What Does Indigenous Mean? Definition, How to Use It, and More (2023)

What Does Indigenous Mean? Definition, How to Use It, and More (1)Share on Pinterest

This word “Indigenous” has seen increasing use in recent years, and you may have gathered from context clues that it refers, at least in the United States, to Native Americans.

Perhaps you’ve even noticed people using it to describe themselves.

“Indigenous” describes any group of people native to a specific region. In other words, it refers to people who lived there before colonists or settlers arrived, defined new borders, and began to occupy the land.

Many Indigenous communities worldwide have faced — and continue to face — devastation of their culture and language, along with the loss of land and resources.

Some examples of Indigenous peoples include:

  • the Māori peoples of New Zealand
  • the Ainu and Ryukyuan peoples of Japan
  • the Inuit people of the Arctic in Alaska, Canada, and Greenland
  • the Sámi people of Norway, Finland, Sweden, and Russia’s Kola Peninsula

Is it an alternative for ‘Native American’?

Simply saying “Indigenous” isn’t quite the same as saying “Native American” or “American Indian.”

When used in the United States, terms like “Indigenous art” or “Indigenous land” do usually refer to Native American art or land. Still, it’s important to recognize that this term can have a much broader meaning.

The more specific term “Indigenous American” carries the same general meaning as “Native American.” Both describe the original peoples of the North American continent.

(Video) Indigenous Meaning with Examples

Various online sources suggest that while younger generations are reclaiming “Indigenous” as an identifier, older generations may still prefer “Native American.”

The term “Indigenous” may feel stigmatizing to some, since it can carry implications of negative descriptors like “primitive” or “uncivilized.”

“Native American” remains a respectful form of address, but some people may ask that you use the adjective “Indigenous” instead.

Things to keep in mind:

  • There’s no single correct term to use.
  • Always consider someone’s personal preference.
  • Use the specific name of their nation or tribe whenever possible.

What about ‘Aboriginal’?

“Aboriginal,” by definition, means people living in a region “from the earliest time,” so it has much the same meaning as “Indigenous.”

You won’t hear this term used very often in the United States, but it’s sometimes still used to refer to the First Nations, Inuit, and Métis peoples in Canada.

You might also hear “Aboriginal Australians” used to describe Indigenous people in Australia. Still, this term doesn’t include the Torres Strait Islander peoples, so it’s not all-inclusive.

Generally speaking, this term is falling out of use in North America, with “Indigenous” replacing it in most regions. Unless someone expresses a preference for this term, you may want to instead say “Indigenous peoples.”

If you do use this term, use it as an adjective, not a noun. For example, “Aboriginal art” or “Aboriginal land.” And again, it’s best to use a more specific name, such as “Inuit people” or “Inuit language,” whenever possible.

(Video) The word Indigenous — explained l CBC Kids News

Why is it included in ‘BIPOC’?

The term “BIPOC,” which stands for Black, Indigenous, and People of Color, came into use as a more specific and descriptive person-first identifier than “People of Color.”

“People of Color” implies that it’s possible to compress the unique and varied range of experiences of all nonwhite people into a single group. Of course, this couldn’t be further from reality.

In the United States in particular, Black and Indigenous people have suffered the devastating impact of white supremacy — including slavery, genocide, and the dismantling of their cultures — for centuries.

Today, Black and Indigenous people still face disproportionate levels of systemic racism, oppression, and other injustices.

“BIPOC,” then, helps highlight the significant discrimination and oppression Black and Indigenous people continue to face.

This can be a useful acronym, particularly on social media, but you shouldn’t use it in every situation — only when you’re speaking about issues affecting all communities of color.

Learn more about what BIPOC means and when to use this term.

When should you use it?

(Video) What does being Indigenous mean?

“Indigenous” is an umbrella term, so it’s best used when you want to refer to more than one group of Indigenous people.

You might say “Indigenous” or “Indigenous Americans” in the following situations:

  • When you need a respectful umbrella term to refer to more than one nation of Native American people — for example, “We live on Indigenous land.”
  • When you want to talk about Native American culture in a general way — for example, “Indigenous rights” or “issues affecting Indigenous communities.”
  • When someone has asked you to use it.

