Thirty Everyday Phrases that Perpetuate the Oppression of Indigenous Peoples

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Language isn’t neutral or objective. It is a vessel of cultural stories, values, and norms. And in the United States, everyday language plays into the violent, foundational myth of this country’s origin story—Europeans “discovering” a virtually uninhabited wilderness and befriending the few primitive peoples who lived there—as well as other cultural myths and lies about Indigenous Peoples that are baked into U.S. culture and everyday life.

Cleve Davis (Shoshone-Bannock) points out that everyday language continues discrimination that is an extension of the centuries-long federal policy of genocide, assimilation, and oppression toward the original peoples of North America. As two powerful examples, in 2017 Newt Gingrich described the FBI’s investigation into ties between Russia and Trump as “an Indian hunting party … out looking for a couple scalps” and in April 2016 Hillary Clinton used the phrase “off the reservation” when describing her experience with men like Donald Trump.

It might seem harmless when your boss mentions the need for a powwow among the company’s executives or an online quiz promises to reveal your spirit animal, but everyday language like this is a result of centuries of violence and continues to perpetuate stereotypes that have real-life impacts on Native communities.

Indigenous Peoples and their cultural traditions are real and deserving of respect. They are not historical artifacts, caricatures, or mascots. Practice this truth by questioning everyday language like the thirty terms below.


Brave

Referring to Native men as “braves” has a long tradition. Native Circle explains that doing so plays on, and perpetuates, “the ‘noble courageous savage’ stereotype that was pinned on Indigenous men long ago by early Europeans” and “dehumanizes and equates the Native American male to something less than a man.”

Bury the hatchet

This expression is drawn from the centuries-old tradition among some Indigenous Peoples of North America, including most famously the Iroquois, to literally bury the tools of war as a symbol of peace. According to an article at History Revealed, “It wasn’t long before the settlers latched onto the phrase and used ‘bury the hatchet’ as a figurative call for peace,” which renders the expression particularly galling given the actual, violent actions of the colonizers toward those who practiced this tradition.

Chief

Benny Wayne Sully (Sicangu Lakota) points to how problematic it is to call Native people “chief” or use it as a nickname (much like “buddy”) for your friends. Aura Bogado at Colorlines explains: “Sure, some tribal nations have chiefs, but they, too, have names. For centuries, non-Natives have used ‘chief’ to refer to Native men regardless of their position in the tribe. The term also ignores that women, including clan mothers, hold leadership roles in countless tribal nations. Calling a nameless Native ‘chief’ is racist. End of story.”

Circle the wagons

This phrase is used to mean that a group should take a defensive position. Indigenous Corporate Training Inc. writes: “Circle the wagons translates to ‘the savages are coming and we are about to be attacked.’ Hollywood movies about settlers in North America moving west to invade and inhabit the traditional territories of First Peoples contributed greatly to the formation of this phrase.” The story that white people needed to protect themselves from Indigenous aggressors, rather than the other way around, is an unavoidable subtext of this phrase.

Geronimo

Geronimo was a famous leader and medicine man from the Bedonkohe band of the Apache and dedicated his life to resisting Mexican and U.S. efforts to remove his people from their traditional lands.

In U.S. culture Geronimo is less an actual historical figure and more a caricature of a brave warrior. During World War II, U.S. paratroopers yelled his name as they jumped out of their planes. This use, which has continued in a variety of ways, plays into the co-optation of Indigenous Peoples and culture for “macho” pursuits, which can be seen most obviously through sports language and mascots. The argument that such language “honors” Indigenous Peoples doesn’t hold water. Yelling “Geronimo!” while bungee jumping is no homage; rather, it far more accurately plays on a Hollywood-peddled cowboys-and-Indians mythology that has nothing to do with actual Indigenous lives or history. (See also Red***n)

Happy hunting ground

Merriam-Webster defines “happy hunting ground” as “the paradise of some American Indian tribes to which the souls of warriors and hunters pass after death to spend a happy hereafter in hunting and feasting.” As Debbie Reese (Nambé Pueblo) put it, “there are over 500 federally recognized tribal nations in the U.S., with distinct languages, histories, locations, and material cultures, [so] you may correctly surmise that there would be differences in how the afterlife is viewed or named, too.” But even beyond that fact, this phrase—and perhaps even the concept it refers to—was coined by white early-19th-century authors James Fenimore Cooper and Washington Irving, as traced by Charles Cutler in his 1994 book O Brave New Words!

