If you’re going to teach on a reservation, we need to talk about it.

This is one of the most frequently asked questions I’ve had, and it also tends to be a hugely taboo, hot button topic.

I know I’m putting my neck out on the line by even writing this, but it has to be done.

It’s one of those questions that so many non-native people WANT to know the answer to, but they don’t dare ask it.

And, I get it.

Before we really get into this, I recognize that this is a super touchy and personal topic.

I acknowledge that I am neither indigenous, Native American, or a member of a particular tribe.

I’m a white lady, talking about things that some might see as a slight.

But I write this blog post (with a ton of cautiousness and trepidation, tbh!) because it’s a question that needs to be answered, and I firmly believe that we should be educating ourselves about these topics.

We shouldn’t be putting the burden of our lack of knowledge, on a group of people who have agonized over the answers to such a question.

If a lot of this is new to you, that’s OK. That’s why you’re here. 🙂

And if you’re looking to teach on a reservation, I recommend starting with my free ultimate guide here.

Should we even be asking this?

I think there are many better questions we could be asking, but I totally get why people start here.

Though well-meaning, the root of this question usually comes from a place of ego and self-preservation.

When I was first wondering the same thing, I found myself worried about using the wrong word because:

  • I didn’t want to be (or be seen) as that kind of white person.

    Cringey, I know.

    But when we dig deeper, that’s usually the root of why we want to know the answers to these types of things.

    Even if the first layer of the reason is, “Well, I want to be respectful/PC/a good person,” the second layer of “Well, why do you want that,” is usually answered by the fact that we want to be (or be seen as) better than others. Full stop.

  • I wanted to be seen as smart or “in-the-know.”

    On the surface, this usually looks like, “Well, I don’t want to use the wrong term.”

    My friend, if you’re afraid of being wrong or embarrassing yourself, don’t go work in a culture that’s different than your own.

    You’ll constantly be humbled by how little you know!

    But isn’t that a beautiful thing?

    When we live and work in a place where we truly know nothing, we open ourselves up to learn so much more about everything.

  • I wanted to be on “the right side of history.”

    Once we do a bit of research about the origins of the land ownerships (and the founding of the United States in general!), we see quite quickly that we’re all on the wrong side of history.

    But with that fact aside, the whole point of us looking at and reflecting on history, is the fact that we have 20/20 vision since it’s already happened.

    The truth is, we’re always experiencing life in the now – with the knowledge, wisdom, and lessons we’ve collected from our own experiences, as well as by those of the people who have gone before us.

    While some things are just flat-out wrong and we can call those out, many of us won’t truly know which side of history we’re on until decades or centuries to come. That’s just the nature of time.

If you can relate to any of these, it’s OK!

Choosing to teach on a reservation is an everlong journey of self-awareness and personal development.

I know you’re here because you really do want to do things right.

Be encouraged that, yes – you’ll likely get things wrong and you’ll definitely make mistakes.

But if your heart is in the right place?

And if your actions speak of care and respect?

You’ll be fine, and I’m sure you’ll make some friends along the way. 🙂

Before I go into the history of these words, this blog post can be best summarized with the following advice:

Is “Indian” a Bad Word? Should We Not Use It?

Before we answer that question, let’s look at why so many are against it.

There’s a bit more to it then just the fact that it’s inaccurate!

The History Behind the Word “Indian”

As teachers who want to live and teach on a reservation, I’m sure we all want to do our best to honor and respect the unique cultures and histories of the communities we will be working with.

And using accurate and respectful language is a big part of that.

The term “Indian” has a long and complicated history that’s deeply intertwined with colonization and oppression.

When Europeans first arrived in the Americas, they mistakenly believed they had landed in India and began referring to the Native Americans they encountered as “Indians.”

This label has persisted for centuries. Many Native Americans have even taken to claiming the word indian.

We see this in places and terms like:

  • Indian Health Services (for IHS tribal hospitals)
  • Indian country (meaning reservations and places where Native Americans live)
  • Indian Cars (a song Indian Car, by Keith Secola and Band of Wild Indians)

Should We Say “Native American” Instead of “Indian?”

