My guess would be Indian, but that sounds like a guy with a feather on his head who hunts buffalo.

Is there a better name?

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    I find it ironic that you consider Indian to refer exclusively to Native Americans. After all, they are/were only called as such because Christopher Columbus and other early explorers of the Americas mistakenly believed they were sailing for India! – Noldorin Jan 23 '11 at 0:19
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    @Noldorin: Well, I'm Dutch, and we call a Native American an "Indiaan" while someone from India is an "Indiër". Hence the question. Anyway, didn't all the Noldor sail the straight road long ago? – Andomar Jan 23 '11 at 0:29
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    @Andomar: Ah, fair enough. In any case, it stems from a historical mistake. In English, using "Indian" to refer to Native Americans is usually offensive, though not in other languages perhaps. – Noldorin Jan 23 '11 at 0:31
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    There are many acceptable terms for American Indians, except "a guy with a feather on his head who hunts buffalo." Feathers were sometimes worn at times for specific purposes by some Indians, who were not only "guys," but both men and women, and by no means all of whom hunted buffalo (actually American bison), nor was that all they did in their lives. Furthermore, the "buffalo" were hunted MUCH more (almost to extinction) by the white man. And yes, "Indian" is a term commonly used by American Indians to refer to themselves. – John M. Landsberg Mar 18 '13 at 9:11
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    Tony Hillerman, the late Anglo author, wrote about asking at an intertribal conference how they felt about "Indian". The Navajo representative said, "At least Columbus didn't think he had reached the Virgin Islands." – Andrew Lazarus Jun 10 '13 at 16:51

13 Answers 13


The correct term (demonym) is Indian. In the United States, the term Asian Indian is also used in order to avoid confusion between Indians from the subcontinent and Native Americans (American Indians). These days, using Indian to describe a Native American may be considered improper and even offensive by some*. Thus, even in the US, Indian would often to be taken to mean someone from India. And if one wanted to completely avoid ambiguity, then from India would suffice.

*Some Native Americans do not mind being called Indians. (Thanks to @Robusto for pointing that out.)

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    +1 I agree. People from the country of India are Indians, unlike Native Americans - applying the term to them, if not offensive, is really incorrect (based on a historical mistake). – Noldorin Jan 23 '11 at 0:19
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    Actually, I asked some Native Americans about this a while back and they said they didn't mind the term Indian. They called themselves 'skins, in fact, for redskins. No kidding. These were Ogalala Sioux from Pine Ridge, too. – Robusto Jan 23 '11 at 2:01
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    Just to put the British (International) English perspective on it. Indians almost always refers to people from the Indian subcontinent of Asia. The except for the Native Americans comes in contextually only with old western movies, in the phrase "cowboys and indians" and the childrens' play and games based around that. – Orbling Jan 23 '11 at 2:10
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    Just to add a little bit more of an int'l perspective still: In Canada the term Indian has fallen into disuse as well. The term First Nations is used to refer to the aboriginal peoples in a collective way. When referring to a specific band one would say something along the lines of, for example, the Haida First Nation. When referring to an individual you could say a First Nations person (very politically correct) or just refer to the specific nation, e.g. "He's Haida". – Bjorn Nov 23 '11 at 22:25
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    @Sharique I’m afraid that “Red Indian” is going to provoke a laugh in a lot of America. It simply isn’t used here, and sound funny, both senses. – tchrist May 22 '12 at 1:46

In common speech, what I most often hear is, "He's an Indian -- I mean an India Indian, not an American Indian" or "He's an Indian -- I mean from India." i.e. the speaker almost always has to backtrack and add it as an afterthought, and when they do they usually say "India Indian" or "from India".

In writing, when the context is not clear, I'd generally say "a person from India" rather than "an Indian" to avoid confusion.

