9 Things Not to Say to an American Indian/Alaska Native and Why

In Celebration of American Indian/Alaska Native Heritage Month.

Indian Giver
Definition- A person who takes a gift back after giving it to someone.
Historical Context- To Native people, the giving of gifts should be reciprocated with a gift of something of greater value. Europeans interpreted these “gifts” as things that required no commensurate or bigger response.
Misunderstanding- Was later associated with the early years of the Bureau of Indian Affairs whose promises to American Indians were often never kept.
Why the Term Should Be Avoided- It distorts the traditional gift giving culture of American Indians and paints them as dishonest and untrustworthy.

On the Warpath
Definition- The state of being angry and ready to fight or argue.
Historical Context- Originally used to describe the travel of American Indians into enemy territory to engage in battle.
Misunderstanding- Its repeated use has reinforced the stereotype that all American Indians are savages and prone to violence
Why the Term Should Be Avoided- Resurrects a painful period of American Indian history which resulted in the genocide of millions of Native people who were defending their land and people.

Low on the Totem Pole
Definition- Low in rank or seniority.
Historical Context- In human resources circles, refers to a stage of career advancement.
Misunderstanding- As a sacred object to indigenous people in the state of Alaska, the carving at the lowest point of the totem pole is actually a good thing because it resides closest to the earth.
Why the Term Should be Avoided- It is a misappropriation of Native culture and inverts the hierarchy of the totem pole’s traditional meaning.

Like Wild Indians
Definition-Uncivilized or unaffected by civilization.
Historical Context- Europeans viewed undeveloped land and all that lives on it to be “wild” including Wild Indians.
Misunderstanding- Over time, the term became associated with mad, uncontrollable, unrestrained behavior. You would get wild too if someone were taking your land.
Why the Term Should be Avoided- Paints Native people as warlike and aggressive.

Hold Down the Fort
Definition- To take care of a something while someone is gone after being placed in charge.
Historical Context- Originally referred to the protection of forts from American Indian attacks.
Misunderstanding- Reinforces the stereotype that American Indians are savages and prone to violence.
Why the Term Should Be Avoided- Resurrects a painful period of American Indian history where Native people were defending their land and people by trying to regain lost territory.

Definition- Gathering of Native people.
Historical Context- Derivation of the Algonquian term “pau-wau” which means a gathering of Tribal spiritual leaders.
Misunderstanding- Refers to a meeting of normally high ranking people.
Why the Term Should Be Avoided- It’s use as simply a meeting or conversation with someone is an affront to Indigenous People in this country who view pow-wows as sacred social gatherings for ceremonial and cultural purposes.

Too Many Chiefs and Not Enough Indians
Definition- Used to explain a situation where there are too many bosses but no one doing any
Historical Context- Inaccurately reflects a dictatorial style of an American Indian leader who gives orders to his or her followers.
Misunderstanding- Runs counter to the core principle of democratic and consensus decision making that serves as the foundation of Tribal Governments.
Why the Term Should Be Avoided- For Native people, everyone is a leader and has a communal voice which puts the larger Tribal interests ahead of individual concerns.

Circle the Wagons
Definition- Refers to a defensive maneuver settlers used with their wagons to fend off American Indian attacks.
Historical Context- Most American Indians would feel they were justified in defending themselves against an enemy that stole their land, broke treaties and spread disease and violence with a campaign of forced assimilation.
Misunderstanding- Has evolved into a process of bringing team members together to fend off an attack from external forces.
Why the Term Should Be Avoided- Reminds Native people of an excruciating time in their history when they were nearly exterminated by the federal government.

Off the Reservation
Definition- Refers to someone who is out of bounds or gone astray particularly someone who thinks differently from others.
Historical Context- Traceable to an era when the federal government ordered American Indians to be relocated to reservations. Going off the reservation was applied to those American Indians who refused to be relocated.
Misunderstanding- Two groups of American Indians emerged: (1) Good Indians who stayed on the reservation and (2) Bad Indians who were considered renegade law breakers. Creates the appearance that reservations were critical to the survival of American Indians.
Why the Term Should Be Avoided- Solidifies the myth that American Indians wanted to live on reservations.

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Hi Richard. Thanks for this important reminder. These terms / phrases do pop up quite often and they are hurtful to many people, including the Treaty 7 Nations of southern Alberta. In my province, this has been declared the year of reconciliation. A good time to be more respectful in the way we communicate. Thanks.

Earl Rice

Yah-Ta-Hey. There is a lot more to it than just staying away from slang phrases. Obviously, you have never lived in North East Oklahoma (formerly the Indian Nation), nor in Minnesota, nor New Mexico. [Alaska I am not familiar with.] The Native Americans have a very rich culture to be proud of. And they all deserve the highest respect. It is regretably that outside the BIA, they a so poorly represetned in the Federal Government.