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Things NOT to Say to American Indian Coworkers

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?”

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.”



  • 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

          • Perhaps the lesson to be learned here is that the “native” Americans, Indians, Tribal People, whatever you choose is that most Indian tribes are ancestors of nomadic herds that traveled across the Bearing Land bridge from Siberia and others migrated north from Central America. Also, the terms listed above are a politicians way of dividing us into different groups to pretend he cares about in exchange for votes.

        • jacob Eagleshield

          We became known as ‘Indians’ because some Italian sailor got lost and thought he was in India. When people ask me what kind of name is Eagleshield,my response is simple. American.

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

      • Elegant Butlet

        In this case Indian comes from the phrase Un gente en Dios (a people in God) coined by Columbus. They were not named after the people of India, which in the 1400s was called Hindustan.

        • Luke Visconti

          From Columbus’ ship log and in this letter to King Ferdinand, you can read Columbus’ own words. He thought he was in India and called the indigenous people he found there Indians. Luke Visconti, CEO, DiversityInc

        • Elizabeth Phillips

          Yeah, “Where White Men Fear to Tread” was a terrific book, but I don’t know where Russell Means came up with that one.

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

    • Elizabeth Phillips

      I use American Indian because that’s the preference of so many American Indians. The Chickasaws I grew up with in Oklahoma don’t like to use “Native American” because the word “native” refers to where you’re born. So, if you’re born in American, you’re Native American, even if you’re white. The preference is for the tribe or nation name, with American Indian being second choice.

      • Its Perfectly fine to say that i’m west Indian i take no offense to it seriously.

  • 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.

      • I don’t run by many American Indians, but will sure refrain from using the term “Chief” and “Squaw.” Kind of a no brainer anyway.

        The rest of those terms are too silly to even mention.

        We are getting a little too sensitive in this country.

        • Luke Visconti

          Yeah, yeah, too silly, too sensitive—then why do you care enough to make your foolish point? Either you really don’t care but know others will be annoyed by your foolishness, or you do care and you’re trolling. Either way, you come across as a disingenuous little creep. Luke Visconti, CEO, DiversityInc

          • Are you really the CEO or do you just attach that to your name? You don’t write in a manner befitting someone running a company. I agree with all the points you make, but there is no call for referring to a poster as a creep. If you can’t make your point without insulting people, find someone who will. They are points that need to be made, but no one will want to read anything from you if you can’t treat them with the respect you want for yourself. Lead by example.

          • Luke Visconti

            We disagree. The back story, which you do not know, is that we receive hundreds of hateful postings. Most days we receive more hate than anything else. I personally approve every post that appears on my website, we will not be a tool for organized haters who are paid to post talking points on websites as a form of public relations and marketing (Koch brothers).

            But let’s take a step back. The person I called creep posted a comment that the derogatory terms cited in our article were “silly” and that everyone was “too sensitive.”

            What kind of person comes to a website called DiversityInc and calls derogatory terms silly and tells our audience that they’re too sensitive? Creep is a succinct and accurate term, in my opinion.

            I’m the CEO of DiversityInc, not some large bank. What I say would indeed be inappropriate for other people. But I see direct talk as being essential to humbling people who were raised in the echo chamber of FOX, Limbaugh, Beck, et al., and immersed in Koch brothers talking points. Inside the echo chamber, telling people who think alike that everyone else is too sensitive makes everyone feel comfortable with their bigotry, sexism and gay bashing. When you reduce it to plain talk, you cut through the self-reinforcing nonsense of the people who leverage bigotry for political power. Take a look at today’s lead article about the nincompoop running for Congress who feels that women’s issues are not important or real. Think about the “rape candidates” in the last election cycle who did more to doom Romney’s campaign than even the hapless Romney himself. Keep in mind that Romney was running against an incumbent running the worst economy since 1934. Losing is something that I would think would be impossible in that situation, but it happened. Are we better off as a country? Luke Visconti, CEO, DiversityInc

        • Regarding the sensitivity growth in this nation, I concur. Thank you for stating this. Many people just don’t know what all the politics are or how people feel about them and aren’t trying to be annoying or offensive.