Side note: Note that using the term "American Indian" rather than "Native American" is offensive mostly to white people on behalf of Indians, rather than to the Indians themselves. The people in question more often refer to themselves as "American Indians". Not long ago I read of a survey taken in the mid-1990s that found that (best as I recall the numbers) about 50% of American Indians preferred the term "American Indian", 35% preferred "Native American", and I presume the rest had other terms, didn't care, whatever. There's only one such person that I ever knew at all personally and he called himself "an Indian". I just did a quick Yahoo search and couldn't find anything more recent, so I don't know if that's changed. Personally, I think there's a certain irony to all this: To show greater respect for Indians, white people tell the Indians that we know better than they what they should call themselves. Sounds a little patronizing to me. But I'm probably trending from language to social commentary here.

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    comment on your side note: the term redskin was originally coined by those to whom it applied. But it was used so contemptuously by settlers that self-appointed spokesmen for -er- those people banned it. Linguistically, it's the best descriptive term: maybe it will be reclaimed, as nigger is being. – Tim Lymington Dec 15 '11 at 15:41
  • Your commentary on American Indian matches my experience. – Charles Dec 16 '11 at 0:24
  • I’ve only ever heard American Indians call themselves Indians myself. – tchrist May 22 '12 at 1:48

You can also use the term desi, which is commonly used among Indians and other South-central Asians to describe themselves. This term may also be of use to you if you know that the person you've only just met is from that part of Asia, but you're not quite sure from where. I've found, using it, that it's consistently well received -perhaps because of its endonymicity.

from Wikipedia:

Desi [d̪eːsi] or Deshi [d̪e(ː)ʃi] refers to the peoples, cultures, and products of the Indian subcontinent and, increasingly, to the peoples, cultures, and products of their diaspora. Desi countries include India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan and Sri Lanka, and there are large desi populations in (e.g.) the UK, US and Canada.


Hindi: देसी, Urdu: دیسی, Punjabi: ਦੇਸੀ ,Marathi: देशी, Gujarati: દેશી, Bengali: দেশী, Tamil: தேசி, Telugu: దేశీయుడు, Malayalam: ദേശി, Nepali: देसी,देशी

This ethnonym belongs in the endonymic category (i.e. it is a self-appellation). Desi originated from the Sanskrit word देश deśa- ("region, province, country"). Its first known usage is in the Natya Shastra (~200 BC), where it defines the regional varieties of folk performing arts, as opposed to the classical, pan-Indian margi.


During the height of the British Raj, many people from the then-undivided Indian subcontinent emigrated to other British colonies, in search of education and opportunity. After immigration reform in 1965, the US dramatically increased immigration from the Indian subcontinent. Communities that have remained distinct in South Asia have tended to mix in diaspora. Some second or third generation immigrants do not think of themselves as belonging to a particular nation, sub-culture, or caste, but as just plain South Asians or desis, especially as intermarriage between different South Asian diaspora communities increases.

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    I think of "desi" as kind of an insider term. It shares a derivation with "diaspora" but I've never heard someone who is not also of the South Asian diaspora refer to a South Asian (or an Indian) as a desi. – Amanda Mar 29 '11 at 14:45
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    I would agree with Amanda here, don't refer to an Indian as a desi if you're not one :) – Amit G May 12 '11 at 10:42
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    I don't think "desi" is likely to be understood by the average reader. – Nate Eldredge Nov 24 '11 at 17:16
  • Desi, or Deshi, as in pure Sanskrit basically means of the nation. So, it actually sounds slightly offensive if used by someone else. Its like using a homegrown term. Unless in jocular sense, I dont think this should be used. – karthik Feb 19 '12 at 19:09
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    Within India, the term desi has rustic, villager, steeped in tradition, narrow minded and behind the times connotations. – Kinjal Dixit Jul 9 '12 at 6:09

Is there a better name?

There is no need for one. The word Indian, is fine. It's widely used. If you are confused with the other use of the word, just say native American. It is simple.

  • Isn't native American refers to anyone who was born here in the United States? Probably you want to say Native American > dictionary.com/e/… – Flonne Nov 21 '18 at 19:39

In Canada, in my experience, we generally say East Indian or South Asian to refer to people from India. South Asian includes Pakistanis and Sri Lankans as well, and perhaps others.

"Indian" to refer to aboriginal peoples has been somewhat deprecated in the era of political correctness, but we still have the Indian Act.

