Is using the word ‘tribe’ or ‘spirit animal’ offensive to Native Americans?

White People Asking Questions is a series where White people submit questions and they are posed anonymously to the public for a 24-hour period and are answered anonymously.

Oftentimes White people have questions about themselves, People Of Color (POCs), or awkward situations, but are afraid to ask them due to public backlash. On the other hand, POCs get asked these questions everyday and are burdened with the emotional labor of constantly explaining the same concept to people that will never relate because it is not their experience.

But just because you can’t relate doesn’t mean you don’t want to learn and do something about it. Amirite? As Angela Davis said, “You have to be intentionally and actively anti-racist.” 

Therefore, this series is having the conversation on how White People can be ACTIVE in dismantling racist systems and not passively watching. What is unique, though, is this series is set up to be answered primarily BY White People FOR White People teach each other about their privileges. 

POCs are always welcome to participate in dialogue, but this also creates a space for POCs to watch White People do the work in educating each other. Many times our communities are so disconnected that we don’t know the conversations happening amongst other communities. This is also meant as a resource for POCs to direct White People to for difficult concepts.

How Not To Travel Like A Basic Bitch wants to acknowledge and thank everyone who took on the emotional labor of sending in these responses. We include all responses that are directly relevant to answering the question. We don’t filter or edit, but we do correct spelling and grammatical errors. Highlighted at the bottom in red are the main takeaways.

Question:

When I hear/see people (mostly White people) using the words “tribe” or “spirit animal”, I get this gut feeling of “Ugh. Please don’t use those words. They are not yours.” I have been calling people out on this (as non-confrontational as I can without giving any room to back down), but is this something Native people would want me to do? Am I overstepping? I want to be an ally…I’m not sure I know how. This is something I have been wanting to ask someone about, but I don’t know who toask or where I would find the answer.

 This question was directed at Native people so below are Native responses as their feedback is most important. All other responses follow.

Native Responses:

We don’t call ourselves “Tribe”. Many find it an offensive/degrading term and undermines our sovereignty as a Nation. It shows the difference between folks living in Canada and the US. My community was forced up here and we’re trying to get people to use Nation, which is how we were viewed when we signed treaties. Tribes is an anthropology term which plays into the narrative of primitive people.

Plains Native American here. I really dislike when White people use tribe in reference to their squad/circle because I feel like it White washes Indigenous people and their cultures and traditions. Tribe is not Native American specific either. I would also like to point out that there are indigenous people all over the world who are fighting their own governments to gain recognition, rights, etc. Yes, there are similarities in each plight because of colonialism but they are not interchangeable. Second, the use of “spirit animal” is not even completely connected to ALL Native American, First Nations, or Alaskan Native people. I am a Plains Native American and I have never heard or been taught that within either of my tribal affiliations or family connection that we have “spirit animals”. There are significant animals within each of my tribe’s cultures but never views or categorized as “spirit animal”. I do find offense because I know that there are SOME tribes within North America that do have spirit animals. Even if I do not know their ceremonies to receive their spirit animal, I know there is a degree of sacredness so I speak up and have to explain this.

Spirit animal is a perpetuated stereotype that ALL Natives have one when ONLY SOME DO. Those that do is because it is rooted within their tribally specific cultures and traditions that again, are not interchangeable to be applied or even assumed that ALL Natives do. I get offended by the blatant ignorance and the perpetuation of this stereotype that most people are clueless they are stereotyping.

Yes the misuse of this term is so tiring and the constant fight against these people is tiring. I’ve seen so many people say to Natives expressing their concern to “use our voices”, but we have already for the longest time. We need privileged people to speak up on these issues, too, and to keep your people in check because they listen to you. It’s emotionally draining to always advocate for your own existence and I would love if White people would take a stand.

We call them Nations here. The use of the word tribe just shits on the struggles tribal nations have had just to be recognized. I can’t talk on spirit animals although ther are medicine wheel teachings that use animals for certain teachings, but when people go on about how their grill cheese is their spirit animal, it’s tiring, too. We’re over it, you’re not funny. Just stop.

CALL IT OUT! And thank you.

