Here's a specific sentence from Fannie Kelly's book whose title is Narrative of my Captivity Among the Sioux Indians, published in 1871:

on being told of two big oceans, they would ask if the whites owned the big country on the other side; and if there were any Indians there. Many of my statements were received with incredulity, and I was often called a liar, especially when I told of the number and rapid increase of the white race

Does anyone know what word the Indians would have used in that sentence? Did the Indians even have a collective term for non-whites in the 1860s or 19th century? Perhaps the Indians just used the word they used to refer to their own tribe but if they did have a word to refer to all non-white peoples I'd like to know. Certainly, different tribes had different concepts. Maybe some had the concept while others didn't. Any details would be appreciated.

I've already done some googling but all I can find answers the question of how Indians refer to themselves today but I'm not interested in that.

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    FWIW, I tried to dig up the exact book name, and boy was that a rabbit-hole! First off, Kelly's actual book is available free on YouTube as an audiobook! However, there are also several competing narratives of her story circulating around (I guess it was really compelling to people of the time), so its not outside the realm of possibility you ended up reading one of those instead.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Aug 16, 2023 at 16:22
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    There is a full text version of Narrative of my captivity among the Sioux Indians listed at the bottom of the wiki article linked, hosted at UMich. I had no luck finding the OPs indicated (paraphrased) quote within however...
    – justCal
    Commented Aug 16, 2023 at 17:24
  • @justCal I found the passage at the bottom of p.189 of version: "...on being told of two big oceans, they would ask if the whites owned the big country on the other side; and if there were any Indians there. Many of my statements were received with incredulity, and I was often called a liar, especially when I told of the number and rapid increase of the white race;..." Commented Aug 17, 2023 at 0:58
  • @kimchilover Good find. Might be worth editing into the question.
    – justCal
    Commented Aug 17, 2023 at 1:28
  • @TED - yea, actually I'm listening to the youtube version.
    – bobsmith76
    Commented Aug 17, 2023 at 3:23

2 Answers 2


I'll answer with the aid of Osage, since that's the language I know (my father's people are Osage) and have good resources for. Osage is a Western Siouxan language, closely related to the Lakota spoken by the "Sioux" from your story1. So while this isn't the answer for them, it should at least give you the right idea.

The other big advantage to using Osage here is that we have a dictionary for it written by an actual Native Anthropologist, Francis La Flesche, around the turn of the 20th Century, not that far from the period you are asking about. He was born among the Omaha in the decade before your story. Omaha is also a Siouxan language, very closely related to the Osage language.

Since English wasn't their native language, one would imagine when asking such a thing in English, indigenous peoples would use the appropriate English words, which in this case would be "Indian".

In their own languages, they'd likely use their own endonym for themselves, often translating into something like "the people". For my father's people, it was 𐓏𐒰𐓓𐒰𐓓𐒷 (Wa-zha'-zhe, simplified by the French to "Osage"). I've seen it translated as "People of the middle waters", but La Flesche writing in the early 20th century said the exact meaning had been lost. For the people who Kelley called "Sioux", their endonym is "Lakota" (which I will hereafter use, as per their wishes).

As for exonyms, the Osage use 𐓐𐓎𐒹𐒰𐓆𐒼𐒰 (xin-ha' çka) for people of European descent. Its a compound word meaning "white skin"3. According to La Flesche, for (American) Indians in general the Osage word was and is 𐓁𐒻𐒼𐒰 𐓓𐓎𐓊𐒷 (Ne-ka zhu-dse). This is a compound word of "red man". However, La Flesche reported that they had as an antonym to 𐓐𐓎𐒹𐒰𐓆𐒼𐒰 the word 𐓐𐓎𐒹𐒰𐓆𐓇𐒰𐓄𐒷 (xin-ha' sha-be. "dark skin"). This word/term is not in their modern dictionary.4

The Lakota dictionary I have access to online isn't as useful, but I see their word for "White" is indeed quite similar to Osage's (Transliterated "ska" instead of çka). So it would probably be quite similar.

So yes, it does look like they had words for both Native Americans as a whole, and for non-white people. However, they were compound words (word-ized phrases), possibly showing their relatively novel nature to their traditional way of thinking.

1 - "Sioux" was apparently an exonym from an enemy tribe, meaning something like "yellow snake". They call themselves "Lakota", so that's generally the preferred way to refer to that people today.

2 - The modern Osage writing system I used here (occasionally anachronistically) is a proper alphabet, mostly using consonant-vowel couplets for each syllable. You can find a pronunciation key on the linked Wikipedia page above, or as a sidebar on the modern Osage dictionary produced by the Osage Nation.

