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CROWN - November 2021: Words Matter

It is long past time for us to strip colonizing language from our copy and our conversations

By Melissa Kiesewetter, MDCR Tribal Liaison and Native American Specialist

As we continue to commemorate Native American Heritage Month, I am reminded of those times when I have been in a meeting and heard someone say, "let's powwow about this later," "low man on the totem pole" or "off the reservation." As someone who is non-Native, I notice how often other white people casually incorporate such language into their conversation. It is phrases like these, which in the past may have been perceived as an acceptable part of our lexicon, that are oppressive and appropriating. Words like "tribe" and "spirit animal" used in a non-Native context by non-Indigenous people wield a micro-aggressive sword and devalue the spirituality and sacredness of Native American history and culture. These words and phrases, and others like "savage" and "Indian giver," or the title "chief" need to be removed from our vocabulary. 

I often hear the question, "What terms are acceptable? Is it wrong to use American Indian?"  It is important to refer to and identify individuals as they wish to be identified.  There is no universally agreed-upon language; tribes are not a monolith and all have their own language, culture and traditions. If you are unsure, ask the person or group how they prefer to be identified, or replicate the language they use to describe themselves and their tribal community.  Here in Michigan, one of the most acceptable terms is Anishinaabe or Anishinaabek, which can translate to "First Peoples" and represents the culturally related Indigenous peoples present in what we now call Canada and the United States.

If we are committed to ensuring that our co-workers, colleagues and clients are included in our conversations and can fully engage in all aspects of our work, we must be cognizant of the words and phrases we use and jettison any that appropriate, demean, mock or trivialize Native Americans and their culture. Language is not objective; it is not neutral.  Language that is generalizing and stereotypical is harmful and perpetuates colonizing ways of thinking. The words we choose can be the difference between inclusion and exclusion.  Choose words and phrases that elevate, not appropriate.

I will close with the words of Ruth Hopkins of the Sisseton Wahpeton Sioux on the ways language can perpetuate discrimination:

Colonial language can be used as a tool to denigrate and discriminate against Native people alive today. … These semantics of white privilege serve to enforce old colonial notions that attempt to reduce Natives to primitive caricatures. It suggests that we are not equals. It implies that mainstream society owns Native identity, or that we as Natives are relegated to the past. …

To truly benefit from a diverse global society, we must raise public discourse above antiquated race-based language couched in manifest destiny. Ignorance is no excuse, because Natives are not silent-you've only to hear us.

To read more about the significance and meaning of such words and phrases and to learn more about how to decolonize your language, check out these articles:

The Impact of Words and Tips for Using Appropriate Terminology | Helpful Handout Educator Resource

Thirty Everyday Phrases that Perpetuate the Oppression of Indigenous Peoples - Radical Copyeditor

Stereotyping Native Americans - Jim Crow Museum - Ferris State University