In lots of American Indian novels you can read that the native peoples of North America called European people "pale-face" or "pale-faced":

  • “Young Randolph! war-chief among the pale-faces! You have not then forgotten poor Haj-Ewa?” (Osceola the Seminole, Thomas Mayne Reid)

  • "Poor Injin dat, b'lieve. Why come so late?—why no come when 'e foot of Susquesus light as feather of bird?—why stay away till pale-faces plentier dan leaf on tree, or snow in air? Hundred year ago, when dat oak little, sich Injin might be good; now, he good for nuttin'." (The Redskins, James Fenimore Cooper)

  • Welcome, my paleface brother, what good news brings you here? (Songs of the Prairie, Robert J. C. Stead)

Is it just a literary device invented by the authors of European descent, or that racial slur was actually used by some Native American tribes?

  • 2
    My late brother-in-law once mentioned that a Chinese slang term that was often used for Europeans/whites translated to "white-faced devil," and that he called some work acquaintances on it, which they found to be both embarrassing and very funny. They explained that he was right, but that it doesn't mean they thought of him like that, literally, just that they were using a common term that translated to that if you broke it down. No references available, he's dead so I can't get the exact term to look it up. Jun 30, 2017 at 14:26
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    Is "pale face" necessarily a slur? Many acceptable racial identifiers derive from differences in skin pigmentation.
    – phoog
    Jun 30, 2017 at 17:01
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    One problem here is that so-called "Native Americans" were (and are!) far from being a single culture. Per Wikipedia, there are "approximately 296 spoken (or formerly spoken) indigenous languages" in North America, each of which might have its own (or several) words for palefaces. Indeed, some might have adopted the term from the palefaces themselves, when trying to create a pidgen that could be understood by both peoples :-)
    – jamesqf
    Jun 30, 2017 at 18:02
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    @PoloHoleSet Japanese also has 外人 vs. 外国人; the former (gaijin) is rude and has more of an "outsider" connotation while the latter (gaikokujin) is more polite, having more of a simple foreigner/person from another country connotation. Nothing about skin color, though.
    – JAB
    Jun 30, 2017 at 20:41

1 Answer 1


According to the US government publication 14th Annual report of the Bureau of Ethnology (1896):

It is very doubtful if the "pale face" of romance ever existed in the Indian mind

Instead, the publication gives the names various tribes used to refer to whites, and the nearest English translations.

Terms translating as "yellow hides", "white skins", "skillful", "easterners", "eastern water people", "hairy mouths" and "standing ears" are listed.

There is another list in another publication of the same bureau Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico, Volume 2 (1910). This list distinguishes words for whites or Europeans generally, from words for Americans (many tribes used words meaning "people of the big knives" or something similar), Englishman (the earliest terms meaning "coat man" or "he who wears clothing"), French, Germans ("thickset fellows" or "those who talk ja ja"), Spanish, Negros, Dutch and Chinese.

The later reference says "people of the salt sea" was another term for whites, especially Dutch, used by Indians in the Delaware and New Jersey area.

  • @CPerkins What is that in reference too? I cannot decide what that means.
    – RomaH
    Jun 30, 2017 at 18:52
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    @RomaH I'll guess it means ears of corn, that Europeans are like standing ears of corn. Just a guess though.
    – DavePhD
    Jun 30, 2017 at 19:03
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    I'm a bit surprised the book considers it "very doubtful" that any Native American could have come up with the term "pale face" right after explaining that a multitude of names was in use, among them "white skin", which is very close to "pale face". Jul 5, 2017 at 21:04
  • @O.R.Mapper the book isn't saying they couldn't have come up with the term, but instead that there was a great variety of terms depending on the tribe and "pale face" isn't known to be one of them. Maybe "pale face" was popularized by Last of the Mohicans. books.google.com/… I don't see it being used before then.
    – DavePhD
    Jul 6, 2017 at 12:36

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