Note that this term should be capitalized.

When shouldn’t you use it?

As a broad umbrella term, “Indigenous” isn’t the best choice for every situation.

Avoid using this term:

  • As a noun. It’s an adjective, so you’ll always want to follow it with a noun — for example, “Indigenous art,” “Indigenous culture,” or “Indigenous peoples.” Don’t say “the Indigenous” or “an Indigenous.”
  • Whenever you can use a more specific term. When speaking about one specific person or Indigenous nation, you should always use their tribal affiliation whenever possible — for example, “a member of the Lakota nation” or “Hopi pottery.”
  • When someone has asked you not to use it.

Remember, not everyone prefers the term “Indigenous” or “Indigenous American.”

If someone corrects you, simply apologize and adjust your language to reflect their preferred terminology.

Keep in mind that it doesn’t matter which term you consider most respectful. If someone asks you to refer to them by another term, using the term they request is the best way to show respect for their identity.

(Video) INDIGENOUS People, NATIVE American, Aboriginal...(What is the correct name?)

Phrases to avoid

The following terms and sayings are always unacceptable:

  • Natives. While an Indigenous person might say “I’m Native,” to describe themselves, you shouldn’t use the term “Native” by itself. Also avoid the plural form, since “natives” carries plenty of negative, racist connotations.
  • Indian. Referring to Indigenous people as “Indians” is inaccurate. “Indian” describes someone from India.
  • Eskimo. Many Indigenous groups from the Arctic region, including the Inuit, Yupik, and Alaska Native peoples, consider this term derogatory and racist.
  • Spirit animal. Calling animals or other things you love and appreciate your “spirit animal” appropriates Indigenous traditions and culture by turning them into jokes. If you aren’t Indigenous, don’t say you have a spirit animal.
  • Tribe. Referring to your friends as your “tribe” makes light of the fact that this term still carries many negative connotations of “primitive” or “uncivilized.”
  • Savage. White settlers called Native Americans savages because they thought of them as less than human. Calling someone or their behavior “savage” ignores and dismisses the harmful implications of this term. It’s best to clip it from your vocabulary, even if you mean it in a positive way.
  • Costume. The correct term for clothing worn during dances and other ceremonies is “regalia.”

Also avoid the terms:

  • powwow
  • chief
  • on the warpath
  • Indian giver

You should also stay away from any other words that reinforce stereotypes.

This list certainly doesn’t include every harmful or problematic term, so it never hurts to do some research of your own (more on how to do this in the next section).

The bottom line

Keeping up with new terms and familiarizing yourself with when you should and shouldn’t use them might feel a little challenging at times.

Remember, though, that doing this work only increases multicultural awareness. It also enables you to extend deeper respect and empathy to all people.

(Video) Indigenous Usage, Pronounce, Meaning, Definition, Sentence Examples

These resources can help as you work toward greater sensitivity and understanding:

  • Cultural Appreciation or Cultural Appropriation?
  • Native American and Indigenous Peoples FAQs
  • Why We Use BIPOC
  • 100 Ways to Support—Not Appropriate From—Native People

Crystal Raypole has previously worked as a writer and editor for GoodTherapy. Her fields of interest include Asian languages and literature, Japanese translation, cooking, natural sciences, sex positivity, and mental health. In particular, she’s committed to helping decrease stigma around mental health issues.


What is the word indigenous and what does it mean? ›

“Indigenous” describes any group of people native to a specific region. In other words, it refers to people who lived there before colonists or settlers arrived, defined new borders, and began to occupy the land.

How can I use a word indigenous? ›

Examples of 'indigenous' in a sentence
  1. Along the way they visit a goldmine, a remote farm and a harvest festival by indigenous people. ...
  2. The park is also home to indigenous tribes. ...
  3. There will be no indigenous people except the seagulls. ...
  4. There will be no indigenous population except seagulls.

