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Watch Your Language

Tom Arviso Jr.

The field of journalism is a colorful one, especially when it comes to covering the people and cultures of the world. Here in the United States, the culture that seems to be the most misunderstood by reporters and editors is the Native American people. That’s because what most of these journalists learned and know about Native Americans probably came from watching old John Wayne westerns on television. This is evident in the choice of words and terms used when writing stories about Native Americans.

The most offensive term, used to address Native American women, is “squaw.” This word came from French fur trappers and means female genitalia. Another is “redskin,” which is the equivalent of using the “n-word” when addressing a person of Native American ancestry. The word “chief” is often misused when addressing tribal leaders — a chief is a person who has earned his or her distinguished honor by displaying strong leadership skills within his or her specific tribe. But not all Native tribes have chiefs. Some tribes have a chairman or chairwoman, president, and principal chief. It is disrespectful and insulting to call someone a “chief” when he or she is not.

Read “The Reading Red Report,” a content analysis of Native Americans in the news produced by the Native American Journalists Association and NewsWatch. [PDF]

The authors found that “the best stories simply reflected good-quality and fair-minded reporting; writing and editing applied to Native America. They treated Native Americans as people rather than historical figures.

Often, though, attempts to summarize the history of U.S. relations with tribes slipped into bland generalizations because reporters lacked knowledge of federal Indian law, tribal histories and local geography.”

For help on what words are best to use when, try these excellent resources:
Language and usage overview related to disability issues
Latinos in the United States; words and facts to know
Terminology related to covering gay and lesbian issues, plus contact listings for various organizations
Covering South Asia and the South Asian diaspora

It is most appropriate and respectful to identify a Native American person by their particular tribe, band or pueblo. I am of Navajo heritage and would rather be known as, “Tom Arviso Jr., a member of the Navajo tribe,” instead of “Arviso, a Native American or American Indian.” This gives an authentic description of my heritage, rather than lumping me into a whole race of people just like African-American, Asian American or Hispanic, which is too broad of a term and not generally used to identify someone unless absolutely necessary.

Also, the use of American Indian and Native American are both basically correct, as Native people use both. American Indian is the more modern term used but the Native American Journalists Association endorses the use of Native American as being the most appropriate, especially when covering a story.

It is important to always be aware and respectful of a person’s culture and heritage when you are writing about them. If you are not, then your story or broadcast is basically untrue and inaccurate, and you are adding to the longstanding ignorance of non-Native media as well as perpetuating stereotypes of Native Americans. Most importantly, though, you will lose the respect of the Native person you are writing about as well as those who are aware of your ignorance.


Tom Arviso Jr. is the publisher and editor of The Navajo Times, the largest Native American-owned weekly newspaper.

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