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Eight Ways to Support Indigenous People, Part 1

totem pole with title of article: "Eight ways to support Indigenous people, part 1"

Today is Indigenous People’s Day in my state and 13 others, plus 130 cities.

More white Americans have woken up since my childhood. I grew up celebrating Columbus Day, learning about the “explorers” and the myths about Thanksgiving being a happy occasion for Native Americans, sitting “Indian style” in school, and playing “cowboys and Indians.”

But we have so far to go to acknowledge the genocide, displacement, discrimination, and other terrors done to indigenous people all over the world. DiversityInc lays out the biggest current challenges for Native Americans:

  • High levels of poverty and unemployment

  • Dire living conditions and homelessness

  • Lower high school graduation rates

  • Shocking levels of violence against Indigenous women, girls, and Two-Spirit (gender-nonconforming) people

  • Violations of voting rights

  • Continual exploitation of natural resources on native lands

  • An alarming lack of health equity

  • Erasure and cultural exploitation

In the workplace, many Indigenous employees feel the lowest levels of belonging of all demographic communities.

So what can we do to switch this narrative? Tomorrow I’ll focus on how workplaces can recruit, retain, and support Native American employees. But for starters, here are eight ideas for all non-Native people:

1. Show respect, learn, and don’t make assumptions.

For example, some American Indigenous people prefer “Native American” or “Alaskan Native” while others like “American Indian.” Listen to how people describe themselves. Learn about the 550+ tribal affiliations in the U.S. and understand they each have unique languages and cultural customs. Whenever possible, name a person’s tribal affiliation instead of using general terms.

woman typing on a laptop

2. Find out whose land you are on and honor it.

You can search your address in this website. Every piece of the United States was acquired illegally. Learn about the history of the land you occupy and learn from the tribes that still hold it sacred. Here’s my learning: the song I once loved and taught to elementary schoolers, “This Land Is Your Land,” completely excludes our history with Native Americans. When Jennifer Lopez sang this song at Biden’s inauguration, it was a bitter blow without any land acknowledgement, inclusion of Native Americans, or any recognition that “this land” was actually stolen. (Dig deeper into “This Land Is Your Land” here.)

3. Fix your language.

When you say things like “lowest person on the totem pole,” “let’s have a pow wow,” “too many chiefs,” “circle the wagons,” “spirit animal,” “find your tribe,” “Indian giver,” etc., it disrespects Native American culture and traditions. Also, learn the right words for those culture and traditions…for example, one of my clients is a member of the Cowlitz Tribe. She taught me to say “regalia” instead of “tribal clothing.” Regalia is a powerful mode of self-expression that blends historical and modern dress.

Native American regalia (chief headdress)

4. Amplify Native voices but do not tokenize.

Members of all marginalized communities know when you’re just trying to look diverse. Make authentic relationships with tribal members and amplify their voices by using your platform to share their stories. Celebrate their triumphs. Do not speak on their behalf; let them speak for themselves. Don’t just invite tribal members to do land acknowledgements today or during Native American Heritage Month…do it all year long.

Native American woman at work

5. Learn, unlearn, and educate yourself and others!

Most references to Native Americans in academic texts use the past tense! Many kids are not aware of current Native cultures and challenges. Attend public in-person Native celebrations and educational events. (I’ll never forget my school field trip to a Native longhouse.) Read Indigenous authors, watch movies, listen to podcasts like “This Land” by Rebecca Nagle, and learn about the history of Native peoples and what the tribes in your local area are doing now.

Native American woman holding a curtain

6. Take action! Advocate for change.

Learn about the Doctrine of Discovery and push to get it overturned. Get involved in the anti-mascot movement to change racist sports mascots (toolkit here). Contact your city, state, and Congress to get Columbus Day changed to Indigenous People’s Day throughout the country. (President Biden formally recognized the day in 2021 but we need legislation to make it a federal holiday.) Support Native candidates for office and advocate for bills and candidates that benefit Native communities.

7. Support Indigenous people’s rights organizations, businesses, and artists with your money.

You can start with this list, but also look for your own local organizations. Buy Native whenever you can.

8. Avoid appropriating Native American culture.

Wearing what you think is a Native American themed costume on Halloween or to a sports event is dehumanizing to Native communities. Native American regalia is deeply spiritual, personal attire and should be honored. If you want to honor Indigenous culture, buy art, food, or other items directly from Native artists.

Stay tuned for Part 2, where I’ll focus on what workplaces need to do to support Native employees.

Let me know if you could use help with inclusive communications and leadership…it can be done!

I help professional services firms avoid BORING and boost employee engagement, productivity, and readership. I translate technical, complex, and lackluster language into accessible, dynamic, story-driven text. Get known in your industry through outstanding thought leadership content. Walk your talk through outstanding, effective communications with your employees and clients.

Fertile Ground Communications LLC is a certified women-owned business enterprise, disadvantaged business enterprise, and emerging small business.


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