Please be advised that the following essay does contain language, topics, and descriptions that might be triggering, especially to Indigenous individuals.
Words have power. They start and end battles, carry new insight and information, and establish the foundations of culture. Some cultures believe that certain words or phrases hold incredible power, used for prayer, or for special ceremonies. Others use words as weapons, to cut down and hurt others to make themselves appear or feel better. Native people have been the subject of mass degradation through, among other things, the stealing of land, appropriation of culture, and the use of slurs and derogatory language. While these and the many atrocities committed against Indigenous people by non-Native people have never been acceptable, there has recently been a movement in this area.
There are many different perspectives to consider in the comprehension of this topic, from museum curators and investigative texts to Native rights organizations and individual perspectives. The recent surge in social justice and climate change activism across the globe has led to a movement acknowledging the incorrectness of many stereotypes and offensive languages that contributes to the many issues plaguing Native people. In particular, there has been a strong push from activists to inspire the public to acknowledge the emotional potency behind culturally insensitive language. Culturally and personally offensive language should never be used, especially by anyone in positions of power because it creates a hostile environment that causes irreparable damage to Native people.
The history of interactions between Indigenous and non-Native people is littered with indiscretions ranging from minor offenses to horrific genocides. Native people, particularly of the Americas, peacefully interacted with settlers, offering agricultural education and other important information for surviving. The settlers responded by taking advantage of Native kindness and misrepresenting Native interactions. Native people were labeled as “savage” and “primitive by European Settlers. Some accounts would detail interactions with Natives as hostile or dangerous, either due to “some small slight” or to the consumption of alcohol (“Civilizations of Mexico”).
Due to a few scant interactions that cataloged rare instances of unfamiliar revelry and a lack of understanding of Indigenous ceremony rites, Native people were stereotyped as wild drunken folks who it was right to demean and take advantage of. As the European population increased in the Americas, they took over a greater portion of Native lands, reducing the amount of lands available for necessary agriculture and hunting for Natives. They brought disease and famine to the Americas, decimating Indigenous populations with the passing of household items. Using this widespread illness, settlers would push Native people out of their homelands so that plentiful resources could be used for the benefit of the settlers. The longest and most horrific example of this was the Trail of Tears, which extended across the southeastern United States between 1830 and 1850. Five nations of Native Americans, the total number of individuals exceeding 60,000, were forced to march to new lands.
Thousands died from starvation, disease, and cold exposure during and after the brutal relocation (“U.S. Indian Policy”) The land forcefully vacated by its Indigenous inhabitants was then exploited for gold and other resources valued by the Europeans. The Indigenous population, which was overwhelmingly peaceful and cooperative with each other and the Europeans, was decimated, leading to a loss of culture and self-worth. As Indigenous people were again and again pushed around and massacred, their value was decreased in the eyes of Europeans more and more. The expansion of European settlements to the west contributed to the minimization of Native achievement and stereotyping of Indigenous people to alienate them in their own homes (“California and the Northwest Coast”). Part of the process of making Native people feel lesser was calling them diminutive names and stereotyping them. By making their way of life a caricature, Native values and culture were reduced to fodder for jokes and obstacles to get around.
The language used in referring to individuals and naming Native groups has long been a source of pain for Native people as they are reduced to a single characteristic or ill-conceived word. Developing a better understanding of the words used to describe a group of people, either chosen by them or for them, provides insight into how they view themselves and are perceived by others. A lot of the words used to label Native people are unfortunately slurs, which are “expression[s] of a contemptuous attitude concerning a group of people identified in terms of its origin or descent” (Slurs, Stereotypes, and Insults).
These hurtful communications belittle and demean indigenous people and are horribly imaginative. Possibly one of the scarier aspects of these slurs is how ingrained they have become in society. There are words that most non-Native people would not consider to be offensive but find their roots in slurs and hate. Words ranging from “savage,” “powwow,” and “chief,” when not referring to their Indigenous use, can be incredibly triggering and harmful. There are other words that are considered offensive in some countries and fine in others, most likely due to variations in knowledge of their origin. “Linguists believe that “Eskimo” is derived from a Montagnais (Innu) word ayas̆kimew meaning “netter of snowshoes.” The people of Canada and Greenland have long preferred other names. “Inuit,” meaning “people,” is used in Canada” (Eskimo or Inuit: Which Name to use?). While this translation is not inherently bad, the meaning was twisted over time to mean “eater of raw meat” and then became a greater insult.
