Words Matter

by Catherine Anton Baty, MLS (Big Sandy Rancheria)


Munahuu! (Hello in Western Mono)

In the Tropes & Stereotypes article we went over a few of the most common tropes and stereotypes that are prevalent in media representations of Native peoples. It is also vital to be aware of certain words and phrases that can cause harm. Some terms will have a context in which they can be deemed necessary and that will be noted here, along with some proper descriptors and alternatives when appropriate.

Please know that I am one Native from one tribe. We are not a monolith and not everyone will agree with the stances I take here. I am writing from my own experience and what I have learned from listening to other Indigenous peoples.

To Start, Here are Some Best Practices:

  • If referring to individuals, use their specific tribal nation.
    • Example: Catherine Anton Baty (Big Sandy Rancheria)
  • If referring to a group of people from different tribes, you can use:
    • Native American

      for Indigenous peoples in the United States

    • First Nations for Indigenous peoples in Canada
    • Native for Indigenous peoples in both the United States and Canada (friendly/colloquial)
    • Indigenous peoples for Indigenous peoples in both the United States and Canada (formal/academic)
      • Take note that Indigenous peoples is plural because Indigenous Communities have their own cultures, languages, and governments.
    • Alaska Natives can also be called Inuit, and our relatives in Hawaii are Native Hawaiians. Though these populations are often paired with the larger Native American group, it is important to know that Native Hawaiians and Alaska Natives have a different history with colonial governments.
    • American Indian can also be appropriate for Indigenous people from the United States, but the term is a legal designation that refers to enrolled citizens of federal or state recognized tribal nations. Use in other circumstances is not appropriate.

Harmful Language and Imagery

Some of the following phrases on this list may seem innocuous, but each entry shows a disregard for Indigenous peoples, their nations, cultures, and histories. For some items on this list, it can be like reopening a wound. Please keep that in mind when having discussions around this harmful language and imagery.

  • Circle the wagons
    • Meaning: Something bad is about to happen so everyone needs to be on their guard.
    • Instead try “get into defensive positions.”
  • Eskimo
    • A slur imposed on Northern Indigenous populations by colonizers.
    • Instead use Inuit or Alaska Natives
  • Firewater
    • Any strong alcohol consumed by a Native person who then gets drunk.
    • Instead try moonshine.
  • Happy hunting grounds
    • Could be used to mean an afterlife or a place where someone is successful. This phrase is reductive of the complex Indigenous religions often still practiced today.
    • Instead try “heaven.”
  • Headdresses
    • Objects of honor, like military medals or awards given to significant community members. Headdresses are earned and awarded.
    • Use on animals, people who have not earned them, or skulls is not okay.
    • Contributes to pan-Indigeneity, in which people see all Indigenous peoples as having the same culture.
    • Instead wear a tiara or a fancy hat.
  • High/low on the totem pole
    • This trivializes totem poles which are sacred objects.
    • Instead try “high/low on the ladder” or “low/high rank.”
  • Indian burn
    • A burn created by grabbing someone’s arm with both hands and twisting many times resulting in a friction burn.
    • Instead use friction burn.
  • Indian giver
    • A person who gives a gift and later wants it back.
  • Native Halloween costumes and mascots
    • Cultures are not costumes.
    • Wearing a costume is not honoring Indigenous peoples.
    • The clothes worn during powwows and ceremony are not costumes; they are regalia.
    • Instead wear costumes that do not depict marginalized peoples.
  • Off the reservation
    • When a person or group goes against the established or expected norm. Many Indigenous groups were not allowed to leave their reservation without explicit permission. Going off-reservation without permission was at times a death sentence.
    • Instead try “out of line”
  • Pass the peace pipe
    • Refers to a specific ceremony and should only be used in ceremonial context.
    • Instead try saying, “It’s my/their/your turn.”
  • Powwow
    • Cultural celebrations often involving Native religious practices as a part of ceremony.
    • Not a term for a meeting at work or with friends.
    • Instead use “get together” or “meeting.”
  • Savage
    • A slur used for othering people, especially Indigenous populations, by comparing them to animals. Used as a slur is in our Declaration of Independence, “merciless Indian Savages.”
    • Instead use fierce, vicious, etc.
  • Sitting “Indian style”
    • Sitting with legs crossed.
    • Instead try “crisscross applesauce.”
  • Smudging
    • A closed and sacred practice specific to Indigenous peoples.
    • Instead use “smoke cleansing.”
  • Spirit animal
    • A religious belief and practice for specific tribes.
    • Not for a person/action to which a person feels particularly akin.
    • Instead use “role model” or “aspiration.”
  • Too many chiefs
    • There’s too many people trying to be the boss and giving orders.
    • Instead try “too many chefs/captains.”
  • Tribe
    • A group of people with a government, language, culture, and history.
    • Not a person’s bridal party, someone’s fan base, or a scout troop.
    • Instead make up something new for the group you represent.
  • White Sage (Salvia apiana)
    • Grows in Southern California and Northern Mexico , traditionally only California nations and those who traded with them had access. The buying of sage for commercial purposes threatens the availability of it to those who have used it for thousands of years.
    • Instead use plants native to your area for smoke cleansing or grow your own white sage.

