Watch Your Mouth

Image Credit: Richard J. Gaines

Language is the culture. Without language and its related forms of physical and facial expression, cultural identity wanes.

Our language shapes our culture. What we say is just as important as what we do. Language is a living, dynamic, and ever changing expression of who we are. Think about words and expressions you use today that you didn’t use two years ago. And then think about how those words have affected your outlook on your life and the world. Consider the evolution of technology-related words like “computer”, “PC” and “Mac”.

Now, consider an expression like “indian giver”. What does “indian giver” mean to you? What do you think about when you hear the expression “indian giver”? What do you think Native American people think about when they hear the expression “indian giver”?

There are many words in our English language that have become part of our every day colloquialisms; “(kə-lō’kwē-ə-lĭz’əm) noun – a spoken or written communication that seeks to imitate informal speech” (Source: dictionary.com).

Some of those words are actually derogatory remarks or references about Native Americans, which found their way into our vocabulary centuries ago. While some of those words seem harmless, they misrepresent or negate Native American people and cultures.

Below is a glossary of some of those words.

Glossary of Negative Words, Connotations & Stereotypes

ChiefNot all Native Americans are “chiefs”. Please refrain from calling anyone “chief” unless it’s actually part of their title.
Indian-giverIndian giver is used in our language to refer to someone who gives a gift and then takes it back. This expression or concept is false and has existed in our language for centuries. It was allegedly derived by the practice of Native Americans “taking back” gifts given to European settlers. Most likely, it was falsely perceived by settlers who mistook a loan for a gift. There are a few concepts around the origination of this expression. However, this expression should NEVER be used. It is a racial stereotype, because it propagates the assumption that all Native Americans take back gifts.
SavageSome Native Americans and other indigenous peoples of the world choose to live differently from you. It does not mean they are ‘savage’ or ‘uncivilized’ or ‘unintelligent’.
Noble Savage Refer to ‘Savage’.
SquawThe word “squaw” is derived from an Algonquian word that means “woman”. This word is still used today to refer to women. Today, some people consider it insulting. The following link provides some recent insight: http://www.nativeweb.org/pages/legal/squaw.htmlRTC’s suggestion: Unless you speak an Algonquian dialect, leave it out of your vocabulary.
“How”Never, ever greet a Native American person by saying ‘How’ with your hand raised up. They’ll probably laugh at you.
Indian SummerHere’s an expression that has become part of our culture. How do you think it came about?
RedskinThe term “Redskin” has a highly negative connotation towards Native American people. There was a period of time when Native Americans were killed and their scalps or other areas on their body were removed as trophy items. Some people received money as award for such “trophies”. This word should NEVER be used.
Red Man or RedmanMost likely, the term “red man” was derived from a misperception by European settlers when some Native American tribal members painted their bodies with red paint for dances or other practices. This expression should NEVER be used.
PowwowA powwow is a dance event, usually inter-tribal, where dancers from different tribes gather to perform traditional dances and compete. Be considerate of your Native American friends when referencing this word to describe a meeting or any other gathering, e.g., ‘Let’s powwow to discuss this week’s agenda’.
InjunThe word ‘Injun’ is slang from the word ‘Indian’. It’s usually used by people who disrespect Native Americans.
Prairie NiggerThis term has been used to describe Native American people living within the Plains region of the U.S. and elsewhere. This expression is derogatory and should NEVER be used.
Rain DanceWould you believe some tribal members have been asked by non-Native people to do a “rain dance” to help stop the wildfires?
PrincessHave you ever heard someone say, “My grandmother was a Cherokee princess”? Chances are she wasn’t. There were no “Cherokee princesses”, however, the word may have been used as a term of endearment towards a beloved woman.