As a team of communications professionals, we know that words have power. We continue to learn that certain words can generate feelings of disrespect when they are used outside of their cultural meaning. Native American Heritage Month provides an opportunity to reflect on how language choices can increase mutual respect in our workplaces, communities and families.
For generations, we have used words that originated from Indigenous North American cultures. In fact, these terms have become so familiar, they appear on t-shirts, mugs, stickers and team mascots. While it’s unlikely any one person can change all of these uses — each of us has an opportunity to do better in the words we speak and write.
“Learning about words of cultural appropriation is key to increasing mutual respect,” said Cindy Leines, Founder and CEO of CEL Marketing PR Design. “When we learn that a word, term or perspective is insulting or hurtful to a person or group of people, the best thing to do is get curious. It could be that you are experiencing a generational difference, a cultural difference or a perspective you haven’t heard before.”
Native American Heritage Month also prompts a reflection on the experiences of Indigenous people as North America was settled and colonized. Historians agree that hundreds of distinct Indigenous Nations and cultures existed before settlers arrived from Europe. Oppression and violence are central to the treatment of Native people in the centuries since.
Our language is constantly evolving. Learning and avoiding words that can be perceived as disrespectful, insensitive or even offensive will guide a leader who wants to promote mutual respect and foster an inclusive, accepting environment.