Words with Special Circumstances

Some terms have multiple meanings depending on the circumstance. Below, you will find some terms laid out with their inappropriate and appropriate usage.

  • Brave
    • Being ready to, or to face something scary but holding one’s ground.
    • Not a young Native man or warrior.
  • Buck
    • An animal like a male deer, or an action to oppose something.
    • Not a young Native man.
  • Chief
    • A job, which can be either voted or inherited.
    • Not a nickname unless related to actual work. (ex. Fire Chief, Police Chief)
  • Pocahontas
    • A young girl who was stolen from her family, ripped from her culture, and forced to leave all she knew behind, only to die of a disease she never would have contracted if she were left at home.
    • Not a pejorative for a white person who says they’re Native.
  • Tribal
    • Things owned or run by tribes.
    • Not a shorthand for “us vs. them” or a synonym for an otherwise toxic culture.

‘Indian’ in particular should not be used by non-Natives. However, there are a few specific circumstances in which it cannot be avoided.

  • American Indian
    • American Indian is not a race. It is a legal designation meaning that an individual is an enrolled citizen of a federal or state recognized tribe, has access and is subject to, government programs for American Indians.
  • Government (Indian Health Service, Bureau of Indian Affairs, etc.)
    • The branches of federal government which work in Indian Country still use the term “Indian.”.
  • Indian Country
    • Legally, land holdings of American Indians and tribes held in trust by the federal government.
    • Colloquially, any land on which Americans Indians reside or hold ceremonies.
  • Laws (ex. Indian Child Welfare Act)
    • Some laws made regarding American Indians use the term.
  • Tribe Names (ex. Big Sandy Rancheria Band of Western Mono Indians)
    • Some tribes, like my own, have “Indian” in their name. This is the legal name of the tribe as known by the federal government.


The list below are slurs without a special circumstance and don’t have alternatives. They should not be used, regardless of context, outside of a direct quote.

Descriptive “Indian-sounding” names

  • Injun
  • Redskin
  • red man
  • squaw

These words have been used to dehumanize, put down, and delegitimize Indigenous peoples and our political issues.

Instead of using these pain-causing terms, we should work to use respectful language. Like the proper descriptors at the beginning of this article. The negative words and phrases didn’t come from out of the blue. There is an expansive history behind them and though meanings have adapted to the time we are in, the history cannot be ignored. It may seem like a long time ago, but for many Indigenous people this is recent memory which bleeds into our contemporary day-to-day lives.

There are many articles devoted to discussing these terms individually. I highly recommend seeking them out— from Indigenous voices especially. One resource I find myself using often is Indian Country Today (ICT) which is a Native-run and operated news site.


The goal here is not to restrict language, but to share an understanding of why some things are hurtful and can cause harm to the wider Indigenous community. Once something is known to cause harm, we should try our best to minimize that harm.

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