Hold down the fort

Although the phrase “hold the fort” predates the United States, and “hold down the fort” seems to have been popularized during the Civil War, this expression calls to mind for many people the building and protecting of forts by fur traders, the U.S. army, and other colonizers in order to guard non-Native people from those they considered to be “primitive savages” (see also Savage). Claire Kreuger offers a powerful perspective on this expression from a Canadian perspective.

Indian file; Indian run; Indian style

There are a number of phrases that include the word “Indian” and play on stereotyped imagery of Indigenous Peoples, such as “Indian file” (for single file), “Indian run” (an exercise in which the last person in a single file of joggers sprints to the front of the line), and “Indian style” (for sitting cross-legged). Adrienne Keene (Cherokee) of Native Appropriations points out that if a phrase “has no discernible origins in anything actually Native,” it’s fair to deduce that it’s based on stereotypes and is therefore racist.

Indian giver

This term was first included in a dictionary in 1860, defined as “one who gives a present and then takes it back.” NPR’s Code Switch: Word Watch unpacks the awfulness of this expression, explaining that it originated when colonizers didn’t understand the cultural practice of bartering as practiced by Indigenous Peoples. The idea that Native people are untrustworthy or likely to give a gift or make a deal that is later reneged upon is ludicrous when considering the actual pattern of breaking treaties and stealing land practiced by colonizers. 

Indian summer

Jamie K. Oxendine (Lumbee/Creek) writes in detail about this phrase, which first appeared in print in 1778. It is not known why an unseasonably warm spell after the onset of fall is referred to as an Indian summer—theories range from it being a traditional time for Indigenous Peoples to harvest crops to it being a likely time for raids on European colonies to stereotypes about Native people being “false” (see Indian giver) or always late. What is clear is that the term was invented by colonizers and doesn’t represent anything true to Native culture, wisdom, or life. 

Long time no see

This phrase first appeared in print in two different Westerns published in 1900, spoken by Native men to white men—“Good morning. Long time no see you” (Thirty-One Years on the Plains and in the Mountains by William F. Drannan) and “Ugh, you squaw, she no long time see you: you go home mucha quick” (Tales of the Sierras by Jeff W. Hayes)—according to NPR’s Code Switch: Word Watch, although it’s also possible that it comes from the Mandarin Chinese phrase “hǎojǐu bújiàn,” which translates literally as “long time, no see.”

Regardless of the true etymology of this expression, there’s no question that it’s part of a long tradition of using so-called “broken English” in particular ways that are profoundly stereotyping. In her paper “And the Injun Goes ‘How!’: Representations of American Indian English in White Public Space,” Barbra A. Meek (Comanche) documents the style of “fictional American Indian speech” that she refers to as “Hollywood Injun English” and how it works in concert with stereotypes and prejudices to “reproduce Native American otherness” in U.S. popular culture.

Arlene Hirschfelder and Paulette F. Molin further explain: “This language became entrenched, endlessly repeated across time and place. It portrays Indians as silent and wordless or incapable of speaking proper English or other ‘civilized’ languages.”

Low man on the totem pole

Merriam-Webster defines this phrase as “the person with the lowest rank: the least important or least powerful person.” The phrase was likely popularized by a best-selling 1941 book by H. Allen Smith that used the expression as its title. Not only is it completely inappropriate to complain about your lack of advancement at work by way of a different culture’s sacred objects, it completely misrepresents the symbolic meaning of the totem pole.

