Inclusive Language Series: Indigenous Terms

This week in the Inclusive Language Series, we’re aiming to bring awareness to Native terms that have culturally significant meanings and to correct ways in which these terms are used inappropriately by non-Native people. November is also Native Heritage month, so please make it a priority to learn, unlearn, and honor Indigenous peoples and traditions.


A Native term for individuals who identify both as male and female.

  • For non-native people, it is inappropriate to refer to yourself as two-spirit.
  • Instead use terms found such as Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, or any other LGBTQ+ term that represents your gender or sexual identity.

Spirit Animal

These are spiritual guides that take the form of animals often viewed as sacred in tribal cultures.

  • Non-native people appropriate the term to relate themselves to an animal, inanimate object, or person and draw parallels between the person and object’s characteristics. For example, saying that a sloth is your spirit animal because you are slow, lazy, and/or sleepy.
  • Instead use terms like patronus, kindred spirit, reason for living, muse, guide, or familiar.


The leader of a tribal society or chiefdom.

  • The term chief is not of indigenous origin. It comes from French, and Latin before that. It is how the term is being used that dictates whether or not it is problematic. In general, terms like CFO (Chief Financial Officer) are fine. But if you are using the word “chief” as a pejorative or slur, then it is not okay.
  • Instead use terms like boss, captain, executive, director, manager, or dignitary.

Totem Pole

Pieces of wood carved with a person’s totems. It is a tradition particular to Native and Indigenous people on the Northwest Coast. They tend to convey a family or tribe’s history.

  • Avoid using phrases like “low on the totem pole” or “climbing the totem pole” as these are forms of cultural appropriation. These phrases are also inaccurate because in some First Nation communities being lower on the totem pole is a higher honor.
  • Instead use terms like climbing the corporate ladder, the lowest rung on the latter, least significant, or promotion


Social gatherings for ceremonial and celebratory purposes conducted under strict protocols.

  • Avoid using the phrase to refer to a quick business meeting or informal social gathering as this is a form of cultural appropriation.
  • Instead use terms like meeting, gathering, or huddle

We hope by reading through the above terms you have been able to learn more about culturally significant terms as well as identify different phrases you can use to avoid appropriating Indigenous cultures.

There is one final acronym we wanted to mention in this article as we believe bringing continued awareness to this issue is extremely important.


Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls, and 2-Spirit: The National Crime Information Center reports that, in 2016, there were 5,712 reports of missing American Indian and Alaska Native women and girls, though the US Department of Justice’s federal missing person database, NamUs, only logged 116 cases. A red hand over the mouth symbolizes the Indigenous people whose voices go unheard.

Resources and ways to learn more

  • Check out the Indigenous History at UW bulletin boards that will be posted throughout the residence halls during the month of November.
  • Indigenous Student Center (ISC) located at 215 N Brooks Street. Email ISC at for more information.
  • Campus sites were built over ancient villages and effigy mounds. Learn more about the effigy mounds here.

Upcoming Holidays and Observances

October 31:  All Hallows’ Eve (Halloween), a celebration observed in a number of countries on the eve of the Western Christian feast of All Hallows’ Day. It begins the three-day observance of Allhallowtide, the time in the liturgical year dedicated to remembering the dead, including saints (hallows), martyrs, and all the faithful departed.

October 31:  Reformation Day, a Protestant Christian religious holiday celebrated alongside All Hallows’ Eve (Halloween) during the triduum of Allhallowtide in remembrance of the onset of the Reformation

October 31–November 1 (sundown to sundown): Samhain, a Gaelic festival marking the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter

November is National Native American Heritage Month, which celebrates the history and contributions of Native Americans.

November is National Family Caregivers Month, proclaimed in 2012 by former President Barack Obama. It honors the more than forty million caregivers across the country who support aging parents, ill spouses, or other loved ones with disabilities who remain at home.

November 1:  All Saints’ Day, a Christian holiday commemorating all known and unknown Christian saints (In Eastern Orthodox Christianity, the day is observed on the first Sunday after Pentecost.)

November 2:  All Souls’ Day, a Christian holiday commemorating all faithful Christians who are now dead. In the Mexican tradition, the holiday is celebrated as Dia de los Muertos (October 31–November 2), which is a time of remembrance for dead ancestors and a celebration of the continuity of life.