By Julianne Jennings
Without such a name, we'd have no way of talking about the collective past, present, and future of these people. For instance, try describing the significance of the phrase "The only good Indian is a dead Indian" without using the word "Indian."
So we need a collective term for these people. The alternatives commonly used include Indians, Native Americans, First Americans, First Nations, Aboriginals, and Amerindians. You can find problems with all these terms, but Indians (including Russell Means) have settled on the term "Indian." It's by far the most common term used in Indian country.
Jennings is correct that "Indian" isn't a distinct racial category. It's more of an indistinct ethnic category with racial and cultural attributes. As we've seen, the dividing line between Indian and non-Indian often isn't clear. But at the core, Indians have a set of traits and beliefs that set them apart from non-Indians.
As for "tribe" vs. "nation," the main difference may be size. Tribes were small enough that people could have kinship ties with each other. The larger nations relied on less personal bonds such as a common language, culture, or history.
But now Indians tend to use "nation" in official or political circumstances and "tribe" in social or personal ones. It's become something like the distinction between "Indian" and "Native American." People will refer to "Native Americans" and "nations" formally and "Indians" and "tribes" informally.
For more on the subject, see "Actual Indian" Defined and "American Indian" vs. "Native American."
Below: Russell Means, Lakota Sioux and self-described Indian.