Some phrases that may seem like harmless figures of speech are actually rooted in deep levels of historic oppression. Hearing these microaggressions, or incidents of indirect, subtle or unintentional discrimination can take a toll on individuals, especially if they are repeated often. This is especially true for Native Americans, who have not only endured countless levels of physical violence throughout history, but who are also often subjected to large amounts of verbal discrimination. Even when words or phrases are used without the intent to offend, they can contribute to environments where Indigenous peoples may feel unwelcome. One of the easiest ways to prevent this is to always be especially cognizant of the words you say. To get started, remove these phrases — all of which can cause some level of unintentional discrimination — out of your vocabulary. This small change is a proactive step toward fostering a more inclusive environment where diversity is truly celebrated.
Don’t call an informal get-together a “powwow.”
Why it’s harmful: Powwows are significant, meaningful cultural celebrations in many Indigenous communities. They allow people in the tribe to feel a sense of community and to honor their heritage in a society that often marginalizes them. At these events, people dance, sing, eat, socialize, wear traditional regalia and celebrate their culture. An impromptu chat at the watercooler is not a “powwow.”
Never call something or someone your “spirit animal.”
Why it’s harmful: Saying something is your “spirit animal” has become internet shorthand for expressing that you have a meaningful connection to a person, character, object or animal. But the religious significance of Spirit Animals, Animal Guides and Spirit Helpers in many Indigenous religions should not be reduced to a social media trend. These terms are used to describe benevolent spirits in many traditional Native American faiths. They describe something sacred and using the term colloquially and out of context to say you identify with something erases the religious beliefs of many Native people.
Don’t call an Indigenous man “Chief” or woman “Pocahontas.”
Why it’s harmful: Chiefs are appointed leaders within Native American tribes that nowadays represent their people in government affairs with federal agencies. Calling a Native American person “Chief” trivializes the important role, deferring to simplification and stereotypes about Native people. Unless somebody is an actual chief, just call them by their name. Similarly, despite the real Pocahontas being a significant figure in Native American history, the weaponization of her name as an insult has been recently regarded as a racial slur. Many tribal leaders weighed in when President Trump mocked Senator Elizabeth Warren for claiming she had a Native ancestor by calling her “Pocahontas,” saying the use of a Native figure as a politicized jab was offensive. Even if you aren’t using this term to insult someone, it still minimizes an entire cultural identity to the legacy of one figure (who, by the way, had a very different story than what Disney portrayed).
Never describe Native American culture or regalia as a “costume.”
Why it’s harmful: The colorful and intricate clothing Native Americans wear to powwows and other cultural and religious events are not “costumes” — they’re regalia. Native American dancers often wear this regalia to perform at powwows, and these pieces of clothing are often cherished items that mix traditional style with the dancer’s personal taste. Elements sewn into regalia are often gifted to dancers by tribal elders or other important people in their lives. Certain elements of these outfits might also signify a person’s authority within their tribe. “Costumes” imply that someone is dressing up as something else, but when Indigenous peoples are wearing their regalia, they are being their authentic selves.
Similarly, Native American people are not a costume. Inaccurate costume store outfits meant to resemble historical Native clothing treat Indigenous peoples as fetishes whose culture is extinct. Native American people are still struggling with systemic inequities, so if you intend to pay homage to their culture, direct your interest instead into listening to Native voices and supporting causes that uplift — not mock — them.
Avoid saying that someone is the “Low man on the totem pole.”
Why it’s harmful: To imply that somebody has less power or influence than others by saying they are “low man on the totem pole” is not only dismissive of some Native religions in the Northwest but is also inaccurate. These carvings portray stories of lineage, mythology and important events. Totem poles are symbols of prestige in a community. Often, the figure portrayed at the bottom is the most significant.
Don’t call someone an “Indian giver” or call an unnaturally hot fall an “Indian summer”
Why it’s harmful: “Indian giver” is a common colloquialism used to describe someone who gives gifts and then takes them back or expects something in return — an unpleasant behavior to be associated with in the first place. Aside from this offensive connotation, it is also not factual. It is based on cultural misunderstandings between European settlers and Native American tribes with whom they traded. Ironically, it was the U.S. government who redistributed stolen Native American land to them and then continued to usurp it in violation of treaties.
Although the term “Indian summer” seems like an innocent way to describe warm weather in October, it once again turns a people into a colloquialism. The origins of the phrase may date back to Native Americans telling settlers about the tendency for periods of warm weather in the fall, or that it is based on conditions in which many people hunted. But more offensively, the term “Indian” has also been equated with something that is bogus or not legitimate — similarly to “Indian giver.” Ultimately, minimizing a people to a figure of speech ignores these groups’ true histories and continued fight for equality.
Don’t say that someone who is angry is on the “warpath.”
Why it’s harmful: Using “on the warpath” to describe somebody who is angry and taking it out on others stereotypes Native Americans as violent warriors and simplifies their culture and history to a single element. Although Native American tribes waged wars among various tribes and ultimately fought the European colonists, many of these people were at first incredibly hospitable and helpful to settlers — despite being repaid with disease, kidnappings and enslavement. Historically, the “Great Indian War and Trading Path,” or the Seneca Trail was a real network of routes Native American tribes in the area built through the Appalachians — and it wasn’t just for war. It was a major highway for those travelling from north to south in as many as 2,500 years ago. In more recent history, tribes such as the Catawba, Algonquian, Cherokee and Iroquois traded and fought wars along the path. In the 1500s, European colonizers used portions of the trail network when trading with Native Americans. Likening Native American culture to rage is not only insensitive but also inaccurate and dismissive.