3 - There were also of course some less charitable names, like "yellow eye"

4- As someone well-acquiainted with the intervening era of American History, I can come up with some guesses as to why that term didn't make the modern dictionary. However, a lot of them aren't complementary, so it wouldn't be right to speculate without looking into it. To be fair, it barely made La Fleshe's dictionary, as an alternate form rather than its own entry.

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    Did they have a term for other (American) Indians - "red man" - before contact with white people, or was is coined as a contrast to the word for white men? Commented Aug 16, 2023 at 19:00
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    I don't think I have any way to answer that question. La Flesche was the first person to document their language, so that's as early as we've got. However, the fact that they had to use a compound word for it strongly indicates to me the concept isn't ancient. I commonly see that done on Osage for post-contact things, not nearly as much for pre-contact things. They of course had lots of specific names for specific other nations and tribes. For example, their name for the Blackfoot nation, Çi'-ça-be, is not a compound word, nor does it have another meaning that I can see.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Aug 16, 2023 at 19:19
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    Logically, there really isn't much use for such a blanket term if its not in opposition to some other concept. It looks like per La Flesche they had ni-ka-shi-ga for "human/person", and "ni-ka-shi-ga e-go" for "mankind" in general.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Aug 16, 2023 at 19:29
  • @TED, thanks I appreciate your answer.
    – bobsmith76
    Commented Aug 17, 2023 at 3:28
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    @ReinstateMonica Until Europeans invaded, there was probably little need for them to think of all Native Americans as a single community. There's no need for an "us" unless there's a "them" to contrast with.
    – Barmar
    Commented Aug 17, 2023 at 15:03

Nancy Shoemaker wrote an article that covers some of the history of this,¹ and says there were patterns for the languages in different regions in the 1700s:

From the St. Lawrence to the Upper Mississippi, the word “Indian,” when interpreted into native languages, usually came to be equated with the word for “people,” sometimes translated as “men,” “real people,” or “original people.” The contemporary French historian Baqueville de la Potherie observed this pattern in the Great Lakes region when he wrote of an Indian telling the the fur trader Perrot “that when ‘the men’ arrived they would render him thanks; it is thus that all savages are designated among themselves, while they call the French, ‘French,’ and the [other] people from Europe by the names of their respective nations.”

In contrast, in southeastern Indian languages, the word or phrase meaning “Indian” originates in the word for the color “red.” [...] At some point in the dialogue between Indians and Europeans, “Indian” came to mean “red men” or “red people” in the native languages of southeastern Indians.

She gives as examples the Natchez word tvmh-pakup (man-red), Chocktaw and Chickasaw hatak apt homma (from hatak, man, and homma, red), and Muskogee estē-cátē (man-red). (She also mentions that there were many exonyms for “Europeans” in the Northeast, such as Iroquois “hatchetmakers.” Also, the word “savage“ in the historical quotation is probably a literal translation of French sauvages.)

She argues that the Natives of this region developed this self-identification in response to meeting other people who called themselves “white” and “black,” and the English picked it up from them much later. Furthermore, settlers in the northeast were more likely to call themselves “Christian” a term that could not be translated literally, than “White,” which could, whereas those in the southeast mainly referred to themselves by their skin color.

She also mentions other theories, including that some Southeastern peoples may have had origin stories for themselves involving red clay, or that it might have originated in the custom of using red paint to designate warriors. A particularly interesting one is her theory of how the Cherokee tradition of “white” elder civil chiefs and “red” younger war chiefs informed their interpretation of the 1730 treaty between the Cherokee and the King of England. (p. 639)

¹ Nancy Shoemaker, "How Indians got to be red," The American Historical Review, Vol. 102, No. 3, Jun. 1997, pp. 625-644

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    FWIW, "Great Lakes Region" usually means Central Algonquian, and Northern Iriquoian, and the "Southeastern" languages she mentioned are Muskogean.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Aug 17, 2023 at 18:07
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    ...Natchez is either an isolate, or distantly related to Muskogean. However, their nation was destroyed by the French in the 1700's. Their language wasn't studied until 200 years later, so any survivors would have spent time living with other tribes and fluent in other languages, which means its possible their term was borrowed.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Aug 17, 2023 at 18:10
  • @Davislor thanks I really appreciate that.
    – bobsmith76
    Commented Aug 17, 2023 at 20:32
  • @njuffa If her scholarship is badly out of date, I’d appreciate a correction, from you or anyone else.
    – Davislor
    Commented Aug 18, 2023 at 1:02
  • @njuffa Very good thinking. I'll edit it into the post.
    – Davislor
    Commented Aug 18, 2023 at 1:20

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