¾ Native from Canada/USA, ¼ White person here. “Nation” definitely has a more positive connotation. Tribe seems to have a double standard attached. It’s primitive when it comes to tribal governance and bylaws and can be easily dismissed as primitive, yet can be used as a marketing strategy to make you feel like you belong when used by settles. It really bothers me, as people are dying for their ways of life to be recognized and not demonize others by playing around with words because it’s fun. People will probably say words don’t matter, but they do when they have been used in a violent way such as “I’d like to fuck the savage/tribe/Indian out of you” which I have heard, and they have been used as a means of justifying genocide over generations. Am I offended? Yes. I am also exhausted from having to pick my battles and educate.

I don’t enjoy when people drag me into their internet arguments regarding the word “tribe” because I don’t feel that strongly about an English word to go through all that emotional labor. Also “tribe” vs “nation” doesn’t bother me and that’s actually the first time I’ve heard that. They’re both English words so I prefer oyate (nation) over both. But if others say it is offensive, I will change my own terminology.

Native here. I roll my eyes whenever I hear the use of the word “tribe” or “spirit animal” in the neoholistic sense or when I see it on shirts. I once had a wasicu (White person) tell me a native shaman at a retreat in Israel helped her discover her spirit animal was a squirrel. Then she stares at me like she wanted my validation. It was awkward. In regards to other people calling it our when they see it, I support that! Personally I am exhausted having to explain this stuff to non-Natives all the time. So when I see someone else telling them so I don’t have to, I feel relieved. Every time I point out someone’s offenses, they act wounded and attack me back. That gets exhausting. So if another White person says, “Hey this isn’t OK.” I’m like “Oh, thank you, I can sit this one out.”

I really appreciate this because this topic has been recently helping me continually develop my own Native American identity. While I will state that since we are talking to a White person, I used the tribe terminology for ease of not confusing them within my response, but I will be challenging them to change their use of tribe(s) to Nation(s) from now on. I would also like to talk on that the use of “tribe” or “Indian” is purely a personal thing. My family has used the term “Indian” in various ways and sometimes in reference of who they are because of the generation they are and the time they grew up in and also that can be used for the term “tribe” for my older relatives. They rarely take offense of being called Indian, referring to themselves as Indian and also being of a tribe. I’m also a Plains Native American of Montana and we use “tribe” as a way to teach how to distinguish Canadian First Nations people from Native American people. But I will be changing this within myself.

I guess the gut feeling of knowing it is wrong should be enough. Being full-blooded Native, I would never think to ask another race if a word used often by them is appropriate for me because that just seems like common sense. We don’t use words spoken without knowing what it means most often. Simply ask and don’t start in by straight out talking about your spirit animal or how you are connected to being Native when clearly you are not. That’s annoying. Just start a good dialogue first.

As a Native American woman whose family has deeply suffered at the hands of colonization through residential school and systemic racism in Canada, I get so bothered by the use of “tribe” and “spirit animal”. My family was not ALLOWED to practice their traditions, way of life, language, etc. for generations. And now there are these folks (I don’t care if it’s well-meaning or not) just throw these words around like they won them and know what they mean. I am a grown-ass woman (37) and I am just now working to learn about my peoples’ culture and traditions because growing up, it was not something that my family participated in. The forced assimilation at the hands of the church and the Canadian government was/is strong, but we are stronger. There’s power in words and there is hurt in words.

I’ve been reflecting a bit more on the topic and I feel like ties to indigenous nations and tribal affiliation is important to me because of the grandpa fighting in WWII. When people came back they had to disenfranchise and sever all ties to their Nation in order to get their veterans services and pension. My grandpa chose to keep his Indian status and grind harder versus relinquish his culture and identity. For a long time people had to disenfranchise to get a degree or become a lawyer or doctor.

Something I haven’t seen yet is that some prefer to be called ‘band’. For example, mine is the Pechanga Band of Luiseno Indians, yes we call ourselves Indians. Love the discussion, though. It always irks me to see people calling their squad their “tribe”. I also had a girl recently contact me and ask me for my permission and guidance to perform a rain dance for the fires in California. Her intention was to be helpful but she wanted to perform a mock ceremony with Native permission.

Challenging non-Native people to begin seeing us as Nations and not tribes because tribe is very ingrained in colonialism and racial derogatory views. Thank you!