A majority of Native people prefer their own names for their own groups and other neighboring groups as a sign of respect, since, as the word “Inuit” simply means “people,” it does not assign an identity to the people it is naming. The individuals get the opportunity to define themselves as they are so inclined without the stigma of another name over their heads. Many Native groups have been named by Europeans or their names have translated to be more negative. “The word [Malecite] is typically translated as a negative comment about their speech, that it is “broken,” “lazy,” “bad,” or more neutrally “different.” Their own name for themselves refers to the Saint John River central to their territory in New Brunswick and Maine: Wolastoqiyik, “people of the Wolastoq or beautiful river'” (Steckley, J.). Rejecting the name given to them by colonizers is the Indigenous group’s way of taking back their power. They are attempting to separate themselves from the image created by the words and insinuations of Europeans. By misnaming Indigenous people, their identity and culture were stripped away, leaving behind a vulnerable and damaged group.
The ramifications of the historical use of slurs and derogatory language towards Indigenous people are seen in both individual and group. So often history focuses on the great achievements of Europeans in the colonization of the Americas, but ignores the damage done to the people who lived there long before they arrived. The way that the Native peoples were treated by Europeans when they first interacted set the framework for countless generations of relations. Due to centuries of abuse and belittling name-calling, so many words and phrases have entered the general vernacular that they have lost or have become unattached from their original use. However “phrases that subtly reference Native Americans are used so often that we tend to forget the negative imaging associated with them” (Images That Injure, 120). Doing this cements the idea that Native Americans are indeed not as good as Europeans and are akin to animals in their eyes.
While some might argue that the use of these terms was not always meant to harm or demean Native people or that it was a product of the times, the intent behind an action is not the only variable to consider. The negative effect that someone’s words have on an individual and through them a culture, will over time build up speed until it will be such an unfortunately internalized part of someone’s identity. Outsides have to understand that “using offensive language may have an important indirect impact on minority groups, as it may have an unintended effect of hardening majority group members’ attitudes towards them” (Hunt, C.J.). If misnomers are used enough times, it will be accepted as fact and the original history will be quickly forgotten. It is important to keep in mind the origins of offensive terms and not to joke around with them. Using offensive language will make individuals uncomfortable to varying degrees and it is degrading to a culture and its values as a whole.
“When we consider that language is the means by which culture is articulated, the maintenance of Indigenous language is of no small political significance” (Native Americans and the Christian Right, 97). Indigenous languages have been rapidly going extinct due to the early decimation of Native populations mentioned earlier, but the quality is also being eaten away by the oppressive language being used on a daily basis. Individuals have lost touch with their culture, not just because the Native population is ever-dwindling, but because of the way that Native people are viewed due to countless years of abuse and defamation. There is no end to the number of atrocities committed against Indigenous people and there are few records of how it impacts individuals.
Crimes against Native peoples range from massacre to stereotyping, but no one can say that Indigenous people are not disenfranchised. From colonial and modern instances of Native land being stolen to misrepresentation and oversimplification of a multitude of Aboriginal cultures, slights, and crimes of all kinds have been made against the First Nation people. This is especially true when considering more mundane instances of racism, like name-calling or making offensive comments. “A survey conducted in 2017 by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and Harvard University found that nearly 40% of Native Americans said they had personally experienced offensive comments about their race or ethnicity. Over a third of those surveyed said they or a family member had experienced either violence, threats, or harassment because they are Native American” (When Native Americans Are Told To ‘Go Back’ To Where They Came From).
All people have the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness but those inherent rights belonging to Indigenous groups are constantly violated. The use of language to harass or otherwise harm another human being, another living, breathing creature, is unacceptable. The values of Indigenous people are of peace and harmony with the land and with others and yet are some of the most discriminated and ridiculed groups in historical and modern society. “Indians are incarcerated at high rates, encounter discrimination and hate crimes, and experience other negative impacts. Stereotyped Indian violence also leads non-Indians to fear Native people” (Stereotyping Native Americans). Native people (the word “Indian” is considered by many to be a borderline slur) are discriminated against based on the color of their skin and non-Native predispositions about who they are as a group, not as an individual. Native people experience significantly high rates of suicide, alcoholism, and vanishings because they have been told they were nothing for so long. Using derogatory language to tell a group of people that they do not matter and are of a lower caliber than non-Native individuals is akin to some of the other acts of cruelty waged against Native people.
Derogatory language has often been posited as necessary in academic settings to better understand historical events and context, neglecting the damage it could do to the establishment of a safe learning environment for all. Since what counts as derogatory or offensive language fluctuates with national leadership, global events, and individual choice, it can be difficult to keep up with what counts. It is important to adjust according to the needs of the victims of such language to ensure that people have a safe and welcoming living and learning space. “Although the name “Eskimo” was commonly used in Alaska to refer to Inuit and Yupik people of the world, this usage is now considered unacceptable by many or even most Alaska Natives, largely since it is a colonial name imposed by non-Indigenous people” (Inuit or Eskimo: Which Name to Use?).
