region of North America that became the U.S.A. Native people of Alaska (e.g. Inuit, Tlingit, Tsimshiam, Haida, Aluet, Inupiaq, Yupik, etc.) are usually referred to as "Alaska Natives" but also are considered "Native Americans," as are Native Hawaiians but neither Alaska Natives nor Native Hawaiians are generally referred to as "American Indians" since they are not associated with the region of the contiguous 48 states of the U.S.A.

Historically, the British, the colonizing culprits in this whole mess (that's sarcasm folks, aka "Indi'n Humor), often referred in their literature to "Indians" as the people from the Indus River Valley, aka India; the people of North America, they often referred to as "Red Indians." Here in the U.S.A., the term "American Indians" is usually converted to a contraction and pronounced as "Indi'n" by many who are of American Indian/Native American descent or many of the people inhabiting areas with large populations of American Indians/Native Americans.

The whole, "use Native American to refer to American Indians," argument is often confusing (since anyone born within the confines of U.S. borders is often referred to as "Native Americans" rather than "Native Born Americans") and comes across in "Indi'n Country" as lip service, an often insincere term that is used by the mainstream to feign respect for the aboriginal people of the U.S.A. but is often used to marginalize and divert attention away from the issues that have historically evolved in the U.S., such as American Indian tribes' legal status and claims in regard to their interactions between the U.S. federal and state governments, usually defined by treaties and the U.S. Supreme Court who use the term "American Indian" in their copious discussions and documents on the legal status of American Indians.

I hope this clears up some of the discussion as to why most people who trace their ancestry back to the people of the Indus River Valley, aka India, are commonly referred to in the U.S.A. as "East Indians," "Asian Indians" and "India Indians," in an attempt to avoid confusion. I have no idea what people in India might call American Indians/Native Americans who travel to or reside in India. I would think they would identify them by their tribal names, such as Cherokee, Lakota, Leni Lenape/Delaware, Kiowa, Apache, etc., but that is total conjecture on my part.


I am curious if others use the term this way.

I have not encountered people from outside the USA who use the term in this fashion.

If I referred to someone as "East Indian," would you assume that the person was from India, from the eastern part of India, from somewhere like Indonesia -- or would you just be confused (like me) and ask for clarification?

I would try to guess where the speaker was from, and would try to guess the context. In India, 'East Indian' is not commonly used. One would say "A person from Eastern India" to denote a person from that part. Since states of Eastern India do not have much in common, except poverty,and the language, culture and belief systems are pretty diverse, saying "A person from Eastern India" is not very useful, though. One can say Eastern India when referring to the region.

In India, there may be a handful of corporatiosn calling themselves East India/Indian xyz, to denote their place of origin (usually the state of West Bengal).

Saying "East India" in India may imply a reference to the British East India Company, which ruled (parts of) India for nearly a century, until 1857. Older people might think of Indonesia, which was called the Dutch East Indies.

By contrast, in India, West Indian almost universally refers to the Caribbean. India has strong cultural links with the Caribbean, involving cricket and migrants, among others. Again, people would use "A person from Western India" to refer to someone from western states.

However, North Indian and South Indian are very commonly used to describe people from the Northern and Southern part of India. The people from Eastern and Western India usually prefer to identify themselves with their state or language (Eg. Gujarati, Odia(Oriya), etc) rather than their geographical region.

I think that the usage of Indian, West Indian, and East Indian would be exactly the same in the whole of the commonwealth, except Canada, for obvious (historical) reasons.

Is there another, better way of saying "Indian from India"?

In most parts of the world, 'Indian' would suffice. 'South Asian' or 'Asian' is used in the UK and some other parts of the world to refer to people from the Indian Subcontinent; the former term is clearly more precise. In North and South America, especially in those parts where there is significant native population, one could say 'Asian Indian' and 'Native American' to distinguish between the two, and to avoid confusion. Indian from India is redundant and silly.

With time, one may expect that even in the USA, Indian would refer to people from India, while people would increasingly use more politically correct and accurate terms to refer to natives.


I just say "Indian" to refer to people from India and so far this has never led to any confusion. When I want to talk about "Indians" in the US I use the term Native Americans.

