What Indians Called White People

I found something unexpected in the January 1912 edition of The Red Man when I turned a page and saw an article titled “How the American Indian Named the White Man” by Alexander F. Chamberlain, Professor of Anthropology at Clark University. I was curious at first because I didn’t understand what was meant by the title. However, the first sentence made things very clear: “‘Paleface’ is not the only name by which the ‘white man’ is known to the ‘red.’” The author’s premise was quite reasonable. It makes perfect sense that Indians would coin names for us that described white people as they saw them. It also reminded me of the punchline in that Tonto and the Lone Ranger joke we told as kids: “What do you mean we, paleface?” But I digress. The author explained that different tribes coined different names and had different names for some of the European nationalities.


Many of the names, as expected, had to do with skin color. Several tribes called us “white,” “white person,” “white skin,” etc. In addition to these the Algonkian Arapahos referred to us as “yellow-hided.” Whether it had to do with skin or hair color or courage is unknown. Kiowas used a term that meant “hairy mouth” and the Zunis referred to the early Spaniards as “moustached people.” “They of the hairy chest” was used by Algonkian Miamis.


Ears also played a role. Kiowas used the same word for white men that they used for donkeys and mules. It meant “ears sticking out” because Indians’ ears were partially covered by their hair. Crows and Upsarokas called white men “yellow eyes.” Our voices were not altogether pleasing to theKiowas as they also called white men “growlers.”


Clothing also played a role in the naming. Mohawks of the Lake of the Two Mountains in Quebec thought the tam o’shanters worn by early Scot settlers looked like cow patties and called them “ota,” their word for cow droppings. Englishmen would agree with the Objibwa who described Scots as “he who speaks differently.”

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18 Responses to “What Indians Called White People”

  1. Brianna.V.B. Says:

    Have you ever heard of the Native Indians calling white people The Square People (because they built and lived in square houses)? I read that a long time back probably in a library book, but can’t find anything about it on the internet.

  2. Luanna scott Says:

    My tribes name for “white” people
    Translates to “knife wielder ” it refers to an action not a color . Very offensive where I come from .

  3. Luanna scott Says:

    The term for “white” people in my tribes language translates to “knife wielder”
    It refers to an action not a color . Very offensive term where I am from .

  4. Realguy Says:

    WHY didn’t they just call them devils for their actions

  5. Ray Says:

    In early “Westerns” the native Anerican would call white men, “White eyes” or “Wide eyes”. Which is it and is it true?

    • tombenjey Says:

      Since talkies didn’t come about until 1927, any dialog in early westerns would have been on subtitles. It would seem that any words on them would have been written by the people who created the film and would not likely have been authentic language in most cases.

  6. Adam Says:

    Some Planes Tribesmen called Whites “hair faces” and “dog faces,” because of our beards. At least Blackfeet and Crow did, I believe. Also, Crow and Apsaroke are the same people, Apsaroke being their name for themselves—apparently the author didn’t know that.

    This is off subject but I can find it nowhere: Does anyone know what meaning the word “child” has in Indian names? As in Bear White Child, Buffalo Child, Red Crow Child, etc. Does it mean something other than an actual child? Sorry for asking here but I really can’t find it anywhere. Thanks.

    • tombenjey Says:

      Here’s a wild guess that is probably incorrect: Could it be a name given to an infant before it’s earned a name?

    • Soma Says:

      I don’t know, but I’d guess it implies being the figurative child of whatever the other part of the name is. In Ancient Egypt, that was the case; “Mese”/”Meses”/”Mose”/”Moses” means “Child’ by itself, but when combined with the name of a god, it’s more accurately translated as “[insert god here] conceived him”. For example, “Ramses” means “Ra conceived him” or “Son of Ra”. Same goes for Thutmose/Djehutimese, which means “conceived by Thoth/Djehuti”. In the case of Native American names (don’t call them “Indian”, I’m an actual Indian, from India, and it gets really irritating), I would guess it was something similar, but having to do with spirits or attributes, rather than deities.

      • tombenjey Says:

        In Washington is the National Museum of the American Indian, so named to differentiate themselves from other indigenous peoples found in what is the present-day United States.

  7. Dave D. Says:

    White people came to be referred to as wasichu. Wasichu is a Lakota word, meaning taker of the fat or greedy one.

  8. dollops Says:

    Northwest coast tribes still say “Umsewah”, “bleached wood” referring, of course to our pallid skin. It is seldom inflected impartially.

  9. Dolores Rider Says:

    Wow! Interesting. The only thing I know is my great great great grandfather was Sioux Indian. I don’t know a dang thing about anything other than he was a chief and obviously he mated with a Irish female; my great, great, great grandma.

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