          • Luke Visconti

            I feel so much better now that you’ve decided this for the rest of us. What’s the matter with you?
            Luke Visconti, CEO, DiversityInc

      • jacob Eagleshield

        Someone asked me once how to pronounce my name in my native tongue(Tuscarora)
        kashakee-tuta sanasee ‘Son of the man who stands shielded by the spirit of the eagle

        You can imagine why it got shortened. I am kashakee-tuta-sanasee Tuscarora of the Haudanasanee

  • 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.

  • Good to see people actually speaking to one another over these terns with what is going on today regarding stereotypes..Being Red Lake Ojibwe yet never living. On my Reservation some disregard what I think because I have on lived only in the City. But my People (brothers & sisters) who moved there when my parents retired and as they say wentt home. I’m not here to argue specifics .but thank people for thinking,asking and not trying to pin us down to their theories. We are all Humans and need to be treated as such. I have worked the same job (Union) for 27 yrs. The people who work with me and for me Know me best. My father taught us to be the best at what we do and show the World who Ojibwe people are. Thanks for yor thoughts

  • Judy Helton

    Group identities with perpetually changing forms of address is a game of deceit played in existing circumstances in which identity is a set of characteristics that differentiate _an_ individual being from _all other_ entities. But it’s a very profitable game, plenty of money and an effortless source of social adulation as a birth-right for those with the politically correct appearances du jour. So lots of players (whiners.)

    If there were any profit in it, and with just as much integrity, there would be diversity mongers insisting that a “group identity” comprised of shoe size sevens were historically oppressed, resulting in a privileged “group identity”of shoe size eights, who are now required to abase themselves on a politically correct,( but utterly meaningless,) alter of “diversity.”

    • Luke Visconti

      Why would you post a comment like this on this website? Why on this article? Do you not know the history of how the Indian people were and are being treated? Are you just foolish? Mean? Ignorant? A neo-Nazi or white supremacist? Are you just an old busybody who is predisposed to bothering people? What is wrong with you? Luke Visconti, CEO, DiversityInc

      • Stumbled on your site. Tribes fought tribes for millenia and practiced total genocide against each other (while failing to invent the wheel). For example, the mound builders are gone. Their tribe is gone. European-named Indians (who are evidently still tribe-centric) didn’t practice the diversity they now demand of others. And, although the Fed Gov still maintains the whole reservation nonsense, there is nothing forcing those of american indian-american aborigine-proto-asian descent to stay on those reservations. Somehow aborigines from all over the planet (what else would a goth-german-european be but aboriginal to europe since the last ice age receded? ) have managed to make their way to the USA and figure out how to learn the culture and values of western civilization, get a job, raise their kids, etc, etc. So please, enough with the noble savage BS and how you are oppressed and offended. Luke – the point being made by Judy Helton is that you are just another hustler like al sharpton, profiting from the latest fad of “diversity”. Your opinions offered in response to opinions that disagree with yours are breathtakingly hostile and downright laughable. Who died and made you the arbiter and representative of the Orwellian thought-police?

        • Luke Visconti

          You “stumbled on” this website? From where? What kind of hustle are you up to?

          Yes, some Indian nations did fight each other, but the nature of total warfare was a process they had to learn during the Indian War and that process is what made Chief Gall, Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull and Geronimo so important. Until Indians were able to form fighting coalitions, there was no real organized opposition to U.S. or Mexican troops.

          Who made me an arbiter? The free market. My publication commands an audience of almost 400,000 unique monthly visitors. You post snarky racist comments where they’re not welcome.

          I hope you get help for your “stumbling” problem. Luke Visconti, CEO, DiversityInc

    • grannybunny

      Better a “whiner” than a hater like you.