Non-Native Responses

I won’t speak for Natives and determine whether the use of these words is offensive or not, but I just wanted to chime in and reinforce your feelings! Just given the history between White people and indigenous folks, I (personally) would find it to be distasteful and somewhat ignorant to throw around that vocabulary so casually when referring to something in their own non-Native life.

I have a friend from South Africa ask me not to use the word tribe unless I’m referring to someone’s actual specific tribe, and I was immediately like DUH. The challenge is that this word has become pretty ingrained in conversations around sociology/culture/ even politics since 2016. I hate the world tribalism every time I hear it cause it’s so gross to use the idea of tribe in such a derogatory way. But it’s challenging to find words that communicate the ideas behind this word usage effectively. I’ve come up with (depending on the nuance of the conversation) team, community, side, camp (but I feel like this one might still evoke the same imagery?)

I am an African-American and I try to be sensitive to words that may be offensive to other cultures. I just stopped using it myself and challenge others that use it with questions like, “Do you even know what a spirit animal is?” That’s usually where the conversation ends because I don’t even know what a spirit animal truly is.

I don’t get to say how to be an ally to Indigenous people, they tell me. So I follow educators. I read, research, and if the consensus is that it’s OK to say, “Cut that shit out,” then that’s what I will do. FYI, totally guilty of doing that. This is what happens when you are so busy stealing that you never develop your own culture.

I feel ridiculous that I’ve never questioned myself on the use of these words! I’m guilty of using the term “tribe” to describe my group of friends that I feel comfortable with and “spirit animal” to discuss an animal that I love and respect. I look forward to seeing the views from Native people and adapting my verbiage accordingly. Thanks for sharing.

When I talk about spirit animals, I make sure to say that spirit animals are sacred to SOME Native people. I don’t want to perpetuate the stereotype that all Native people have spirit animals in their culture. I appreciate this being clarified for me.

I worked at a vegan restaurant and a fellow White girl went hardcore preachy about this to a few coworkers and my Native American coworker was like, “Hey, don’t really need you to speak up for me/my people” and she was all, “OMG so sorry I always thought you were Mexican.” After watching that ally-ship turned horribly racist, I have wondered how to go about this correctly as well.

If I’m debating if it’s offensive or not, or if it’s mine to say or not, I just don’t. Pretty simple.

Mexican-American girl here. I once had a work supervisor ask me if my family of 9 acted like a tribe. He was surprised at how big my immediate family is and was definitely poking fun and using “tribe/tribal” in a derogatory way. It felt like he was trying to make some kind of weird anthropological observation. I felt like he was seeing me as an animal. I don’t think he had malicious intent or anything, but it was super uncomfortable. And he was also POC.

This is so so good! Weirdly this weekend I had someone I was with use “spirit animal” and it made me super uncomfortable, too! I chewed on it for awhile, not knowing how to address it. Now I know!

(White girl here) Ugh I use these two terms in my regular vocabulary. I have never stopped to think of the offensiveness of them. I’m sorry and I will adjust accordingly and call out my fellow White people when I hear/see it. Brb, going to throw out my ‘glitter is my spirit animal’ tank right now.

Fellow White girl. I can’t speak to answer this question, but I strongly corroborate the feeing. My old job used to have monthly and weekly “pow wows.” Calling it this always made me uncomfortable until I finally spoke up to my (also White) manager and it was changed to just “meeting” and “huddles”. Words are important. I’ve always believed this.

Oh no, I actually used spirit animal in a post this week. Now I feel a bit sick, I’ll be totally transparent. I used it because I see it so frequently on social media that I popped it into my hash tags. It’s very frustrating to realize I’ve been a dick by doing that. Social media makes it hard to navigate language when your choices ensure you being seen or not. I’m sorry though, won’t do it again.

I never use that word, obviously, but I have seen the phrase ‘Travel Tribe’ thrown around a lot. Also seems like most people are echoing my thoughts about using, for example, ‘Cherokee Nation’ instead of ‘Cherokee Tribe’

People use ‘Tribe X Name’ in their brands. Sometimes it’s intentional, but sometimes it’s not. In my experience, it’s good to look at a Nation or tribe’s government site or cultural orgs, which is often a good guide in how they desire to be referred to.