Totem poles are monumental carvings that are part of the traditions of Indigenous Peoples of North America’s Pacific Northwest. They are sacred; the figures carved on them represent ancestors, legends, lineages, historical events, and/or sacred beings. Rather than the carving at the bottom of the pole being the least significant, it is often the most significant, being at eye level and bearing the weight of all the others. Other totem poles do not depict any sort of hierarchy.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries the practice of Native religion was outlawed throughout North America, the carving of totem poles was considered a “heathen” practice, and many totem poles were destroyed or stolen. This history makes the expression “low man on the totem pole” an extra kind of awful. Learn more about totem poles from Indigenous Foundations and Wikipedia.

New World

Calling Turtle Island the “New World” utilizes a colonizing perspective and perpetuates the mythology of the virtually uninhabited wilderness just waiting for white people to arrive and claim their manifest destiny. Only Europeans considered the land they named the Americas “new”; Indigenous nations have called this hemisphere home for millennia and have built civilizations that rival any in Europe. For essential reading on this topic, see Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States.

Off the reservation

This phrase is used to mean that someone is acting in a “crazy” or irrational way, which is horrific in light of the origins of the term. Suzan Shown Harjo (Cheyenne and Hodulgee Muscogee) explains:

“The term ‘off the reservation’ arose in the late-1800s, when Native Peoples were confined to reservations and when the federal ‘Civilization Regulations’ criminalized everything that made Native Peoples Native. … For more than a half-century, federal Indian Agents would decide what was a Civilization violation, which could be for such an ‘offense’ as conducting ceremonies, dancing, praying, going to a sacred place or ‘roaming away from the reservation.’ The US Army would be called in, for example, because the Indians were ‘off the reservation’ and given orders to get them back. Native leaders and religious practitioners were murdered and blamed for their own murders because they were ‘off the reservation.’”

On the warpath

Merriam-Webster defines this phrase as “angry and ready to fight with, criticize, or punish someone,” and provides the following as examples of how it is used: “The boss is on the warpath today because the project is behind schedule” and “Her supporters went on the warpath in response to her opponent’s accusations.”

As with many other phrases on this list, this expression is rooted in the stereotype of Indigenous Peoples as violent, warring “savages” that need to be defended against. It’s worth noting that the Washington football team’s fight song includes the line “Braves on the war path!” (the original version included the line “scalp ’em”). (See also Red***n and Savage)

Peace pipe

The expressions “smoking the peace pipe” and “passing the peace pipe” play on stereotypes of Indigenous Peoples perpetuated by mainstream culture—such as Disney’s 1953 animated film Peter Pan. The term “peace pipe” was used by European colonizers, but the smoking of a pipe to seal a peace treaty was only one of the sacred ceremonies that involved a ceremonial pipe among the Indigenous Peoples who used them, such as many of the plains nations, including the Sioux and the Lakota. Learn more from Wikipedia.

Pocahontas

As with Geronimo, Pocahontas has become a mythologized caricature of a Native American. Calling someone Pocahontas in a derogatory manner was spectacularly exemplified when the 45th president of the United States called Sen. Elizabeth Warren by this name as an insult during a 2017 ceremony meant to honor surviving Navajo Code Talkers who served in the U.S. Marine Corps during World War II.

Pocahontas was a real person (although Pocahontas was her nickname; her given name was actually Amonute), but the mythology surrounding her is a white retelling of history that strips the actual historical figure of agency and creates a love story that “makes people in white American culture feel good,” in the words of historian Camilla Townsend.

Powwow

As with so many terms on this list, the gross indignity embedded in the history of criminalizing Native spiritual and cultural practices, objects, and concepts and then repurposing them for use in dominant culture—particularly corporate culture—should give anyone with a conscience pause. It goes far beyond cultural appropriation for a colonizing society to forcibly outlaw powwows and then start using this term flippantly to mean “a casual meeting” among non-Natives.