The term East Indian would confuse me and my first reaction would be to think of someone from the eastern part of India. The intended meaning of an Indian national is too anachronistic since the terms "East Indies" and "West Indies" are rarely used now unless one is talking about history.


I think the 'Indians' tag for native American tribes came from Christopher Columbus who had set out to find India, and who 'found' America instead. But to refer to a person from the 'true' India, I think 'Indian from India' makes the most sense, in spite of the obvious inconvenience.

I know that East Indians in India refers to a separate community of people who were colonized by the Portuguese.

  • 6
    Besides its "obvious inconvenience", "Indian from India" sounds less like natural English than does "person from India". Nov 27, 2011 at 5:54

my parents were born in India and i was born in the Uk but reside in Canada. East Indian term is used but in the UK the term "Asian" is more common and accepted however, generally i don't understand why one has to call anybody anything other than what they are today - so i'm in Canada and now prefer to be called Canadian as i'm more Canadian than anything else - so it can be also a personal preference. Due to Columbus's ignorance in calling the native Americans Indians thinking he was in India caused the confusion as the Native Americans logically originated from Mangolia rather than from India.


If I referred to someone as "East Indian," would you assume that the person was from India, from the eastern part of India, from somewhere like Indonesia -- or would you just be confused (like me) and ask for clarification?

I would probably be confused and ask for clarification.

Is there another, better way of saying "Indian from India"?

There is no need for one. The word Indian, is fine. It's widely used and is a statement of fact.

The confusion comes from certain people clinging to the usage of Indian to mean native Americans, which is antiquated, archaic, unnecessary and most of all, not logical. That definition does not actually mean what it says and is therefore illogical. There is no need to say Indian in the context of native Americans, anymore. The world is no longer in the age of Columbus, which is when that meaning started. The term native Americans is perfectly clear and widely understood. I doubt there would be anyone in the world, not just the USA, who would not know or at least work out very easily, what is meant by saying native Americans. All of the confusion can easily be avoided if people will just say what they mean and mean what they say. That means saying Indian for people from India and saying native Americans to mean native Americans. This subject is as confusing or simple as people make it.

If that's not good enough for certain people who insist on clinging to the usage of Indian to mean native Americans, you could refer to people who are literally Indian as the Indian kind of Indians, people from India or people of India. Other ways to refer to them could be literal Indians or just Indian Indians.

  • 5
    No one will be confused if you say Native American. But I'm not asking how to refer to Native Americans, I'm asking about how to refer to people from India. If I say "Indian" without clarification, especially if I am in parts of the US where Native Americans commonly refer to themselves an "Indian," and where there are very few people from India, people will not know which I am referring to. If EVERYONE did as you suggest, we'd be fine. But I can't change what everyone does, all I can do is choose the words I use so that I will be understood. And your suggestion is not helpful there.
    – rob
    Jun 20, 2013 at 21:28

I think those from India should be referred to as Indians and those from North America should be referred to as Aboriginals or Native Americans or what is appropriate for them. It amazes me that this is still a debate today, considering it Columbus made the error and thought he was in India and wrongfully called the Aboriginals Indian. Why not correct the error, instead of just continue on mislabeling a whole society. If you're from India, you're Indian, easy.

  • 3
    Welcome to EL&U. This is not a discussion forum, but a Q&A site, and your post does not really answer the question as to whether East Indian is commonly used. Your advice moreover is at least incomplete; however "wrong" the term American Indian is, you cannot simply will it out of existence, and so long as it is used, Indian is ambiguous. Moreover, the term Native American was one adopted by white academics; aboriginal is not in use in the U.S.; and the enterprise of reducing a continent's worth of cultures and languages to a single racial term is also problematic.
    – choster
    May 18, 2014 at 14:58
  • choster, missobvious made an important point. Why continue using Indian to mean native Americans? It's not a question of willing it out of existence. It's just not necessary to use that meaning.
    – Tristan r
    May 18, 2014 at 16:35
  • @Tristanr It's an important point, but it doesn't answer the question, which was about commonly understood usage, not the justification behind that usage.
    – user867
    May 19, 2014 at 2:22

The correctest terms are:

Native American for someone born in America of native origin (eg prior to the European invasions)

Native Indian for someone born in or of Indian descent

That way there can be no confusion - except whenever the two races have intermarried.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.