Native American Heritage Month

November is Native American Heritage Month, a month of recognition for the significant contributions the first Americans made to the establishment and growth of the U.S.

But all too often people will use phrases or slang that are disrespectful to Native Americans. Jacqueline Vorpahl, PhD, a LifeStance Health Psychologist in Massachusetts and a member of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma highlights some to eliminate from the workplace or any setting.

Saying someone is “low man on the totem pole”

Why it’s harmful: To imply that somebody has less power or influence than others by saying they are “low man on the totem pole” is not only dismissive of some Native religions in the Northwest, but is also inaccurate. These carvings portray stories of lineage, mythology and important events. Totem poles are symbols of prestige in a community. And often, the figure portrayed at the bottom is the most significant.

Describing an informal get-together a “powwow”

Why it’s harmful: Powwows are significant, meaningful cultural celebrations in many Indigenous communities. They allow people in the tribe to feel a sense of community and to honor their heritage in a society that often marginalizes them. At these events, people dance, sing, eat, socialize, wear traditional regalia, and celebrate their culture. An impromptu chat at the watercooler is not a “powwow.”

Calling out to “circle the wagons”

Why it’s harmful: “Circle the wagons” translates to “the savages are coming and we are about to be attacked”. Hollywood movies about settlers in North America moving west to invade and inhabit the traditional territories of First Peoples contributed greatly to the formation of this phrase.

Telling someone to “hold down the fort”

Why it’s harmful: This is a very common phrase in the corporate world. It stems from the settlers and soldiers building forts to resist the stereotypical North American “savage” when they were “on the warpath”.

Asking someone “how Indian are you?”

Why it’s harmful: Unless this information is being collected for use in adopting or carrying out a special program, plan or arrangement designed to eliminate discrimination of certain groups of individuals, it is insensitive and intrusive to ask. To learn more about Native American Heritage Month, visit

Authored By 

LifeStance Health
LifeStance Health

LifeStance is a mental healthcare company focused on providing evidence-based, medically driven treatment services for children, adolescents, and adults.