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Honor Native American Heritage With the Words You Use — And the Words You Avoid

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. “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.

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AVOID USING

These terms have been culturally appropriated.

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CONSIDER INSTEAD

These alternative terms support cultural sensitivity.

KNOWLEDGE IS POWER

Get curious and understand the context.

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tribe

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group, team, friends, club

If referring to a recognized Indigenous cultural group, use the word Nation. The use of tribe can promote misleading stereotypes. Learn more from Learning for Justice.

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powwow

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meeting, huddle, chat, conversation

These important spiritual ceremonies were outlawed as religious gatherings from the 1600s to 1970s. Learn more from Powwow History.

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spirit animal

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role model, personal icon, secret twin, alter ego

This term refers to a sacred belief that spirits from the natural world offer people strength and insight. Learn more from the Partnership with Native Americans.

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shaman

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teacher, leader, expert, encourager

A shaman represents shamanism, a global system of ancient Indigenous religious practice often subject to government oppression. Learn more from Britannica.

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circle the wagons

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focus internally, protect our organization, defend ourselves

This term derives from movies about North American settlers protecting themselves from “savages.”

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bury the hatchet

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put aside our differences, make peace, come to an agreement, let bygones be bygones

A historical practice in some Nations of burying tools of war in the ground to express peace. Today’s use supports the stereotype that Indigenous people were violent.

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low man on the totem pole

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low-ranking position, inexperienced team member

A Totem pole is a sacred object that represents ancestral stories, lineages or notable events. Learn more from Indigenous Corporate Training Inc.

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hold down the fort

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keep important things going, keep an eye on things while we’re away

This saying first described efforts to protect settlers against Indigenous attackers. Learn more from The Inclusion Solution.

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Indian and related words (Indian summer, Indian burn, Indian giver)

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When referring to a person, Native American or Indigenous is appropriate. Better would be to ask the person’s preference, including a specific Nation or other terms.

Indian is an outdated term to describe Indigenous people. Terms that add Indian to them suggest lying and deceit. Learn more from Matador Network.

The list above includes some of the more commonly used terms, but it is by no means complete. There are countless resources available online to learn more about Native people, Nations and culture, including history, language, culture and terminology. 

Leaders have an important opportunity to build mutual respect in our teams and our communities. Each of us should consider what we can do to lead safe conversations about culturally appropriated language — and show others our desire to actively listen, learn and reflect, without judgment.

Published on: November 1, 2021

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