What does it mean to be indigenous? ›

indigenous • \in-DIJ-uh-nuss\ • adjective. 1 : having originated in and being produced, growing, living, or occurring naturally in a particular region or environment 2 : innate, inborn.

What is your understanding of the word indigenous? ›

Indigenous refers to people or objects native to a certain region or environment. They may grow there, live there, be produced there, or occur naturally there. The term indigenous is primarily used to refer to plants or peoples.

Why do we use the term indigenous? ›

Indigenous comes from the Latin word indigena, which means “sprung from the land; native.” Therefore, using “Indigenous” over “Aboriginal” reinforces land claims and encourages territory acknowledgements, a practice which links Indigenous Peoples to their land and respects their claims over it.

What is an example of indigenous? ›

Among the indigenous peoples are those of the Americas (for example, the Lakota in the USA, the Mayas in Guatemala or the Aymaras in Bolivia), the Inuit and Aleutians of the circumpolar region, the Saami of northern Europe, the Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders of Australia and the Maori of New Zealand.

Is it OK to use the term indigenous? ›

The term is still commonly used to refer to First Nations peoples, often in exchange with, and to avoid repetition of, "Aboriginal" or "Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander". But many Aboriginal people dislike being referred to as Indigenous.

What are 3 words to describe indigenous? ›

  • domestic.
  • endemic.
  • homegrown.
  • primitive.
  • aboriginal.
  • autochthonous.
  • chthonic.
  • congenital.

Do we still use the word indigenous? ›

The term “Indigenous” is increasingly replacing the term “Aboriginal”, as the former is recognized internationally, for instance with the United Nations' Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. However, the term Aboriginal is still used and accepted.

What does indigenous mean for kids? ›

Indigenous people are the first people to live in a place. In Canada, Indigenous people belong to a number of different communities... | By CBC Kids | Facebook | What is indigenous? It means originating or occurring naturally in a particular place.

When was the word indigenous first used? ›

' 'Indigena' in Latin means 'native' used of plants, animals, peoples who come from a particular region. Its first known use was in 1640s when it was applied to plants and cultures in the New World.

How do I know if I am indigenous? ›

A DNA test can act as a very helpful tool when looking into your ancestry, in particular, if you have Native American ancestry, but there exist other ways of looking into your ancestral past too. For people researching the potential of a Native American past, you can: Look at available immigration or census records.

What is an example of indigenous knowledge? ›

Archaeologists conducting excavations in Indigenous locales may uncover physical evidence of Indigenous knowledge (e.g., artifacts, landscape modifications, ritual markers, stone carvings, faunal remains), but the meaning of this evidence may not be obvious to non-Indigenous or non-local investigators.

What is the meaning of indigenous in a sentence? ›

/ɪnˈdɪdʒɪnəs/ Use indigenous to describe a plant, animal or person that is native or original to an area. Though Switzerland is known for its chocolates, chocolate, which comes from the cocoa plant, is indigenous to South America.

What are the 3 main groups of indigenous peoples? ›

"Indigenous peoples" is a collective name for the original peoples of North America and their descendants. Often, "Aboriginal peoples" is also used. The Canadian Constitution recognizes 3 groups of Aboriginal peoples: Indians (more commonly referred to as First Nations), Inuit and Métis.

Is it better to say Native American or indigenous? ›

In the United States, Native American has been widely used but is falling out of favor with some groups, and the terms American Indian or Indigenous American are preferred by many Native people. Native peoples often have individual preferences on how they would like to be addressed.

Who is an indigenous person in the United States? ›

Indigenous Peoples refers to a group of Indigenous peoples with a shared national identity, such as “Navajo” or “Sami,” and is the equivalent of saying “the American people.” Native American and American Indian are terms used to refer to peoples living within what is now the United States prior to European contact.

Who are indigenous peoples? ›

Indigenous Peoples are inheritors and practitioners of unique cultures and ways of relating to people and the environment. They have retained social, cultural, economic and political characteristics that are distinct from those of the dominant societies in which they live.

What are the five indigenous knowledge? ›

Indigenous knowledge incorporates all aspects of life - spirituality, history, cultural practices, social interactions, language, and healing.

