Indigenous peoples and why you shouldn’t say shaman, stone age people or Indian chief


Next time you read an article about indigenous people, pay attention to the language used to describe indigenous cultures. I am not merely talking about articles that refer to indigenous cultures as being Palaeolithic or as being Stone Age cultures (yes, two words denoting the same thing, the first pretends to be scientific, and the second has strong links to the use of the word primitive, both are wrong), but rather to the way in which we talk of native communities, and the way they are structured.

Nowadays nobody in their right mind would refer to a Native American woman as a squaw without having a number of fairly upset people after them, yet, to denote the president of a Native American community as a chief is somehow right. A Native American traditional doctor is not a doctor, he is somehow ‘just’ a shaman, and this despite the fact that shamans never existed in the Americas, but rather in Siberia. 

And then there’s the question of referring to an entire indigenous community – depending on where said group of people lives, one will hear terms such as tribe or nation, where the former still has colonial undertones, and the later is more appropriate. Yet, some NGO:s working with indigenous people have started to use the term tribal peoples as a way to distinguish between different indigenous communities; where indigenous has a broader meaning, tribal refers mainly to societies that still follow traditional rules, and who are largely uninfluenced by Western communities. The problem here is that these NGO:s realise the bad in using a colonial term – colonial in that you wouldn’t raise an eyebrow if someone talked about the Yanomami tribe of the Amazon rain forest, but you’d wonder if someone suddenly started to talk about the Soho tribe of London). Western societies and communities are never tribes, whereas indigenous communities in what used to be the colonies somehow lack the right to refer to themselves as communities. By referring to the president of an indigenous community as a chief, and by denoting the doctor as a shaman, the indigenous community is somehow rendered less of a civilisation than our own. By using language, something as simple as words, we promote differences that don’t exist in the first place, and by referring to an indigenous community as Palaeolithic we reinforce the belief of a society that is based on different stages, and who will always, in the end, become a Western society, as “we”, the Westerners, are more evolved, and civilised than “them”.

All bollocks of course, but few people realise how much damage these words can make. 

And the argument that “they call themselves these things” doesn’t hold up in court, unless you yourself is part of a specific community you are disqualified from using offensive terms to describe said community. In other words, you don’t refer to an Afro-American as a n****r or a homosexual person as a fag without it being offensive, consequently a traditional doctor isn’t a shaman – (though if you want to, use the word used by the group in their native language, e.g. waphíya wičháša in Lakota, hatałii in Navajo, sangoma in Zulu, or noaiddi if you’re speaking Saami) .

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