Self-Identification is an Exercise of Self-Determination

Should Federal agencies use the terms Indian or Tribe when referring to Native Hawaiians or the Native Hawaiian Community?

Short answer:  It depends on the context in which those terms are used.

The terms Indian and Tribe as used in the context of the U.S. Constitution and the plenary authority of Congress over Indian affairs are inclusive of Native Hawaiians and the NHC. Thus, use of those terms in reference to federal law is correct, but doing so, in the context of a consultation may undermine efforts to build relationships and trust with the NHC. Like many other tribes, the traditional names and identifiers the NHC has for itself differ from those historically developed and eventually used by the United States.[1] Many indigenous communities self-identify with words meaning “first people,” “real people,” and other variations of “people” in their own languages, while “outsiders” attributed to them names and labels sometimes associated with their linguistic or anthropological grouping or their homelands. Many indigenous communities have adapted to or adopted such historical names while continuing to self-identify using their own traditional terms. For example, the Ute Indian Tribes in Utah and Colorado are associated with the Uto-Aztecan language family and while they have adopted variations on the name “Ute Indian Tribe,” many continue to self-identify as the núuchi-u (“the people”). “Navajo” evolved from a Spanish adaptation of a Tewa-puebloan word referring to a “place of large planted fields” and members of the present-day Navajo Nation refer to themselves as Diné (“the people”). Early use of the term “Hawaiian” referred to the people of Hawai‘i and “Native Hawaiian” refers to the indigenous people of Hawai‘i, many of whom self-identify as Kānaka ‘Ōiwi (“native people” or literally “people of the ancestral bone”) or Kānaka Maoli (“real people”) or as part of the Lāhui (“Nation”).

When engaging in activities and correspondence with other Federal officials it is appropriate and necessary to use those terms provided by statute. However, officials should make every effort to be respectful both in those Federal-to-Federal activities and when engaged with Native American communities by utilizing the traditional names of those communities.


[1] At the time of the Framers and in the nineteenth century, the terms ‘‘Indian,’’ ‘‘Indian affairs,’’ and ‘‘Indian tribes’’ were used to refer to the indigenous peoples not only of the Americas but also of the Caribbean and areas of the Pacific extending to Australia, New Zealand, and the Philippines. See, e.g., W. Dampier, A New Voyage Around the World (1697); Joseph Banks, The Endeavor Journal of Sir Joseph Banks (1770); William Bligh, Narrative of the Mutiny on the Bounty (1790); A.F. Gardiner, Friend of Australia (1830); James Cook, A Voyage to the Pacific Ocean (1784) (referring to Native Hawaiians).

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