In the words of Benny Wayne Sully (Sicangu Lakota), “Powwows are enormous celebrations that require months of planning. They are a way to celebrate Native heritage, art, and community. … Reducing it to a ‘cute’ way to refer to your 10-minute conference call with Jeff from corporate just makes no sense.”

Tara Houska (Couchiching First Nation) at Indian Country Today shares more about the history of the powwow and the way the practice was targeted: “In 1646, the Massachusetts General Court set forth a decree that would be reflected in numerous policies criminalizing the practice of Native American religion; ‘no Indian shall at any time pawwaw, or perform outward worship to their false gods, or to the devil….’” It wasn’t until the passage of the American Indian Religious Freedom Act in 1978 that the First Article of the U.S. Constitution’s Bill of Rights and its guarantee of religious freedom finally fully applied to Indigenous Peoples.

Rain dance

Rainmaking dances are ancient ceremonial dances practiced by many cultures, including many Indigenous cultures, and are still part of the living traditions of many Indigenous Peoples. Treating rain dances as a joke or casual concept disrespects Native culture and traditions.

Red***n Redskin

Arguably the very worst, most painful, and most infuriating term on this list, “red***n” is undeniably a violent slur. The etymology of the term is contested, but Code Switch documents that the word underwent a shift in the middle of the 19th century, from being largely a descriptive term to taking on “a negative, increasingly violent connotation.”

Code Switch author Lakshmi Gandhi notes that this same period was when Native imagery started being increasingly used in sports. “Native American names appear to have been chosen to emphasize the ‘Americanness’ of the team and its patriotic character,” wrote J. Gordon Hylton on the topic. So just to be clear, as Indigenous Peoples became symbolic of “Americanness,” the actual people at the heart of this symbol were being violently removed from their land, forcibly assimilated through the residential school system, and criminalized for practicing their spiritual and cultural traditions.

As the Change the Mascot campaign and Native communities everywhere have pointed out, nothing about this word or the behavior of fans of sports teams that utilize Indigenous imagery, stereotypes, and slurs (such as, of course, the U.S. capitol’s NFL team) has anything to do with “honoring” actual Indigenous Peoples.

Savage

In the article “Of Scalps and Savages: How Colonial Language Enforces Discrimination against Indigenous Peoples,” Ruth Hopkins (Sisseton Wahpeton Sioux) writes: “It was crucial for European colonialists to paint Natives as aggressors to justify their own violence against the original inhabitants of this land. While Natives fought against settlers, these battles were waged primarily in self-defense. America invented the ‘savage Indian’ to subjugate Natives, abrogate Tribes’ sovereign rights, and so they could freely initiate war against them for any reason whatsoever.”

Arlene Hirschfelder and Paulette F. Molin document that widespread representations of Native people as violent “savages” have been promoted through centuries of art, best-selling “captivity narratives,” dime novels, Wild West shows, and Westerns, codifying not only the “barbarous” and violent stereotype of the Native American but also the mythology that virtuous white people fought off the “merciless Indian savages, whose known rule of warfare, is undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions” in order to found a country rooted in liberty and justice for all.

That quote? It comes from the Declaration of Independence.

This one word, whether used as an adjective, noun, or verb, manages to convey all of the worst lies colonizers have told about Indigenous Peoples, at least in the lands that came to be called the United States: not domesticated or under human control, untamed, lacking the restraints normal to civilized human beings, fierce, ferocious, wild, uncultivated, boorish, rude, malicious, lacking complex or advanced culture, uncivilized, primitive, brutal, to attack or treat brutally (per Merriam-Webster).

Given the history of the word “savage,” there’s no way to use it, at least within the U.S., that doesn’t play on the horrific history and stereotyping of Indigenous Peoples. 

