Culturally Insensitive Phrases Still Permeate U.S. Businesses

Photo credit: Lester Harragarra

With the nomination of U.S. Representative Deb Haaland for Secretary of the Interior in the Biden Administration, the presence of Native Americans in the professional workplace has taken on new, historic prominence. Not since President Hoover tapped Charles Curtis to be Vice President has a Native American served in a higher position. Haaland’s nomination to the Cabinet notwithstanding, it is difficult to ignore the fact that mainstream culture has a long history of mistreating native people and misappropriating indigenous imagery, traditions, and words.

Sports teams and their mascots are far from the final or only legacy of awkward, insensitive, or even racist terms and images that disparage and erase authentic indigenous experiences. American business expressions are full of culturally offensive terminology that needs to be exposed and discarded.

The corporate world adopts racist or misleading figures of speech almost automatically, incorporating industry jargon or a senior leader’s favorite idioms often without thought or feedback. Unfortunately, many of these offensive words and phrases originated in the bigotry and racism of America’s colonial period, and corporate leaders should be mindful and on guard for terms that are derogatory toward Indian country – particularly those that they choose subconsciously!

Because so many words and phrases that disparage us are misunderstood and dismissed as “honoring” or “neutral,” tribal representatives have spent decades working with tribal leaders, Indian country business owners, and our friends to compile a partial list of inappropriate and culturally offensive figures of speech, along with suggested alternatives. Fortunately, the corporate world is great at saying the same thing dozens of different ways, so there is an abundance of others beyond those listed below.

Totems are frequently considered sacred objects with spiritual and historical significance to a specific tribe or a family, particularly those in the Pacific Northwest. So please never say “low man/woman on the totem pole” when conveying someone’s relationship to power or to a decisionmaker. Instead, say that you aren’t the project owner or that you aren’t leading the team.

If you want to schedule a follow-up meeting, then say that. Don’t say “let’s circle the wagons” or “let’s have a quick powwow.” The former has historical roots in planning orchestrated attacks against indigenous people by settlers, while the latter refers to important cultural gatherings with sacred elements.  What’s wrong with simply saying that our team needs to consider “regrouping” or “getting back together?”

The next phrase to replace has origins in the genocide of indigenous people during the period when America’s official position toward Native Americans was one designed to, “kill the Indian to save the man.” Although “off the reservation” is used to describe unexpected, illogical, or flawed behavior, most people outside of Indian Country don’t realize that at one point in America’s not-too-distant past, the safety and security of tribal communities stopped at the border of the reservation. It was perfectly acceptable (and even encouraged) for white settlers to murder Native people caught off the reservation, and many tribal citizens were not allowed off their reservations without permission from the federal government.

A few more: Tribes are organized as political units of government, cultural systems and familial groups, not as a fancy name for your project team or department. Spirit animals have sacred meaning to many American Indians, so saying “coffee is my spirit animal” is not only inaccurate but also offensive.  And if someone gave you something and then took it back, they might be stingy or a thief, but they are most certainly never an “Indian giver.”

As the United States continues its national reckoning with a bloody and complicated past, we can participate personally by revisiting the words we use in everyday conversation. By raising our awareness of the history and impact of the very language we speak, we can demonstrate our willingness to uncover, discover and discard the racist and hurtful words that are part of America’s colonial legacy. Rather than downplay them as “merely words or symbols,” these small changes represent a willingness to listen to and truly hear Native voices.

Op-ed by Jim Hopper and Joe Lilly

Jim Hopper is an enrolled member of the Otoe-Missouria Tribe of Indians and member of the board of directors at the Otoe-Missouria Development Authority.

Joseph Lilly has worked with tribal government-owned businesses for over a decade and is currently vice president of communications at AWL, Inc., an economic development arm of the Otoe-Missouria Tribe of Indians.