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The Cypress

The student news site of Brookline High School

The Cypress

The student news site of Brookline High School

The Cypress

Addy’s Advice: Indigenous Heritage Month


Dear Reader,

Language is hard. Words have complicated meanings and connotations, and sometimes they even have horrible histories of oppression. On top of that, the meanings of words are always changing. A word that used to be widely accepted may seem derogatory now, or a word that used to be derogatory may now be widely accepted.

As someone who is a member of many different marginalized groups, I have often felt targeted by other people’s language. However, like many others, I’ve also had moments where I didn’t know the right word to say. What matters to me is that one is always willing to learn, so, if you’re interested in learning about some vocabulary related to Native American Heritage Month, keep reading!

Before I even begin to talk about vocabulary, we have to talk about tenses. There are still Indigenous people today, and when we use the past tense to talk about Indigenous people instead of the present tense, it propagates the false narrative that Indigenous people are “gone.” It’s important to acknowledge the continued existence and importance of Indigenous people in the United States.

Indigenous, Native American, American Indian, Indian, or Native?

Although these five terms can technically refer to the same group of people, they have different histories, which is a large factor in which words different people may prefer. The terms “American Indian” and “Indian” come from Christopher Columbus mistaking the Americas for India. In the 1960s, the term Native American arose as a more accurate and widely accepted term. However, since America is named after an Italian explorer who was said to have “discovered” the continent, some dislike the term.

Both “Native” and “Indigenous” were used by white settlers to refer to not only people but also plants and animals, but in the 1960s, Indigenous people began to use both terms in a more positive light. Since none of the words are perfect, referring to someone as a word they dislike can cause a lot of harm. The easiest solution is to ask someone which term they prefer, which, for many Indigenous people, will be the name of their Nation. (The words Nation and Tribe are sometimes used interchangeably, but Nation is often preferred since the idea of a tribe has been trivialized by non-Indigenous people, and using Nation highlights the sovereignty of Indigenous people.)

What about in Canada and Latin America?

In Canada, people use “First Nations,” “First Peoples,” or “Aboriginal.” Do not use “Eskimo” unless you are specifically told to by an Aboriginal person. “Eskimo” was used by racist colonizers and implied that the Aboriginals were barbaric and violent. “Eskimo Kiss,” an expression that describes two people rubbing their noses together, also should not be used.

In Latin America, many prefer “indígena” (indigenous), “comunidad” (community), or “pueblo” (people). The direct translation of Indian can hold negative connotations within the comunidad.

What is cultural appropriation? What terms are not appropriate?

Cultural appropriation is taking things from a culture that is not your own, especially without understanding their significance.

Here’s an example: a spirit animal is something deeply sacred within many Nations. It’s also difficult to define as many Nations view and honor their spirit animals differently. The phrase has been used incorrectly by non-Indigenous people and stripped of its significance. Non-Indigenous people take quizzes to find out what their spirit animal is, or see a picture of a sad cat and decide that it’s their “spirit animal.” Doing so demonstrates a lack of understanding of what the term represents, and essentially mocks an important practice in many people’s cultures. Terms like “familiar”, “guide”, or “kindred spirit” are more appropriate.

Other appropriated terms include ones that involve “tribe” (i.e. “hanging out with my tribe”), “totem pole” (“climbing the totem pole”) and “pow-wow” (“let’s have a pow-wow”), when they are used in an inaccurate context. The words “tribe”, “totem pole” and “pow-wow” themselves are not offensive, but when they are used in a way that ignores their history and importance, they can be. If you are interested in learning more, check out the Kojo Institute’s Equitable Vocabulary list.

That’s all my advice for now!

Your favorite logophile (lover of words),

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