  • grannybunny

    We are not American Indians, but my son worked at the Sky City Casino in New Mexico, owned and operated by the Acoma Pueblo Indians. My son was one of the few non-Acoma employees. Some of his Acoma co-workers told him that they regarded Columbus Day and Thanksgiving as days of mourning.

  • I’m African American and I certainly understand all of this. Especially the information about Columbus Day. How can someone claim to discover something that was already here and thriving successfully. The Independence Day (July 4) holiday is another that really bothers me while I enjoy having the day off from work, personally I do nothing to celebrate the holiday. In 1776, my ancestors were slaves in this country. It was not our independence.

  • Very interesting and hearing from Indians was an extra bonus. My grandmother always talked about her being Indian (Blackfoot), losing her parents and how she was treated in the town where she lived (early 1900’s). Her siblings were split up and farmed out and basically she was taken in to do all the housework and chop wood for the winter. She showed us pictures of her father wearing buckskin clothing. He looked full-blood. Once my dentist (who apparently was into everything Indian – he had a lot of Native pictures on his wall), took one look at me and said “Blackfoot” right? I identify as being a black person (my mother married my grandfather and basically became “black” from then on) and wondered what he saw in me that made him say that. Curious. My background, to me, is just another interesting part of who I am.

    There was TV drama series on back in the 90’s that featured a nearly all Indian cast. It was set in contempoary times and was about the trials and tribulatioins of this family and their teenage daughter. I loved watching it and one time one of the characters said my grandmother’s surname, which she always said was Blackfoot. I’ve searched and searched but cannot find that name anywhere.

    Anyone remember that TV series?

  • I have seen my wife asked, “What are you?”


    “No, no. You know what I mean. What is your ethnic background?”

    “yes, I know what you mean, but that is not what you asked.”

    Why is “Crediting the ‘discovery’ of America to Christopher Columbus, the Vikings or some other European group” necessarily wrong? Context of the statement can be important. If you think not, would it also be wrong to say, “I~John just discovered a great new restaurant”?

    You left out “Indian summer.”

  • I am Ojibwe. I am Native. I am an Indian. People are people, does it even matter what race a person is? If it does you have a much bigger problem.

    • Luke Visconti

      We must get five versions of this kind of comment a week. “I’m from the southern slope of this specific fishing village in Crimea, but your way of identifying yourself isn’t important,” or, “My third cousin on my father’s side was Black, therefore, I can’t be a bigot.”

      I guess people don’t see the irony. Luke Visconti, CEO, DiversityInc

    • Kanekiiostha

      Despite the fact that the CEO of Diversity Inc. Will surely have some rude comment to my agreeing with you, Jacob…I agree with what I believe you are meaning. Not that our identities don’t matter, but that they shouldn’t seperate us.

      The world is not intended to be divided. My people believe that The Creator intended for our canoes to travel parallel and live in harmony. With all peoples.

      • Luke Visconti

        Great sentiment, but I’m afraid the weight of known human history demonstrates that people are anything but harmonious. Luke Visconti, CEO, DiversityInc

  • Whenever I hear people discussing whether people should or should not use terms like “Indian” or “Native American” or “First Nation”, I always think of the words of Russell Means, who I think said it best:

    “We were enslaved as American Indians, we were colonized as American Indians, and we will gain our freedom as American Indians, and then we will call ourselves any damn thing we choose.”

  • I find this article refreshing and comical. I hear comments like these on a daily basis. I have complained several times about the racist attitude my coworkers take and the “traditions” they claim to carry on. The harsh reality is the only way I will escape it is to quit and find a new place to work.

    • Tim – If you work in the US you are protected under law not to experience racism or discrimination in the workplace. You can file a charge of discrimination through the EEOC — http://www.eeoc.gov/employees/charge.cfm.

      Discrimination is against the law! Good luck if you do choose to file.

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