There are many words that are widely-accepted as inappropriate to use, but some word designations vary in awareness from region to region. The aforementioned word is considered offensive in the northern half of the Americas but less so in other areas of the world, potentially because of a lower concentration of Native people. This regional difference is also represented in academic settings, with schools in Canada teaching students about Indigenous history and land rights versus schools in the United States teaching the heroics of the white settlers and ignoring the mass genocide that occurred. Using derogatory language for the sake of academia alters the way that information is absorbed and contextualized. “Educators can demonstrate that yes, words do have power, they are hurtful and offensive and we don’t just get to arbitrarily decide when they are hurtful and offensive. They always are and we should always avoid them. Or at the very least, they should be avoided in a governmental institution where all peoples should feel safe to learn” (Essien, E.). Leaders are held to a higher standard, to set a precedent and to create a secure and welcoming learning environment. Education is meant to teach students how to think, form their own opinions, and ask questions, which demands that they are given unbiased information. Using offensive language not only alienates any Indigenous or related persons, but reinforces that using those words is okay, at least in one context. Using these words can be harmful to a culture as a whole because of where they came from.
“They can come from the colonial power itself or from another Indigenous group with whom the colonizer was in contact first — often, at the time that the group whose word was chosen was not in a good relationship with the people being named. The name would end up as an entrenched insult” (Steckley, J.). Since not all users of such language are aware of the historical context, they learn that such words are okay because they are used at school or at home and further turn into insults or words that are so out of their original context (like “powwow” and “chief”) that they are triggering to hear. If leaders take time to acknowledge the origin of those words and help students to understand the historical context and how they have never been acceptable to use, then they can be potentially used in academics. But the repeated use of such violently dehumanizing language can cause irreversible damage to Indigenous people.
Culture is something that shapes the foundation of who someone is, and if harmed so too the individual is harmed. Being told every day for centuries that your people are worth so little, are removed from their homes for gold, and so many other things, chips away at the collective psyche of a society. Individual mental health is critically poor among Native people with increased rates of depression, anxiety, and suicide on Native lands. While there might be individual reasons for these, the underlying cause is the decreased value that is put on the lives of Indigenous people. Dianne Biritjalawuy Gondarra, a Yolngu woman from Arnhem Land, Australia, says that “‘Culture is a shadow, it’s something that follows you everywhere, and part of culture is language, which connects me back to my land. It disconnects a person if you don’t have your language. You feel it, that loss'” (Griffith, J.). The demeaning of culture through the use of discriminatory language eats away at the individual, disconnecting them. Some Native individuals distance themselves from their culture to fit in, to avoid the stereotypes and racist questions. But they lose a deeper connection to a vast family and set of ceremonies unique and of value, all because of the hate they are given, whether intentionally or unintentionally. Objectifying Native people through caricatures, Halloween costumes, and extremely offensive mascots directly belittle a culture, and therefore the individual.
“Turning people into objects, or dehumanizing them, is the first step in justifying their oppression” (Images that Injure, 117). Non-Natives see these depictions of Native people and think that since they are mainstreamed or reinforced that it is okay to use such objectification and language that they might not fully understand the context of. It’s damaging to the mental health of Native people to only see themselves in the media as stereotypes. It potentially makes them feel as though they are a fraud or are ashamed of the culture that is being mocked. “If we only see ourselves reflected when there’s a crisis or only as part of the past, this raises anger, anxiety, and uncertainty. We have difficulty believing we are effective participants in society.
All people deserve to see themselves reflected with honesty and balance by the media organizations serving their communities” (Images That Injure, 120). From media to daily interactions, everyone should feel safe and respected to be who they are, and right now, and for the past too many years, Native people have not had that basic right. But with recent social justice movements, Indigenous rights activists have been standing up for what’s right and calling for observed Native rights and their land back. Activists call for the changing of racist mascots and banning of racist and inappropriate representation, and for better education on these topics. Different Native individuals want different levels of change, and that includes the use of offensive and derogatory language.
There are some that argue for the use of words that are considered offensive for the sake of history and as a part of the greater society. This is a small faction, and there seem to be no Indigenous people who agree that everyone, or even just Native people, should use the slurs and derogatory language that has plagued the people of the First Nations. It could be argued that to ban such language is to further oppress Native people by taking away one of their labels, but most prefer Indigenous names for their association. “Native Americans use a range of words to describe themselves, and all are appropriate. Some people refer to themselves as Native or Indian; most prefer to be known by their tribal affiliation” (I is for Ignoble: Stereotyping Native Americans). Native people can of course call themselves whatever they want, but they should not be labeled by non-Native people with names that, at least in the past, were considered insults. The majority of Native American activists disagree, saying that no derogatory language, inappropriate stereotypes, misrepresentation, or slurs should be used.