(White person) I was wondering about how maybe White people could use the word ‘Patronus’ (yes, from Harry Potter) instead of ‘spirit animal’? Or is the idea of a ‘Patronus’ also offensive because it’s such a similar idea? Not sure, just a thought. (Native response) This is ridiculous because you’re equating a real culturally significant aspect of Native American Nations and identity to a fictional mythological wizarding thing from a book turned into a movie. I’m not sorry if this offends you. One is real to who they are and their people while the other is and has never been real.

It’s like when people said stuff was “gay”. It’s really bad when things lose meaning. I even think of tat when people say a person is “kooky” or they got “gypped” or “jewed”.

White Canadian here. I didn’t learn until late in high school and university about residential schools and the last one closed in like 1990. Canada has a really fucked up history and it has taken a lot of personal effort and research to learn how to be sensitive to our indigenous peoples because it hadn’t been in public education for so long. There are so many unique groups in Canada, but since I live on treaty 7 Blackfoot land, I have learned the most about the Blackfoot First Nation. I’ve used “spirit animal before” and am so grateful to activist Twitter and Instagram for educating me out of it. There are so many different groups and different practices but it’s never cool to take meaning away from any custom by using these phrases out of their intended context. I’m curious if it’s the same consensus on using “pow wow”?

White person here. I think it’s so important to recognize when important aspects of people’s cultures are being trivialized. I’ve seen a push recently to have people start using the phrase ‘Patronus’ rather than ‘spirit animal’ as a way of being more mindful of Native practices. It seems like a nonsense way of rebranding the same behaviors. I think it’s really important to discuss why using the words are harmful and not just telling them not to use them.

In my opinion the word “tribe” is more complicated. Globally there have been many tribal migrations that people still identify with. Different cultures and religions use the word for so many different conversations. As a White person, I feel it is always my responsibility to try and have conversations about how harmful co-opting Native culture is. I’ll go down sounding like a nag. White culture is not constantly under attack.

I’ve seen this heavily used for group event merchandise such as “Bride Tribe” and its made me cringe so much. But I hadn’t seen any backlash about it so I wasn’t sure if I was just being offended FOR POC, or if there was something there to discuss. However, I have been a user of ‘spirit animal’ so this should be a good learning opportunity for me.

THANK YOU for clearing this up!! I’ve been feeling uncomfortable lately when seeing “tribe” on social media, but I wasn’t sure how to respond. I really appreciate you taking the time and I definitely learned something.

Whilst reading this I literally had a duh moment! As a White woman, I try to look at the language I use but I have definitely used both terms. Not to cause offense to anyone but through lack of awareness and understanding. Thank you for sharing this question, I will definitely be checking myself up on this going forward and challenging friends/family and colleagues, too! Sorry, I realize I said a lack of understanding which is wrong. I’m an educated person who should know better. My language/cultural appropriation and awareness of what I’m saying is what I need to address!

I have such a hard time with all of this. Being White and an English teacher and literally studying how words are made up and changed all the time. How definitions of words are constantly influx. It’s hard for me to see, personally, how people care so much about words. Especially as one person pointed out, it’s the English translation, not even the true words. But I know that that’s also my White privilege showing, in that I’ve never really had to worry about words being used against me or oppressing me or anything like that. So I know it’s hard for me to just sit here and say ‘but words don’t mean anything’ because to some people, they do. And it’s not my place to tell them they shouldn’t mean anything to them of their culture.

Takeaways

Do not use the word ‘spirit animal’ if that is not in your culture

Not every Native American Nation has beliefs in ‘spirit animal’

The word ‘tribe’ in the context of Native Americans is offensive as it demeans their status as Sovereign Nations. The word ‘Nation’ is more appropriate, even if you may see them use the word ‘tribe’ amongst themselves, it doesn’t mean non-Natives can or should.

Do not use ‘tribe’ as any sort of marketing tool as it is a play on the colonialist word used to oppress Native American Nations.

If you’d like to ally yourself, call it out if you see it in the context of appropriating the word in North American culture.

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One thought on “Is using the word ‘tribe’ or ‘spirit animal’ offensive to Native Americans?

  1. Thank you!! I have been finding myself getting more and more prickly when people say things like: your vibe attracts your tribe. But, I haven’t been able to really process or articulate why. I also don’t have a group of First Nations People I can sit and discuss this with, while I am travelling in the UK so I really appreciate reading all these different perspectives.
    Again this blog has helped us all be a little kinder.

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