Things NEVER to Say to American Indian Coworkers
If you asked Rick Waters, director of corporations with the American Indian
College Fund, how he classifies himself, he'd say, "I am Cherokee-American
Indian." If you asked the same question of John Norwood, president of
Nanticoke-Lenape Tribal Enterprises, he'd say he's
"Nanticoke-Lenape-American Indian." So what's the proper way to address
American Indian coworkers? It depends on whom you ask, but one thing they
all would agree on: to be the most accurate, identify the tribe first.
"We are more closely identified with our tribal origins," says Norwood.
"It's like asking someone from Europe what they are. They would answer
'French' or 'German.' It's the same idea here. When someone asks me what I
am, I give them my tribal reference."
Societal concerns over the proper way to address American Indians are not
new. You may hesitate over calling someone an American Indian rather than a
Native American, though our sources prefer American Indian (after their
tribal identification). But what else might you say that would be offensive?
Take a look at these 9 things you should NEVER say to an American Indian
Unless the person you are addressing is actually chief of a tribe or nation,
and you are aware of that fact, calling an American Indian "chief" can be
insulting. "When you reference someone who is Indian and use the term
'chief,' out of context, it's like saying the same thing as referring to a
Black person as 'Hey, Sambo,'" says Waters.
While there are different opinions as to the exact meaning and origin of the
word "squaw," that doesn't give you free license to use it with American
Indians, male or female. The word is believed to have come from the
Algonquian Indian term for "woman," but it began taking on derogatory
meanings as early as the 19th century, and many now see it as a reference to
a woman's sexual organs. "Squaw, with most Indian males and females, is
offensive," says Waters.
"How Indian are you?"
Just as you wouldn't ask a Black person how "Black" he or she is, it's
insensitive to ask how Indian someone is. "This is something you don't ask
people in general, but for some reason, people feel they have the license to
ask Indians, 'How Indian are you?'" says Waters.
"Hold down the fort"
In a general context, "hold down the fort" simply refers to leaving someone
in charge. But when said in reference to American Indians, it may be
interpreted to mean "watch out for the Indians."
"Historically, forts in America were built to hold back the Indians," says
Waters. "This implies that Indians are always on the 'war path.'"
"Do you live in a teepee?"
There is a misconception that all American Indian tribes once lived in
teepees. But different tribes lived in many different types of structures.
Tribes such as the Pueblo Indians of the Southwest lived in a complex
multi-residential structure made of adobe. In fact, Indians still inhabit
the Taos Pueblo, estimated to be about 1,000 years old. As for teepees, the
tribes that did live in them haven't done so for generations, for the most
part. And while it would seem outrageous that someone would consider asking
the question "Do you live in a teepee?" even in jest, apparently this does
Waters describes a pow-wow as a social gathering for ceremonial purposes,
and many tribes still hold them on a regular basis. Using this out of
context to refer to a meeting or a quick get-together with an American
Indian coworker trivializes this tradition and could be taken as offensive.
"Climbing the totem pole" or "Low man on the totem pole"
In corporate America, the phrase "climbing the totem pole" may be used to
refer to someone who is advancing in his or her career. But it's a myth that
there was a specific hierarchy in importance to images carved in totem
poles, which were vertical sculptures mainly associated with tribes along
the Pacific Northwest. "When saying that someone is on the top or bottom of
the totem pole, this can be perceived as insensitive because there is no
'bottom' in the same sense," says Waters. "This comment isn't necessarily
offensive; it is however, insensitive."
"Indian-giver" is a derogatory term for someone who gives something away and
then asks for it back. It was coined during the struggle for land when
settlers came to the new world. Many tried to "buy" land with trinkets from
various tribes of American Indians, who at the time "had no concept of land
ownership," according to Waters. "[American Indians], in their conversations
with settlers, did not understand that they were signing over the land."
"That's a nice costume"
Traditional American Indian regalia is very expensive and also bears heavy
religious significance. "A costume is something you wear when you are
portraying something that you are not," says Norwood. "But when you wear
traditional dress, you are making an expression, you are expressing who you
actually are and who your ancestors were. So first, to call it a 'costume'
is to misrepresent what it is. Secondly, it lessens its significance to the
point that anybody feels like they can put it on."