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Offensive Language

Examples of commonly uttered idioms that are offensive

  • ‘Low man on the Totem pole’ or ‘climbing the Totem pole’ are phrases that have been used to imply something about the status of a person. The fact is that there is no hierarchy implicit in a Totem and therefore no ‘bottom.’ The phrases are insensitive because it misrepresents the very important symbolism contain within the Totem.
  • ‘Indian giver’ is a very derogatory term that implies that someone is demanding the return of what they previously gave away. This speaks to the differences in perspectives between settlers and the original inhabitants regarding land use and ownership. Settlers assumed that when they traded their trinkets for the use of vast tracks of land that they would own it forever. Land ownership in this regard was a foreign concept to the original inhabitants. This difference of perspective led many settlers to wrongly assume that Aboriginal people didn’t honor their word.
  • ‘Hold down the fort’ is a phrase that is sometimes uttered when leaving someone in charge. But the original meaning implies that people need to protect themselves from ‘savages.’ Similarly, ‘Circle the wagons’ implies the ‘savages’ are coming. Both are derogatory and not appropriate to use in any situation.
  • ‘Let’s pow wow’ is sometimes said in place of ‘we need to get together and discuss it’ or ‘let’s have a meeting.’ The fact is however that a pow wow is a social gathering for ceremonial purposes. To refer to it otherwise trivializes the event and is offensive.
  • ‘Too many chiefs, not enough Indians.’ This common idiom has been used to communicate a situation where there is a surplus of people giving orders (or otherwise leading) as compared to following them. The fact is that Aboriginal forms of governance and leadership are extremely diverse and generally misunderstood by mainstream society. The phrase is insensitive because it misrepresents how people are valued within Traditional societies.
  • ‘Indian summer’ or ‘Indian time’ are phrases that imply lateness. The fact is that in many Aboriginal paradigms time is seen as more circular than linear. Misinterpretation of this perspective has led some to wrongly believe that Aboriginal people don’t value time or are not punctual.

Common questions that may be offensive

While there may be ‘no such thing as a stupid question,’ some questions will sharply identify a person’s biases and knowledge deficits. Remember that tone and vocabulary determine the context in which an exchange of information occurs and can readily imply disdain.

Avoid: Is your teepee/igloo cold at night? Is that your real hair? What’s with the costume? Do you know what a dishwasher is? How native are you? Can you speak to animals? Do you have any peyote?
Try instead: Are there any forms of Traditional housing still being used in your community? I like your hair, is it a Traditional or contemporary style? Can you share the significance of your Traditional regalia? Do you have any questions about how to operate this brand of dishwasher? Do you identify your ancestry with a particular Nation?

Terms to avoid

Chief. Unless you know you are speaking to a hereditary or elected chief, it can be very insulting to a person of Aboriginal ancestry.
Squaw. This is extremely derogatory and objectifying, as its original meaning is believed to denote female genitalia. “Hey squaw” is equivalent to “Hey vagina.”
Tonto, Nanook, Pontiac, Pocahontas, etc. While these people or characters may be relevant to a select few groups of Aboriginal people, their use as nicknames for Aboriginal people is very offensive and serves to perpetuate stereotypes.
Also: Savage, wild Indian, Redskin, chug, wagon burner, jackatar, pie face, skimo, etc.


What is said in the academic environment may be subject to review by the corresponding administrative body. Action will be taking to correct blatant expressions of discrimination in the MUN community. Please encourage an atmosphere where multiple perspectives are shared and discussed in a respectful way.