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Bureau of Indian Affairs: Terminology and Language

This guide provides an overview of historic documents from the Bureau of Indian Affairs in the U.S. Department of the Interior and discusses terminology and language found in the documents.

Terminology and Language

When using historic documents, researchers need to be aware of the language and terminology used within the publications. One of the first considerations made in regard to the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) collection is the type of language used and the implications it can have for researchers with modern perspectives. Understanding the historical context provides a foundation for when the documents were created and what socio-political issues were at play. In addition to the language of the physical documents, there is also increased visibility of the language used to address Indigenous peoples in North America. When speaking about individuals, groups, and collective identities, it is always best to ask which term they prefer you to use. Knowing about the terminology used in documents can help you navigate these resources, but we share the information below to help you recognize the limitations and potential harm of historic descriptions. 

Community Language Preferences


An integral part of addressing the language and terminology of the BIA is acknowledging the controversy around the term "Indian". Similar to the usage of "tribe" as a bureaucratic term, "Indian" is an official term of the Federal Government. Some of the terms also used, sometimes interchangeably, are Native American, American Indian, Alaskan Natives, AI/AN (which stands for American Indian/Alaska Native), Native Hawaiians, American Samoans, Indigenous Peoples, and First Nations, although there are other designations. In the United States, the term "Native American" may be used to encompass American Indians, Alaskan Natives, Native Hawaiians, and American Samoans. Many groups refer to themselves using names from their languages, which may differ from federally recognized naming. The Navajo Nation refers to themselves as the Diné meaning "the people" and the Sioux Nation prefers to call themselves the Lakota, Dakota or Nakota, with each name representing the specific language they speak, meaning "friends" or "allies". In these cases, the federally recognized name does not originate in their language or culture and sometimes has offensive or derogatory meaning. Communities, and individuals within them, often hold differing opinions on what terminology they prefer and/or find acceptable. 


U.S. law uses "tribe" as a bureaucratic term and federal recognition is dependent on Indigenous communities being designated as a "tribe" or "...any Indian tribe [group], band, nation, pueblo, village or community." Tribe, which derives from Old French and Latin, is not a term that originated with Indigenous peoples of the Americas and as such is often not found outside of official documentation. While the preferred term varies with Indigenous individuals and communities, many use "nation" or "people" to refer to their collective identity. 

Federal Recognition

Throughout the history of the U.S. Government, it has used acknowledging the sovereignty of Indigenous groups as a political tool and federal policies/documents often reflect that.

Federally Recognized Tribes

The BIA makes the distinction that it serves "federally recognized tribes"; however, the designation of "Federally Recognized Tribal Governments" is one in flux. For a list of current recognized tribes, see the Tribal Leaders Directory. Current recognition is through the Federally Recognized Indian Tribe List Act of 1994. Changes and notices are published through the Federal Register. Federally recognized tribes have the protection, services, and benefits of the Federal Government and possess a government-to-government relationship with the U.S. Government. They also have responsibilities, powers, limitations, and obligations as organized Nations and are entitled to immunities and privileges as recognized tribes. 

Non-Recognized Tribes

The designation of "Non-Recognized Tribes" refers to groups that have no federal designation and are not accepted as sovereign entities under U.S. law. An additional sub-designation under this classification are "Federally Non-Recognized" tribes, which includes groups that have previously held federal recognition, either under governments prior to the U.S. Federal Government or as Nations that are no longer in existence and/or no longer meet the criteria as a Nation to have sovereignty status. As such, the U.S. Federal Government recognition of Indigenous Nations is complex and the BIA collection reflects the designations of the Federal Government, which might not align with the designations and beliefs of Indigenous peoples. 

About this Guide

This guide is a second in a series aiming to provide additional information and context about materials in USU's Government Information Collection. The focus of this guide is to highlight the representation of Indigenous peoples of North American through official U.S. Federal Government publications and to facilitate greater understanding of the context in which these documents were created.

Guide Author

Nicole Hurst has undergraduate degrees in English, with an emphasis in Technical Communications and Rhetoric, and Economics from Utah State University. During her time at USU, she was a student staff member of the Government Information Collection, part of Special Collections & Archives at the Merrill-Cazier Library. 

Vanessa Garcia Vazquez has undergraduate degrees in English, with an emphasis in Technical Communications and Rhetoric, and Criminal Justice from Utah State University. During her time at USU, she was a student staff member of the Government Information Collection, part of Special Collections & Archives at the Merrill-Cazier Library.