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News > Commentary - Did they really just say that?
Did they really just say that?

Posted 11/16/2011   Updated 11/16/2011 Email story   Print story

    


Commentary by Patricia Sabine
Native American Heritage Month committee


11/16/2011 - HANSCOM AIR FORCE BASE, Mass. -- Have you ever been involved in a conversation where someone makes a comment that you find to be inappropriate? This type of behavior takes place more than we realize.

The Air Force conducts special observances in order to enhance cross-cultural awareness and promote diversity. These observances not only help us recognize the achievements and contributions made by members of specific racial, religious, ethnic and gender groups in our society, but they also promote mutual respect, understanding, teamwork, harmony, pride and esprit de corps among all groups.

In promoting mutual respect, it is our responsibility to avoid comments or terms which could be perceived as insensitive or even offensive to those around us.

As we celebrate Native American Heritage Month it's important to provide some insight into some commonly used phrases or terms which could be deemed as offensive to Native American Indians.

How many times have you heard the phrases "climbing the totem pole" or "low man on the totem pole?" In corporate America, these comments may be used to either refer to someone who is advancing in his or her career or to someone's position in the organization.

When making these remarks people fail to realize that the meanings of the designs on totem poles are as varied as the cultures that make them. These vertical sculptures may recount familiar legends, clan lineages or notable events. Some poles celebrate cultural beliefs, while others are mostly artistic presentations. It's a myth whether or not there was a specific hierarchy in importance to images carved in totem poles.

Another phrase you may have heard once or twice is "on the warpath." This comment is usually made to refer to someone preparing for or engaged in war or an aggressive pursuit. In actuality, "on the warpath" was the literal path to war taken by Native American Indians when travelling to an enemy's territory to engage in battle. For some, the expression could mean that a person is exceedingly angry and is inclined to take some hostile action against another person.

The last phrase that is often inappropriately used is "let's have a pow-wow." The word pow-wow is actually derived from the Narragansett word powwaw, meaning spiritual leader. A pow-wow is a social gathering for ceremonial purposes to honor American Indian culture. For some Native American tribes, a pow-wow is a spiritual retreat, which includes sacred ceremonies. Using this term out of context to refer to a meeting or a quick get-together with Native American Indian coworkers actually trivializes their beliefs and traditions and could be taken as offensive or disrespectful to their culture.

When conversing with others always remember that the comments you make, while meant well, could be taken as inappropriate, insensitive and sometimes even offensive to the people around you. By refraining from using the phrases mentioned above you will help us create a more inclusive environment that will allow for us to promote mutual respect, understanding, teamwork, harmony, pride and esprit de corps among all groups.



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