Terms that have been appropriated from Native American cultures in North America are pervasive in our society today: Mugs and t-shirts are emblazoned with words like “tribe” and “spirit animal.” The most popular sports teams in the country have names like the Chiefs and the Braves. These terms can be microaggressions that are easily unlearned if non-Indigenous people take the time to understand their history and origins while others are outright demeaning and insulting, and should have been eradicated from our popular lexicon long ago.
As non-Indigenous writers ourselves, we have noticed that white people in particular have seamlessly integrated these words into daily conversations, sometimes without noticing, acknowledging, or perhaps even caring about the connotations of those words, or how triggering that might be for Native American people to hear this language thrown out without any regard to its context. We hope that our fellow non-Indigenous people will take the time to learn the meaning of these words and then make educated decisions about how to use them in daily life. But don’t take our word for it: Always seek out the words of Native American people when drawing conclusions about these terms, whether it’s in essays, books, documentaries, scholarly works, or even tweets (and we’ve done our best to include the voices of Native American folks here, too). The next step is to start conversation among your friends who appropriate Indigenous culture and use hurtful language — it shouldn’t always be on Indigenous people to educate ignorant people but on us to spread the word and help each other learn.
In effort to do that, here are six terms that non-Indigenous people need to stop appropriating.
1. Spirit animal
Usually framed as a joke, non-Native American people often claim that anything they love even a little, from wine, to Rihanna, to a chubby cat is their “spirit animal.” This flattening of a Native American spiritual tradition that varies from tribe to tribe “is concerning and often offensive to Native cultures,” Tristan Picotte wrote on the Partnership with Native Americans blog. “Adapting a concept such as spirits to personalization is like cherry-picking Indigenous beliefs,” he continues. In fact, the Cherokee, Seminole, and Lakota people (among others) all have spiritual traditions that incorporate a spirit animal or spirit helper, often appear to an individual in a time of need, and represent a desired characteristic, like strength, speed, or shrewdness. But the kinship Native American folks feel to animals is “the result of tens of thousands of years of connections to their environments,” writes the National Museum of the American Indian in a resource guide called “Native American Relationships to Animals: Not Your Spirit Animal,” and unless you take the time to study those complex traditions, you should not be using the term.
You’ve likely seen phrases like “bride tribe” and “mama tribe” pop up on mugs, Instagram tiles, and those novelty shirts that the maid of honor gives out at bachelorette parties. It’s also used in the context of self-help and team-building. A tribe isn’t your squad or friends, and deeming it as such erases the battles these actual tribal communities fought to be federally recognized. In a blog post entitled “Is using the word ‘tribe’ or ‘spirit animal’ offensive to Native Americans?” one Native American reader weighed in, writing, “Many find it an offensive/degrading term and undermines our sovereignty as a Nation …Tribes is an anthropology term which plays into the narrative of primitive people,” while another wrote they want to challenge “non-Native people to begin seeing us as Nations and not tribes because tribe is very ingrained in colonialism and racial derogatory views.”
Actual Native American tribes pass down ancestral knowledge, ceremonies, recipes, and mythology. That’s a far cry from the tradition in your friend group of going to Vegas every year. In the United States in particular, Native American communities often don’t even use the term tribe; more they refer to themselves as a Nation (though that is by no means a universal standard and varies from person to person based on their own preferences). Why? Because they have sovereign jurisdiction over their lands, employ their own form of government, and even have different fishing and hunting laws than the rest of the country. As activist and educator Corinne Rice posted on Instagram, you can use phrases like family, support system, team, or community instead.
The word squaw is often viewed as a derogatory term for a woman, sometimes even viewed as a disrespectful reference to female anatomy, which might stem from the Mohawk ojiskwa, a courteous term for vagina. However, one scholar is hoping to reclaim the word and educate people on its origins. Abenaki historian Dr. Marge Bruchac told Indian Country Today that in the Algonkian languages, the term can mean “woman of the woods” or a “female friend.” That being said, non-Indigenous people should probably avoid using the word, as it can still be construed as a racial slur, or an alternative to insults like whore or slut. In fact, many activists are lobbying for locations that include the word squaw to change their names.
4. Sports teams called Chiefs or Indians
For too long, football and baseball teams have depicted Native American as cartoonish, reducing their personalities to the brave warrior, wearing feathers and wielding a tomahawk. Totally reliant on stereotypes that do nothing to honor the people these images depict, as their defenders sometimes claim. The devastating campaign of forced relocation and genocide waged against Native Americans is all the more insulting when sports teams run almost exclusively by white people adopt mascots that depict Indigenous people as agressive and primitive. There has been some progress, though mostly controversy, in the battle to eradicate these names from national sports teams: In July of 2020, the Washington DC football team retired its name, a reprehensible racial slur, but have yet to settle on a new moniker. The same month, the Canadian Football League team the Edmonton Eskimos dropped the derogatory term from its team name and is in the process of selecting a new name.
While the word Eskimo was once used by prejudiced non-Indigenous people as an umbrella term for the Indigenous people of the circumpolar Arctic, today it is considered extremely derogatory. Misused and appropriated by brands across the globe to market frozen products such as ice cream, the term should solely be used by those who identify themselves as Eskimo and feel comfortable with the term. The common expression “Eskimo kiss,” used to describe the action of two people who rub noses, should also be erased from everyday language as it wrongly associates the practice of rubbing noses to the people of the Arctic, which is nothing but a myth. The Alaska Native Language Center explains that today, the term Eskimo has largely been replaced by the word Inuit (meaning “the people”) or Inuk (meaning “person”), but it is important to consider that although it is the preferred terminology, it is once again an all-embracing term that erases the cultural differences between the many Indigenous people of the Arctic, from Russia to Greenland.
6. Indian and derived expressions
The term Indian, used to refer to Indigenous people of North America, is considered highly inappropriate and should only be used by Indigenous people who wish to identify themselves as such, for legal reasons or otherwise. It is believed, but remains unproven, that the term stems from Christopher Columbus who set sail looking for India but who arrived in the Americas and confused the inhabitants with Indians. It was therefore an identifying term imposed by colonizers on Indigenous people. While many organizations still use the term Indian, the preferred terms in the United States are Native Americans or Indigenous. Furthermore, expressions such as “Indian giver,” “Indian summer,” and “Indian burn,” where Indian means “false,” may seem innocent, but by portraying Indigenous people as lying and deceiving are simply racist and should not be used under any circumstances.
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