Things NOT to Say to American Indian Coworkers

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If you asked Rick Waters, National Director of Tribal Partnerships for the University of Phoenix, how he classifies himself, he’d say, “I am Cherokee American Indian.” If you asked the same question of Reverend John Norwood, Tribal Council member and Principal Justice for the Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape Tribal Nation, 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 11 things you should NOT say to an American Indian colleague.

“Hey, Chief”

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?”


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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 happen.


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.”

“We’re all immigrants”

Norwood says it is insulting to hear this phrase in reference to Americans. “This is not true,” he says. “It denies the existence of the indigenous people of this country. My ancestors were here for thousands of years prior to the first Europeans.”

Crediting the “discovery” of America to Christopher Columbus, the Vikings or some other European group

How could someone “discover” a place with a population that had thrived for millenia? Says Norwood: “This continues the racist error of a Eurocentric worldview that is still taught in our schools and celebrated with Columbus Day—which is no celebration for American Indians.”

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  • Very interesting article and made me think about how these common phrases may offend or give an American Indian some pause.
    Being an Indian from India – I am always offended by the use of the word ‘Indian’ for any Native American description. A good example of how ignorance can become institutionalized.

    • Me too! I feel like slapping people who call natives Indians!! I am too from India(well both my parents are… I was born in Australia and have lived everywhere) and I find it so offensive.

      • Luke Visconti

        Perhaps you should find out how our native people became known as Indians, how many tribes describe themselves as such, and then read up on the ramifications of narcissism. Luke Visconti, CEO, DiversityInc

        • Oh Luke! Your comment disappoints me so much! While I agree with the first part, I do not understand how you think insulting the posters will further the discussion. Diversity awareness and education is about opening dialogue, dispelling myths and tampering ignorance. You lose the opportunity to do any of these things when you insult people who question information that is new to them.

          • Luke Visconti

            I completely disagree with you. The two Asian Indian people who put their boorish comments on a public website almost certainly aren’t “minorities” in India. Rather than give it a few seconds thought—”Hmmm, that’s interesting, how did Native Americans come to be known as Indians?”—they skipped over Google and insulted millions of American Indians with their majority-privilege, sharp-elbowed foolishness. Luke Visconti, CEO, DiversityInc

        • Wow you are the CEO and you comment like that. Perhaps you need a lesson in current events, and see if Indigenous Americans like the history of that term. Not many of us celebrate Columbus Day. In fact I graduated from a Native American College and we called it Native American Discovery day.

          • Luke Visconti

            The term “Native American” was introduced by the federal government and is far from being universally used by the different tribes. I asked one northeast tribal leader why she used the term “Indian” and she said, “It’s common usage.” In the past, we’ve donated to the American Indian Scholarship fund, and our counterparts there referred to themselves as Indians as well. I’m hoping that the movement will be toward individual tribe/nation identity—in my opinion, it’s far more humanizing and gives greater context to the tragic history of each tribe under our nation’s governance.

            Please re-read my comments. I’m well aware of the history of the term and was strongly suggesting the two Asian Indian people become aware as well. Luke Visconti, CEO, DiversityInc

      • So you’re not Indian – you are Australian just as I am not Irish just because my parents were

  • And yes – I did use the term ‘American Indian’ initially since that seems to be the author’s preference.

  • Pu'u Wai Lani

    First Nation or the Tribe reference is correct. I’m “part” Hawai’ian.
    Hawai’ian’s are ALWAYS talking about how much “Hawai’ian Blood” they have. It’s a pride issue. The more original blood, the ‘more’ of that culture runs through you. It IS hierarchical. Another tidbit – Hawai’ians don’t get anywhere NEAR the money or land First Nation Tribes in Northern America get. Just an FYI.

    • also, just an fyi… the land tribal nations do have where settlements from the indian wars, we didn’t get the land, we fought for it. and only 5% of tribal members actually receive dividends directly, and that money comes from their nation not the us government. there are a very few, very wealthy, tribes out there that give the rest of the population the impression that indians are rich, ha! i’m blessed to be from a tribe with a thriving economy and i receive about $300 every financial quarter FROM my tribal nation. i’m not saying that the flip side of this is what you’re implying, this is just one broke indian who always throws her two cents in on the issue :) love peace and frybread grease! (another fyi, frybread is NOT a traditional food-hahaha! it was brought by the missionaries)

    • Oh no matter how hard we try the stereotypes keep on coming.

      Personally, I prefer my tribal identity much like the author, I am Choctaw. When ask if I am Native I respond “Yes, I am Choctaw.” Much like my Hawaiian brother above, who I am sure prefers to be refered to as Hawaiiana, But we must remember that each tribe has it’s own history, culture and identity. It is inaccurate to group all in one phrase; Alaskan First Nations, Canadian First Nations, Hawaiians, and all 562 federated tribes.

      And for everyone’s info, not every American Indian receives money, or land. My families land was taken after the close of the Civil War, we are still members of the Choctaw Nation, but no longer land owners or live within the tribal land. Oh, and not every tribe has a reservation by the way.

      Many are pushing for the term Indigenous American to replace Indian, Native American, and American Indian. Never use the work Indio, that is just like using the N word with prairie before it.

  • K.L. Michael

    I found this article interesting, but also amusing. I am Unagam, Aleut Native Alaskan. I don’t think it has ever occurred to me to be upset by the phrase ‘hold down the fort’ or ‘low man on the totem pole’. And as Pu’u Wai states, how much “blood” you have is a topic we talk about often. I am a ‘half-blood’. My mother is full-blood. I guess I could be offended by the question ‘how Indian’ I am, if done rudely. However, when asked that question before, the people were asking out of genuine curiosity, which I was happy to answer and talk about. I have also been asked if I lived in a teepee, or igloo, and it did not bother me (though I thought the people asking were either crazy or stupid).

    I guess my point is that often times it is not the comment or question that is offensive, but how it is done.

    Though I must agree with the “squaw”; that gets old really quickly.

  • Aside from the fact that the term has been in use for close to a thousand years, and is a well-known British idiomatic phrase, (albeit as “Hold the Fort”) one of the first documentations of American usage use of the phrase “hold the fort” was a military order wired by Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman in 1864 to Gen. John M. Corse at Allatoona during the Civil War. Records show that the actual words had been ‘Hold out, relief is coming,’ but ‘fort’ is what caught on and was further popularized when it was made the refrain of a gospel song by Philip Paul Bliss.

    Has nothing to do with American Indians. Do your research next time.

  • Maryjane Cloud

    Pu’u Wai Lani, not only do I agree with your sentiments, I wish more people would educate themselves as to exactly how the U.S. Government fouled you, your people, and your Queen.

    Lenape nan, Mj

  • I’m 1/3 Muscogee Creek Indian & find the above article to be entirely TOO patronizing.
    Don’t tiptoe around us like we’re little glass dolls. Outright ignorance is rude, but SO IS OVERT ‘Political Correctness’ ..

    At the end of the day, I’m *human*, please treat me as such.

    Lola SkyWater

  • How about not worrying about where people are from and just being “human”. Respect everyone and you should be fine.

  • What a beautiful race of people. I wish I could say I have some indian blood in me.

  • I’m native american and i gotta say that the last one is fairly irrelevant because i can give the viking credit for discovering us, but i see what there trying to get at though.

  • I graduated from an expensive private liberal arts college, and it always angers me that acquaintances and co-workers think I went to college for free because I’m half Navajo. They don’t realize I worked two jobs, sold my car, parents paying rent on occasion, and graduated $30K in debt. Just like many of them.

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