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Stories & Facts

Names of American Indian Peoples

Did you know that the names outsiders call many of the tribes of Native Americans are not the names they call themselves? Many times the tribal names commonly used in history books are nicknames assigned by European explorers and conquerors, or names used by other tribes who may have been rivals for living space or possessions such as horses or sheep.

For instance, the name "Papago" was given to certain southwestern desert people by the Spaniard Conquistadors; it means "bean eaters" because they use mesquite and other indigenous beans in their cuisine. The name "Apache" was adopted by the Conquistadors after asking some pueblo people what they called certain peoples who ranged large areas of the southwest; it is an approximation of their word for enemy.

Some peoples or nations have changed their names officially with the U. S. Government to something at least approximating what they call themselves. For instance, the Papago are now known to us as Tohono O'Odham. Other peoples accept outsiders calling them what they will, but they know who they are.


Story reviewed by Carol Locust, Ph.D
Native American Research and Training Center
Tucson, Arizona