7 Things to NEVER Say to Your Indigenous, Native American Colleagues

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.

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