No, no, no, Mr. Santorum!

In a classic “open mouth, insert foot” moment, Rick Santorum, CNN commentator and former U.S. Senator, claimed that there was “nothing here” in the United States before Europeans arrived, and that “there isn’t much Native American culture in American culture.”

C’mon Rick, seriously? One wonders if you played hooky, failed miserably or napped through your American history class. But I’ll tell you what; I’ll offer you a short history lesson and introduce you to someone who can help you deal with your ignorance. His name is Benny Wayne Scully, a Native American whose forefathers and rich cultures were here – I repeat, were here – before Europeans set foot in America.

“I don’t know if there’s a culture in the United States whose language, symbols, and traditions get appropriated more than that of Native Americans,” wrote Sully recently in Medium Digest. “And for some reason, no one is fazed by it.”

“I may be biased — after all, I am a Sicangu Lakota Native. After centuries of forced assimilation and federal laws preventing us from practicing our culture, for some reason many Americans now feel comfortable coopting Native culture. Even the most progressive people may have said something to a Native friend or coworker that was offensive to them.”

Now Rick, if you happen to come across this piece, a little background will be beneficial, so get out a pencil and paper.

Native Americans, also known as Natives, American Indians or Indigenous Americans, are the indigenous peoples of the United States. More than 570 federally recognized tribes live within the US, about half of which are associated with Indian reservations.

Part of that history is The Indian Removal Act signed into law in 1830, by President Andrew Jackson. It authorized the president to negotiate with Native American tribes for their removal to federal territory west of the Mississippi River in exchange for white settlement of their ancestral lands. It should be pointed out here that thousands of Black slaves owned by Native American tribes were also forced to move.

Now without doubt, the rest of this piece will stir up some angst among many of whom responded with outrage and bitter sarcasm when the former Washington “Redskins” pro football team buckled under pressure and renamed itself “The Washington Football Team.” Now this brings us to the language we use when communicating about Native Americans, for example to the word “Chief” – as in the Kansas City “Chiefs” football team – since we’re talking about sports.

A while back, before COVID-19 infiltrated our lives and lifestyles, I befriended a fellow at a nearby coffeehouse, Richard Red Bull Rodrigues, a full-blooded Sioux Indian, born and raised in Montana. Now as I write this, I’m wracking my memory trying to recall if the word “chief” was ever used in my communication and if so, if I offended him. The following advice from Wayne Sully sent a chill up my spine.

“Calling a Native American “chief” is offensive,” says Sully. “It’s a nickname that reduces us solely to our race. The fact that it is such an honorable title reserved for leaders of tribes makes it so much worse. Chiefs were chosen either by tribe or inheritance and is the proxy for the tribe. I don’t run my tribe, so don’t call me chief.”

With that eye opener, the next time I see him, I fully intend to seek Mr. Rodrigue’s feedback on what I need to know in communicating with and/or about Native Americans. Until then, let’s go a bit deeper into Native American language.

“I’m not ‘Indian,’ I’m Native American, Indigenous, or First Nation,” stresses Sully. “After 600 years of being incorrect, our government has made “American Indian” an official term for Natives. In fact, the official agency that oversees Native land management is called the Bureau of Indian Affairs, but I know a lot of Natives who don’t like being called Indian because that isn’t who we are, we’re not from India.”

Generally speaking, “American Indian” and “Native American” are OK to use. But the best term to use in a given situation usually comes down to preference — not your personal preference, but the preference of the person you’re speaking with. As a rule of thumb, call them by their specific tribe and let Natives call each other Indian. “Now this should be a no-brainer, but “redskin” and “Injun” are never OK words to say.”

“Even if you are a fan of Washington’s football team, “redskin” is a slur,” cautions Sully. “And even if you hear two Natives talking and one of them says it, that does not give you permission to say it. If you ask any Native, I’m sure they’ve been called either one of those several times during harsh moments of racism.”

Another slur that has become colloquially acceptable is “savage, “wrote Sully. “it’s a lot more innocuous than you’d think but, due to the racially loaded context of the word, it can be extremely offensive and triggering to a lot of Natives. I don’t really care if you say something that someone did was “savage, bro,” but try to refrain from saying that specifically to your Native friends — that’s when it can get personal and offensive.”

So where are we nowadays on age-old costuming practices typically dressing in Native American clothing during Halloween or Thanksgiving?

“Seriously, try dressing up as any other race on Halloween and you’ll end up in hot water, “says Sully. “But for some reason, non-Natives can take Pocahontas — a 17-year-old who was kidnapped and forced into a marriage with a much older European man — make her “sexy,” call it “Pocahottie,” and wear that to a Halloween party, and no one bats an eye. I smell a double standard!”

In the end, we should be thankful to you, Rick, for your faux pas. Why? Well, November is Native American History Month but because of you, we have a five-month head start on learning a lot more about Native American history and culture.

© Terry Howard is an award-winning writer and storyteller, a contributing writer with the Chattanooga News Chronicle, The American Diversity Report, The Douglas County Sentinel, The BlackMarket.com, co-founder of the “26 Tiny Paint Brushes” writers’ guild, and recipient of the Dr. Martin Luther King Leadership Award.