  • South Asian makes perfect sense; geographically, the Indian Subcontinent is contiguous with South Asia. East Indian would be a huge source of confusion, especially in India. – ranban282 May 2 '18 at 8:15

I would use Indian as an adjective rather than a noun. "He's Indian" is more often used for people from India; "He's an Indian" sounds a little odd and suggests Native American. Usually sentences can be rearranged pretty easily to use the adjective form.

This distinction is relevant for a variety of other groups—female and gay become borderline offensive used as nouns.


Here in Oklahoma the census says we have about 10% "Native American", but it seems like most of the rest of us who report something else to the census have some tribe we are associated with as well (for me, that would be the Osage).

To be honest, in conversation here most "Native Americans" actually prefer the term "Indian".

There are in fact not a few Asian Indians living here in the two major cities as well. If confusion is possible (you can't figure it out from context), often what you hear is "Indian (dot)" or "Indian (feather)".

However, that is in very relaxed circumstances. If you want to differentiate in a more formal way, we say "Native American" (or sometimes "First Nations") or "Asian Indian". For example, these are the terms used on US Census reports.


Where there is likely to be confusion, people could use "Bharat" in place of "India". It is an offical name for the country is it is easy to say. "He is from Bharat" should be easy to say and understand.

Indian is "Bharatiya". However badly you pronounce it, you get an A for effort.

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    downvoters, please comment..!! – alekhine Sep 14 '13 at 15:01
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    I'm not one of the downvoters, but I imagine their reason is that the term "Bharat" is not widely known outside of India. – Charles Feb 28 '14 at 20:14
  • Agree with Charles. Bharat is mostly used in India (The Hindi inscription on the Indian passport says 'Bharat Ganrajya' - Indian Republic). Outside of India, there is limited use of the term Bharat in the Indian subcontinent. In Sri Lanka, they mostly say Indian. I am not sure what they say in Bhutan. I guess that they say Bharat in Nepal. In Bangladesh, in Bengali, they say 'Bharot' or 'Eendiya'. In Pakistan, some people have started saying Bharat instead of Hindustan, while talking in Urdu. (In English, it is Indian, of course). – ranban282 May 2 '18 at 8:17

I have cousins who are Native American and friends who are Indian, I think it is confusing that some people insist on calling Native Americans, Indians. It was a historical mistake made by Columbus, because he thought he was in India. Why do people insist on continuing the practice when he has since been discredited, and we no longer even celebrate his holiday? Also we now have a lot of people from India living in the US, sometimes for more than one generation. What do we call them if we cannot call them Indian Americans? I have co-workers who call both groups of people Indians, then add the clarify "with feathers" or "with a dot." Hum, how is that not offensive? But yes I agree with what someone else said, saying "he/she is from India" rather than "Indian" does make it less confusing. Also true Native Americans generally do not mind being called American Indians.

  • Well, that's why they use "American Indians" for natives, "Indian Americans" for those of Indian descent (or from india). It is still confusing, though. – RainDoctor Jun 10 '13 at 21:40

People from India are often referred to as "East Indians", in order to differentiate them from N.A. Indians. The term "East Indian" is quite acceptable and not offensive to a person from India.

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    Just as a side-note: back in the days of European imperialism the term East Indies was used to refer to a region that encompassed the Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asia. Hence the "Dutch East Indies", which should certainly ring familiar to the OP. The West Indies referred to the region that is now commonly known as the Caribbean. – Bjorn Nov 23 '11 at 22:39
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    @Bjorn Yes, in fact all those European political powers which entered South Asia in the camouflage of trading companies used to call themselves so-and-so East India Company, viz. British East India Company, Dutch East India etc. French East India company in their language. – karthik Feb 19 '12 at 18:58
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    @Mairin Even though the term East Indian is not unacceptable, it is quite awkward. Because of India's huge diversity in language, culture etc. across regions, we often classify ourselves into North Indians, and South Indians, and among the North Indians, though less often, we also further distinguish as North Indians, East Indians, North-East and West Indians. So, it seems to be very weird. I must say Indians are best called Indians. After all, the river Indus still flows through the subcontinent. :) – karthik Feb 19 '12 at 19:03
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    @Mairin In fact the only place I found this term was in Orkut profile options. Indians would mostly say they are Asians, since the term East Indian is so unusual. – karthik Feb 19 '12 at 19:11
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    The term "East Indian" is not (intended to be) used to differentiate from Native Americans. Instead it is used to differentiate them from "West Indians", a demonym for people from the Caribbean/West Indies. – coleopterist Jul 17 '12 at 19:20