Using the term “Indian” can be seen as a colonial imposition that erases the unique identities and cultures of individual tribes and communities.

It also perpetuates the idea that all Native Americans are a homogenous group with a single culture and identity.

But as we know, this couldn’t be further from the truth.

There are over 500 federally recognized Native American tribes in the United States alone.

When we add the First Nation people of Canada and every other country in the Americas, we get well into the thousands.

Each people group has always had their own languages, customs, cultures, traditions, and histories.

The term “Indian” has been associated with a history of violence, discrimination, and oppression.

The U.S. government’s policies of forced relocation, cultural assimilation, and boarding schools are just a few examples of the ways in which indigenous communities have been marginalized and oppressed throughout history.

So, is the word “Indian” bad within itself?

It’s not accurate – and surprisingly, it’s still the term used in many official court documents, government agencies and proceedings.

We have the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Bureau of Indian Education, and the Office of Public and Indian Housing, for example.

Each individual indigenous person has their own feelings about the word, at the end of the day – so I’ve found the wisest thing to do, is refer to each person by their name – and however they want to identify.

Pin This Post for Later

Need a little more time to come back to this later?

I totally get it. There’s a ton to think about!

Pin this blog post to any boards you have on teacher travel, teaching abroad, or unique ways for teachers to travel.

Is “Native American” a Better Term to Use?

“Native American” is a term that more accurately reflects the diverse and distinct communities of indigenous people who are from the Americas.

It acknowledges that these communities are unique, and that they cannot be reduced to a single homogenous group.

Using the term “Native American” is also a way to recognize and honor the ongoing struggles and resilience of these communities.

Of course, it’s also important to recognize that different indigenous communities may have their own preferred terms for referring to themselves, and it’s always best to follow their lead.

But in general, “Native American” is a widely accepted and respectful term that reflects the diversity and complexity of the indigenous communities we work with.

When “Native American” Isn’t Always Accurate

All Native Americans are indigenous, but not all indigenous people are Native Americans.

If you’re a well-read or a well-traveled person, it might seem silly of me to say this.

“Of course, Brittany! There are indigenous people all over the world.”

But here in the United States, we have a tendency of being America-centric – so it’s worth saying.

And if you didn’t know, that’s OK too. That’s why I’m including this bit in the blog post!

We need to learn somewhere, right?

Indigenous People Groups Outside of the Americas

So let’s look at some examples of indigenous people groups who are not considered Native Americans:

The Maori

The Maori are the indigenous people of New Zealand, and are known for their distinctive art, music, and dance.

They have a rich and complex culture that is deeply intertwined with the natural world and their ancestors.


This is another word that sparks a lot of contoversy.

In itself, the word ‘aboriginal’ means ‘not original,’ which implies that European settlers were in Australia and New Zeland before they were.

And of course this isn’t true.

The Aboriginal people are the indigenous people of Australia, and have a history and culture that spans tens of thousands of years.

They have a deep spiritual connection to the land and are known for their art, storytelling, and oral traditions.

The Sami

There are indigenous people groups in Europe, too.

The Sami are indigenous people who live in the northern parts of Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia.

They have their own language, culture, and traditions, and are known for their reindeer herding and distinctive clothing.

The Ainu

The Ainu are the indigenous people of Japan, and have a long and complex history that dates back thousands of years.

They have their own unique language and culture, and are known for their intricate wood carvings and embroidery.

The Himba

The Himba are an indigenous people who live in the northern part of Namibia.

They have a unique culture and tradition, including their distinctive red ochre body paint and intricate hairstyles.


So, which term should we use?

Should we use “Indian,” “Native American,” “Indigenous,” or should we refer to their tribal affiliation?

Each person is a unique individual – with their own ideas and preferences.

It’s always best to let the person you’re talking to take the lead.

Though really, we should be referring to people by their names, anyway. 🙂

Learn Even More

Considering a teaching job on a reservation?

Then you might find these other blog posts to be helpful:

About Author

I'm just another teacher who loves to travel! I currently live and teach on the White Mountain Apache Reservation. I enjoy teaching and learning about history, culture and language. I also love creating and sharing opportunities! I look forward to growing this community with you.

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