Because Christopher Columbus mistakenly believed that the Caribbean island on which he had landed was the subcontinent of India, he called the inhabitants Indians.
Eventually, that name was applied to almost all the indigenous, non-European inhabitants of North and South America. In modern times Indian
may refer to an inhabitant of the subcontinent of India or of the East Indies, to a citizen of the Republic of India, or to a member of an aboriginal American people.
In the 18th century the term American Indian
came to be used for the aboriginal inhabitants of the United States and Canada; it now includes the aboriginal peoples of South America as well. (When necessary, further distinctions are made with such terms as North American Indian
and South American Indian.
) The terms Amerindian
subsequently developed in the attempt to reduce ambiguity. For some, especially among North American Indians, the preferred designation is Native American.
All these terms appear in edited writing. Whether one or several will gain ascendancy over the others remains to be seen.
The only pre-European inhabitants of North America to whom Indian
or other terms using the word Indian
are not applied are the Eskimos or Inuit. See Eskimo.
See also honest Injun
, Indian giver