American Indian and Native American are both generally acceptable and can be used interchangeably, although individuals may have a preference. Native American gained traction in the 1960s for American Indians and Alaska Natives. Over time, Native American has been expanded to include all Native people of the continental United States and some in Alaska. Native American and American Indian can be used interchangeably, however, the term is used only to describe groups of Native Americans – two or more individuals of different tribal affiliation. Journalists should always identify people by their preferred tribal affiliation when reporting on individuals or individual tribes.
There are millions of people who identify as American Indian or who have Native ancestry, according to 100 Questions, 500 Nations: A Guide to Native America. That does not make them all American Indians in the eyes of tribes or the federal government. The federal government considers someone American Indian if he or she belongs to a federally recognized tribe. Individual tribes have the exclusive right to determine their own membership. Tribal governments formally list their members, who must meet specific criteria for enrollment. Some require a person to trace half or a quarter of his or her lineage, for instance, to the tribe, while others require only proof of descent.[Use native-born to describe someone who is born in the United States but isn’t American Indian.
[In 2016, President Barack Obama signed legislation (HR 4238) that replaced the term American Indian with Native American in federal laws.]