What not to say to an indigenous person? ›

7 Things to NEVER Say to Your Indigenous, Native American Colleagues
  • Don't call an informal get-together a “powwow.” ...
  • Never call something or someone your “spirit animal.” ...
  • Don't call an Indigenous man “Chief” or woman “Pocahontas.” ...
  • Never describe Native American culture or regalia as a “costume.”
Nov 6, 2020

Who started the Stolen Generation? ›

In the 1860s, Victoria became the first state to pass laws authorising Aboriginal children to be removed from their parents. Similar policies were later adopted by other states and territories – and by the federal government when it was established in the 1900s.

Does indigenous mean foreign or from a different place? ›

(ɪndɪdʒɪnəs ) adjective. Indigenous people or things belong to the country in which they are found, rather than coming there or being brought there from another country.

Is native and indigenous the same? ›

The term Native is often used officially or unofficially to describe indigenous peoples from the United States (Native Americans, Native Hawaiians, Alaska Natives), but it can also serve as a specific descriptor (Native people, Native lands, Native traditions, etc.).

What word can I use instead of indigenous? ›

Synonyms of indigenous
  • aboriginal.
  • native.
  • local.
  • endemic.
  • autochthonous.
  • domestic.
  • regional.
  • born.

How would you describe an indigenous person? ›

Indigenous Peoples are distinct social and cultural groups that share collective ancestral ties to the lands and natural resources where they live, occupy or from which they have been displaced.

What is the difference between indigenous and non indigenous people? ›

At the risk of over simplifiying all indigenous people belong to particular places. In contrast non indigenous people belong no where in particular – although places may belong to them – which is not at all the same thing.

What is the nearly opposite word of indigenous? ›

Opposite of of the indigenous inhabitants of a place. immigrant. migrant. colonial.

What is indigenous spirituality? ›

The Inuktitut word “Upirusutuk” is used among Inuit people to mean “having faith.” In this policy, “Indigenous Spirituality” refers to the spiritual beliefs and practices that Indigenous peoples identify as being “traditional” or “customary” among Indigenous peoples.

How old are Indigenous? ›

Aboriginal people are known to have occupied mainland Australia for at least 65,000 years. It is widely accepted that this predates the modern human settlement of Europe and the Americas.

Where did Indigenous start? ›

The ancestors of the American Indians were nomadic hunters of northeast Asia who migrated over the Bering Strait land bridge into North America probably during the last glacial period (11,500–30,000 years ago).

What are the Indigenous values? ›

These teachings stressed Wisdom, Love, Respect, Bravery, Honesty, Humility and Truth as the values that enable people to live in a way that promotes harmony and balance with everyone and everything in creation.

What does 2 Native American mean? ›

Traditionally, Native American two-spirit people were male, female, and sometimes intersexed individuals who combined activities of both men and women with traits unique to their status as two-spirit people. In most tribes, they were considered neither men nor women; they occupied a distinct, alternative gender status.

Where did the Native Americans get their DNA from? ›

Most Indigenous American groups are derived from two ancestral lineages, which formed in Siberia prior to the Last Glacial Maximum, between about 36,000 and 25,000 years ago, East Eurasian and Ancient North Eurasian.

What are the three importance of indigenous knowledge? ›

Learning from indigenous knowledge, by investigating what local communities know and have, can improve understanding of agriculture, healthcare, food security education and natural-resource management issues.

Why is indigenous knowledge important? ›

Local and indigenous knowledge refers to the understandings, skills and philosophies developed by societies with long histories of interaction with their natural surroundings. For rural and indigenous peoples, local knowledge informs decision-making about fundamental aspects of day-to-day life.

What is indigenous knowledge of the earth? ›

“Indigenous Knowledge is derived from the understanding of the natural cycles of the earth and how all life is interconnected in a delicate balance. Learning this knowledge comes from being apart of the environment. Nature creates a set of beliefs and values that governs our way of life.

How do you use ingenious in a sentence? ›

The book has an ingenious plot. She was ingenious at finding ways to work more quickly. It was ingenious of him to arrange the schedule so precisely.