Scalp

“Scalp” is often used as slang to mean ripping someone off (as in reselling something at an inflated price), buying or trading for small gains, or a trophy. The origins of this use come from the horrifying practice of removing a piece of an enemy’s scalp, with hair still attached. Although both Indigenous Peoples and colonizers practiced scalping, it was used as proof of Native savagery, which is particularly awful given the fact that only colonizers actually paid cash bounties for the scalps of Native people. The practice of paying bounties for scalps was incredibly widespread and has been documented in the United States, Canada, and Mexico. Learn more at Indian Country Today. (See also Savage)

Shaman

As noted by Julia Penelope, “‘shamanism’ has become a metonym for all religious leaders within Indigenous cultures” and is used to signify that someone is a spiritual practitioner who doesn’t come from a “socially stratified ‘advanced’ civilization.” She links the broad use of “shaman” to linguistic imperialism and the banning of Indigenous languages and spiritual practices, pointing out the fact that hundreds of unique terms (along with unique religions) within different nations have been subsumed under the word “shaman” by colonizers. So before using this word to refer to an Indigenous person, make sure it’s how the person actually describes themself.

And then, of course, there’s the incredibly problematic claiming of “shamanism” by New Age white people. In the words of Jai Medina (Nahua and Bine’zaa), “If you’re not Indigenous or you’re not in authentic relationship to one or more Indigenous people/s now, if you didn’t grow up living in an intact tribal culture, and you don’t know enough about Indigenous values and worldview to truly respect and embody them, if you’re not up for the responsibility of living in a web of complicated right relationship with all beings, along with the obligation to care for the entire seen and unseen world, if you’re not using specific shamanic techniques and honoring medicines of the earth, and if you’re not called by the spirits … then you are, most definitely, not a shaman.”

Spirit animal

Benny Wayne Sully (Sicangu Lakota) shares, “Stop saying you have a spirit animal. You literally don’t. … Most tribes don’t even have ‘spirit animals.’ … [Many] have what are called guides, totems, messengers, or in the case of my tribe, gods. For example, my tribe has several gods that are personified animals—my favorite being Mica, the coyote god who is a friend to the trickster spider god Iktomi.”

Like so many other terms on this list, this one co-opts Indigenous spirituality, misrepresents and misunderstands it, and claims it as some sort of “universal” experience, in the process ignoring the long history of preventing Indigenous Peoples from practicing their religious traditions. For an excellent and thorough treatment of this term, see Donyae Coles’s article “Not Your Spirit Animal.”

Squ*w Squaw

Far worse than “brave,” the word “squ*w” likely originally derived from one of many Algonquin morphemes that mean “woman.” It was used in a demeaning, racist, and sexualized way for centuries and has been compared to “c*nt” and “whore.” Learn more from Wikipedia.

Too many chiefs, not enough Indians

Hopefully there’s no need to explain why this phrase is awful. And yet it persists, particularly in corporate contexts. As with so many other terms on this list, this expression plays on caricatures of Indigenous Peoples that could not be more divorced from reality.

Tribe

The word “tribe” is complex and imbued with complicated meaning, in no small part because it’s a legal and bureaucratic term under U.S. law. Access to federal programs and the right to enforce treaties and laws requires federal recognition of a Native nation as a “tribe,” and there are many Native nations that have never been allowed to gain that recognition. This means that it is often best to avoid using “tribe” as a generic term in reference to Indigenous Peoples—the words “nation” or “people” are in greater use among most Native people (but it’s always best to research exactly how to refer to a particular Indigenous nation or community).

Chris Lowe at Teaching Tolerance writes powerfully about the stereotypes baked into the term “tribe,” and notes that “the U.S. government treats all Native American groups as tribes because of the same outdated cultural evolutionary theories and colonial viewpoints that led European colonialists to treat all African groups as tribes. As in Africa, the term obscures wide historical differences in way of life, political and social organization, and culture among Native Americans. When we see that the same term is applied indiscriminately to Native American groups and African groups, the problem of primitive savagery as the implied common denominator only becomes more pronounced.”

