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Words Can Hurt

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July 10, 2015

Teachers and parents who discuss Native Americans, past and present, need to be aware of their language.  Our American vocabulary is full of stereotypes of Indians – we may not even be aware of using many of them, and erroneous images and prejudicial biases are implanted in non-Indian children.

Partly as a result of this backlog of unthinking language, Indian children may have a tough time in and out of the classroom.  We can help by being aware of our own use of stereotypes – and by avoiding those words.


Sitting Indian style and walking Indian file. Present day Indians sit in chairs and walk with their friends and family just as everyone else does.  Young children don’t make the distinction between past and present.  We don’t describe people as sitting or walking in African-American style.

Running around like wild Indians.  There are better ways to describe inappropriate behavior.

Indian giver. Meaning someone who gives and then takes back.  There are better descriptions than this stereotype.



Native Americans, Indians, or what shall we call them? Some people prefer to be called Native Americans since the term “Indians” came from the early belief that visitors had reached India.  Some people don’t care.  Find out what the tribal name is and use that. Or call them “people.”

Braves and warriors.  These terms continue the concept of Indians as being fierce and dangerous.  Squaw is inappropriate in all circumstances; the word has sexual connotations in some cultures.  Papoose: this word means child in only one language; why not say baby or child?  Indian princesses and sons of chiefs: a disproportionate number of Indians are described this way in stories.  That’s like characterizing present day people as daughters of the governor and sons of the mayor – very few of us are. Medicine men and shamans: say doctors or religious leaders.  In the past and present, Indian doctors treated – successfully – a variety of physical, psychological and emotional ailments.  Shaman is an anthropologists’ word which originally came from the Sanskrit.  By the way, people sing and say prayers, they don’t chant.  If the singing sounds like chanting to you, that’s your inexperienced ear.

Team names like “Braves,” “Warriors,” “Redskins,” “Indians,” and so forth.  These are used to imply ferocity and unrestrained violence just as team names like “Sharks” and “Eagles” do.

Teepees, wickiups, wigwams and hogans. These words mean specific kinds of houses in specific languages, and they aren’t interchangeable.  Take the trouble to find out the appropriate word in the language of the people you are studying, or just say house. (Not hut.)

War-whooping. Please flatly discourage this activity.  If it was used, it was in warlike situations.  We tell kids – do you know what kind of Indians make that noise?? No – what kind??  Indians who watch too much television!!

Indian myths and legends. If you refer to the creation and morality stories of your own religion as myths and legends, go ahead!  It’s not appropriate to have children make up their own Indian myths and legends, unless you have them making up Bible stories and stories from the Torah and Koran.

The same is true for naming ceremonies.  Occasionally teachers have children select “Indian” names as a part of an Indian study unit.  In contemporary American culture, naming remains a formal religious ceremony, or at least a permanent decision involving registration with a government entity – getting a birth certificate.  It was the same in Indian cultures.  No individual named him/herself without outside help.

Indian stories were not all charming little animal tales for children.  They were told for adults as well as children, often to pass on values or as cautionary tales.  Some of them are very bawdy.  Indian superstitions: it’s always the other guy who is superstitious.  Don’t call individual beliefs “superstitions” even if you don’t believe them yourself.

Language: Some people think all Indians speak Indian.  There were six major language groups in the United States and all six are represented in California.  Neighboring groups might speak languages as different as Chinese and English.  Many people were bi- and tri-lingual.  Smoke signals and sign language.  These were used by some tribes but there seems to be no evidence of them in California.

Wandering and roaming.  These terms suggest what animals do.  Human beings travel to see relatives, go hunting, go for food (as to the grocery store) or go to admire the scenery.

War bonnets and war paint.  Feathered head dresses which were worn under some circumstances by some Plains Indians are called in the American vernacular “war bonnets.”  Many other feather head dresses had ceremonial significance and were very different.  Face paint was used by many people for dance ornamentation and for other reasons.  Patterns were specific to the activity.  No one went around all the time with a painted face.

Tomahawks and spears.  The tomahawk is a particularly vicious weapon which was introduced by whites to Indians in New England.  There is no excuse for incorporating it in any study of Native Americans, except as an historical horror.  Spears were used for animal hunting and perhaps warfare before the bow and arrow was invented, about 500 A.D. in California.  Styles of bows and arrows were very different in different places.  Bow and arrow making was time consuming and demanding.  Children didn’t make their own bows.  An adult relative made them.  Children – boys – hunted small game when they were old enough, usually with wood-tipped arrows.

We realize how difficult it is to find appropriate Native American-related activities for children.  But we urge you to look for activities which are within the capability of children.  It is demeaning to Indians to suggest that children can “make baskets,” “prepare acorn mush,” or “do Indian dances.”  These were adult activities which took considerable physical and intellectual ability; to suggest that children can do them is to imply that the Indians of the past and preset were childlike.  They weren’t and aren’t.



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