There is a broad consensus that any language pertaining to indigenous people and their culture that is offensive, demeaning should not be used by anyone, in any setting. If Native individuals feel comfortable with those labels they should use them, but “language reappropriation does carry a risk misunderstanding and confusion ― particularly in the case of loaded terms, or words still commonly used in a demeaning manner” (The Psychological Power of Reclaiming Oppressive Language). If a non-Indigenous person were to hear those words being used, they might feel that they too could use them, perhaps not realizing the harm that they may inherently cause by using it. Many groups that are considered underrepresented or “minority” groups also face this decision, and each individual has to make that decision about what they are comfortable with around them. One Indigenous person said that “[savage] and ‘redskin’ were the main slurs I got all throughout middle and high school, and hearing either one is a major trigger for me” (7 Things You Should Never Say to a Native American).
These are words that most people would never think of as offensive because of how normalized they have become as part of general society, but for that person and for many like them, it is an attack on their culture, the essence of who they are. “Chief” means the head of a tribe or clan in Native American culture, but if looked up online, results pop up for sports teams, military officers, and even businesses. To be a chief is a high honor in Native American culture, and its value is degraded by its use outside of that culture. “Savage” means untamed with a negative connotation, and was used frequently when describing Native Americans. It is now used as slang and for names of businesses, rappers, and clothing collections, to name a few. These words have been adopted by non-Native culture and might not be used with harmful intent, but they stem from a place of hurt and will be a constant reminder of the atrocities Native Americans have faced and continue to face. One Indigenous activist spoke out on the renaming of geographic locations that bore racist and inappropriate names, and how it would be a step in the right direction. “I feel within the core of my being that if we change names to reflect Indigenous histories, including oral histories, then that really affects me personally because it more so reflects my people” (Grey, C.). Changing names to honor Native people instead of highlighting past derogatory positions is a step in the right direction. This proves to activists, and both Native and non-Native people that change is not only possible but required. This perspective on the use of language when referring to Native people is shared by a majority if not all activists fighting for these inalienable rights, is that no such derogatory language should be used, ever.
Since there is such a disparity between the number of people for the use of slurs and for those against (with the latter being in the significant majority), there is not much to compare, but it is important to consider the benefit of encouraging equality through language. Native language and culture are disappearing as the population dwindles, but the culture is based on strong values. “The very act of one generation teaching another creates a sacred thread of interconnectedness and belonging that is critical to any young person’s development of confident personhood. Instilling such self-esteem is especially necessary for Native American youth who must overcome many social and economic disadvantages in order to realize their fondest dreams” (Preserving Native Languages: No Time to Waste).
By raising awareness of the history and impact that slurs and derogatory language have, even in academic settings, progress can be made to develop a safe, inclusive space for Native youth to grow and revitalize their culture. The activists who fight for their culture and for their identity, have adapted to fit the needs of their people. “Their victories were triumphs earned by Native people who acted in accord with basic Indigenous values: loyalty to one’s homeland, mutual respect, and the central importance of human relationships” (Hoxie, F. 8). Operating under these guiding tenets, native activists will be able to make a difference and spread awareness of how much language can hurt.
Every Native person has their own story to tell, their own perspective on who can say what and what is or isn’t offensive. The writer of this essay is not Native and acknowledges that this is an essay looking from the outside at an issue that started hundreds of years ago and will most likely continue in the future. The author is in a position of privilege being white and lower-middle-class, and can never know what it is like to have to live through these experiences. A wide array of sources from various backgrounds were selected to provide as well-rounded a perspective as possible on the subject. This has been an eye-opening experience, not only from having to sift through hundreds of truly awful names and events, but has developed an even deeper respect for Native people and all that they go through on a regular basis.
Derogatory and offensive language should not be used specifically in reference to Native American culture and identity by any individual, particularly those in power, as it creates an unwelcoming and unsafe environment. Some instances of such language are unintentional, long ingrained in the common vocabulary so that their original intent was mostly forgotten. It is important to remain aware of those meanings and uses so that the words’ use will be diminished over time. Native American identity stems from its culture, and all Native people have the right to stand tall and proud of who they are and where they come from. Everyone does. From the researchers to the activists, all say that using language with the intent to demean or belittle is just wrong. Using the same language without the intent is still wrong, but correctable with education and awareness. There needs to be more education on what really happened between Native and non-Native people, and how things got to be how they are today. Even though the old adage states that sticks and stones may break our bones, words will never hurt me, we know that isn’t true. It’s the words that make us.