So it’s important to practice care in how you use the word “tribe”—and it’s even more important to not use this word to refer to your social group or sports team fan base. Like “savage,” there’s no neutral way to use this word that’s divorced from its historical and present-day meaning.

Vision quest

In the words of Simon Moya-Smith (Oglala Lakota), “Going camping with your pals whilst pounding booze in Patagonia jackets isn’t a ‘vision quest.’ Please just go camping.” Not only is the term “vision quest” often used to paint all Indigenous Peoples and spiritualities with a single brush, it is also a spiritual practice that has been widely appropriated by non-Native people. Myke Johnson has written powerfully about why this sort of cultural theft is harmful and what white people (in particular) can do to respect Indigenous spiritual traditions.

War paint

It should go without saying that actually putting paint on your face and calling it “war paint” is a form of “redface,” but beyond that, the phrase “war paint” itself also plays into the stereotyping and caricaturing of Indigenous Peoples.

Wild Indians

“A bunch of wild Indians” is a longstanding expression, particularly used to admonish children. It’s easy to see how this phrase plays on and perpetuates stereotypes of Indigenous Peoples as “wild,” uncivilized, and savage. (See also Savage)


In order to fully eradicate prejudice, oppression, and violence toward Indigenous Peoples from our language, it will take a lot more than simply getting rid of the most obvious expressions. So don’t stop there—see below for some great sources that take this topic deeper. 

To close with Ruth Hopkins (Sisseton Wahpeton Sioux):

“Colonial language can be used as a tool to denigrate and discriminate against Native people alive today. … These semantics of white privilege serve to enforce old colonial notions that attempt to reduce Natives to primitive caricatures. It suggests that we are not equals. It implies that mainstream society owns Native identity, or that we as Natives are relegated to the past. …

To truly benefit from a diverse global society, we must raise public discourse above antiquated race-based language couched in manifest destiny. Ignorance is no excuse, because Natives are not silent—you’ve only to hear us.”


For more on this topic, check out these essential resources:


What did I miss? Please comment below!

If this post was helpful to you, please consider showing your appreciation by making a donation to Indian Country Today, the Indigenous Environmental Network, or Native Appropriations, all of which have been go-to sources for me over the years—or an Indigenous organization or activist whose wisdom you have benefitted from.


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6 thoughts on “Thirty Everyday Phrases that Perpetuate the Oppression of Indigenous Peoples

  1. Great post, Alex. Lets not forget the one that I hear a lot, and hate the most. “half breed” as in the song by Cher. She pranced around the stage wearing a full warbonnet, and sand a song about why being half Cherokee made her undesirable and turned her into a woman of loose morals. Whenever people refer to a person as a half-breed – it is just accepted that said person is half Native and half white and is being referred to in an animal related way. I have never heard it used as a complimentary statement, nor used as an adjective when speaking well of a good person. As a kid, I well remember bloodying more than one nose in the schoolyard because of that damn song – got in trouble more than once, but the kids who taunted me with a racial slur were never held to task.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I might have included pot-luck in this list, since it is an appropriation of the ceremony of potlatch, which was made illegal for us to practise by the colonizers, because they saw it as subversive. People did prison time for simply dancing and sharing food.

    Like

  3. Thank you for sharing this thoughtful list. It is necessary to remember that words are not devoid of history, and even words said in innocence can cause irreparable harm. I am saving this list so I can review it regularly, so I can be armed with facts when I hear someone use these, or potentially related, terms, and so I can be mindful of being respectful in my own speech.

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  4. Here in the backwash of the Applachians, where the valleys can be deep, we were taught (talking 60 years ago now, so maybe not current) that the phrase “Indian summer” referred not only to an autumn heat wave, but to the fog that builds up in the valleys during the heat. It looks like smoke, and supposedly early colonizers thought other colonizers’ cabins were burning.

    I’ve seen the fog, sometimes in the middle of the day, and it looks alarmingly like smoke.

    Thank you for an excellent column.

    Like

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