What is a sentence for indigenous culture? ›

The area is known for its indigenous culture as well as its rugged, isolated terrain. The indigenous culture is an active and living part of everyday life for the majority of the population.

What does indigenous mean Oxford dictionary? ›

/ɪnˈdɪdʒənəs/ (formal) belonging to a particular place rather than coming to it from somewhere else synonym native the indigenous peoples/languages of the area indigenous to… The kangaroo is indigenous to Australia.

How many indigenous people live in the USA today? ›

The Census reported that according to its 2021 American Community Survey, American Indians and Alaska Natives—alone and in combination with other races—constituted 8.7 million people, 2.6% of the U.S. population.

What are the human rights of indigenous people? ›

In fact, its articles 9 and 33 state that indigenous peoples and individuals have the right to belong to an indigenous community or nation, in accordance with the traditions and customs of the community or nation concerned, and that they have the right to determine their own identity.

What are the 4 aspects indigenous? ›

Aspects of life: spiritual, emotional, intellectual, physical.

What is the difference between native and Indigenous? ›

Native American refers to people living in the United States. Native Americans are the indigenous peoples of the United States. The term indigenous peoples refers to any group in any country or region that were the original inhabitants.

Is Native American and Indigenous the same? ›

The term Native is often used officially or unofficially to describe indigenous peoples from the United States (Native Americans, Native Hawaiians, Alaska Natives), but it can also serve as a specific descriptor (Native people, Native lands, Native traditions, etc.).

How do you know if you are Indigenous? ›

A DNA test can act as a very helpful tool when looking into your ancestry, in particular, if you have Native American ancestry, but there exist other ways of looking into your ancestral past too. For people researching the potential of a Native American past, you can: Look at available immigration or census records.

What does indigenous mean the same thing as? ›

Some common synonyms of indigenous are aboriginal, endemic, and native. While all these words mean "belonging to a locality," indigenous applies to that which is not only native but which, as far as can be determined, has never been introduced or brought from elsewhere.

What is the difference between first peoples and indigenous? ›

Indigenous" is an umbrella term for First Nations (status and non-status), Métis and Inuit. "Indigenous" refers to all of these groups, either collectively or separately, and is the term used in international contexts, e.g., the 'United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples' (UNDRIP).

What is an example of Indigenous knowledge? ›

Archaeologists conducting excavations in Indigenous locales may uncover physical evidence of Indigenous knowledge (e.g., artifacts, landscape modifications, ritual markers, stone carvings, faunal remains), but the meaning of this evidence may not be obvious to non-Indigenous or non-local investigators.

Are Mexican people Native? ›

So to give you a straight answer, yes – Mexican tribes are Native to the Americas, but the governments of the US and Mexico define their citizenry according to their country of residence.

What percentage do you have to be to be considered Native American? ›

The Bureau of Indian Affairs uses a blood quantum definition—generally one-fourth Native American blood—and/or tribal membership to recognize an individual as Native American. However, each tribe has its own set of requirements—generally including a blood quantum—for membership (enrollment) of individuals.

Who are the indigenous people of North America? ›

Prominent tribes include the Algonquin, Iroquois, Huron, Wampanoag, Mohican, Mohegan, Ojibwa, Ho-chunk (Winnebago), Sauk, Fox, and Illinois. The traditional languages of the Northeast are largely of the Iroquoian and Algonquian language families.

How much do Native American get paid a month? ›

Native American Salary
Annual SalaryMonthly Pay
Top Earners$134,500$11,208
75th Percentile$65,000$5,416
25th Percentile$33,500$2,791

Can I self identify as Indigenous? ›

Any client may self‑identify as being an Aboriginal person, regardless of legal status under the Indian Act. No proof of ancestry or belonging to a band is necessary.

Does native mean you were born there? ›

The word native has to do with where you're from. You're native to the country where you were born, and places have native plants and animals too. Things that are native are indigenous — they were born there. This is where the term Native Americans comes from — they were on this land before Europeans came over.


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