Perhaps English could follow the Spanish custom here:

  • In Spanish, a person native to the Americas would be called un indio — so in English, an Indian.
  • In contrast, a person from the country or subcontinent of India would in Spanish be called un indú — so in English, a Hindu.

This is pretty simple and less confusing than having the same word for both persons.

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    In English "Hindu" (like the Spanish "Indú") traditionally used to mean "of India", as in the lingua franca "Hindustani" or the mountains of the "Hindu Kush". But now it is taken to be religious. – Henry May 31 '14 at 8:37
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    This does not actually answer the question, which is about English, not Spanish. Many other languages have clear distinctions, but you should do as Andomar did and note such things in comments to the question, not as an answer. – Janus Bahs Jacquet May 31 '14 at 9:40
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    @JanusBahsJacquet Yes, but with a bit of recasting for emphasis, a more tenable answer can be readily coaxed (but not coäxed as in computer cabling nor co-axed as in some twin-bladed battle-axe) out of it, leaving in its stead a palimpsest with at least some heritage tracing back a la versión original. – tchrist May 31 '14 at 13:51
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    The problem with this answer is that in English, a Hindu is a person who is an adherent of the Hindu religions, which is completely different from an Indian. In India, around 20% of the population is not Hindu. And there are Hindus in many countries outside of India, and even outside of the Indian sub continent. – ranban282 May 2 '18 at 8:28

Indian is the correct, as people say. Native American (US), or First Peoples(Canada) would offer more clarity if you were talking about an indigenous tribe. These terms are also more P.C.... although we do still have the Indian Health Service, and other programs.

If someone asks you to specify, or you need to specify, "Indian (from India)..." probably preferable to bringing feathers (or bindis) into the discourse... which might be interpreted as stereotyping.


People From India

I work in IT, and I'm constantly in contact with people from India, which is exactly how they tend to refer to themselves. They almost always insert the phrase from India rather than using a race/nationality of Indian/East Indian. I don't think they take offense to Indian, I think they just use this method to avoid confusion. This is even taken to the next level to describe nationality. Example: "he looks like his parents might be from India" instead of "he is Indian."

Indian or Native American

To analyze the perspective from people from North America, the popular and respected YouTube creator CGP Grey traveled around the US and did some extensive research on the topic of using "Native American" or "Indian" (hereafter referred to as First People). The six-minute video can be view here.

Some key points:

  • First People frequently refer to themselves (or other First People) as Indians without negativity.
  • Some First People do NOT like to be called Native American. It is considered overly inclusive. Consider if a name were used to describe all people from Middle East, Africa parts of Asia and Europe.
  • There was a correlation of usage of Native American/Indian that directly corresponded with how close or far they were from a recognized reservation. The further from a reservation, the more likely to use Native American, and vise-versa.
  • The United States government uses the term Indian on all government matters (i.e. Bureau of Indian Affairs, etc).

Overall conclusion: First People do not seem to take offense to being referred to as Indian. The people who most frequently raise objections to the term tend are not First People nor near them.

How To Ask For Clarification

When one needs to clarify if which culture of Indian they meant, there isn't really a good quick method. "Did you mean people from India the country of India or people in the United States referred to as Indians?" This obviously isn't easy to say if asking for a quick clarification.

The phrase "dot or feather" makes clear the question and is far easier to say, but carries an offensive tone considering it mockingly points out unusual characteristics of both cultures (conmpared to European cultures). Don't use this phrase.

In the IT world (as mentioned at the start), I have heard "Tech Support or Casino" thrown around by folks. People from India don't seem to mind. I don't know how this would be received by First People. It is easy to say, and makes clear the question, but I would say it's not socially tested enough to be considered a good idea.

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