Chief

Catherine Roome President and Chief/Lead Executive Officer of Technical Safety BC explains why she felt it was necessary to change her title.

A few weeks ago, in my role as the president and chief executive officer of Technical Safety BC, I sent an e-mail to our 450 employees about racism and, in particular, systemic racism against people of colour.

I wrote about my hope that the Black Lives Matter movement would present Canada with an opportunity to define what a better world looks like. I also wrote that deeply seated racism in our society includes racism toward Indigenous peoples – the original inhabitants of these lands.

In response, many Technical Safety BC employees from across British Columbia took the opportunity to share their experiences and expressed calls for action and reflection. In particular, I was urged to consider the importance of language and the titles that many of us adopt and use without thinking.

As folks who know me well will tell you, I am a stickler for inclusive language. I often interrupt people – board directors, heads of organizations, politicians and others – if I feel they are using titles for our employees that are outdated.

She sounds like a real joy to work for. I imagine the working environment at Technical Safety BC must resemble something out of Orwell. Her subordinates must live in constant fear of accidentally using the wrong word or committing thoughtcrime.

So to receive constructive feedback on my own use of language made me sit up and take notice.

One particularly courageous colleague pointed out that I was using a word in my title, president and chief executive officer, that represents something deeply meaningful to many Indigenous peoples. It is a word that is honoured and respected in First Nations culture and conveys a meaning very different to organizational leadership.

If I were the President and CEO of a company and one of my employees said something like that, I would respond by pointing out that if he has so much free time on his hands that he can obsess over politically correct terminology then his position is obviously superfluous. Of course, if I were the CEO of a corporation I wouldn’t be hectoring my employees about using outdated titles. I wouldn’t even be wasting my and the company’s time on the latest woke causes. I would be doing my job and trying to make the company as profitable as possible for the shareholders.

I wonder if the particularly courageous colleague was himself a Native American or whether any Native Americans have ever actually objected to the use of the word chief in the title Chief Executive Officer. For matter, I wonder if the word chief actually has any deep meaning to any Indigenous peoples. It is not a Native American word.

The origin of my original title is European. That doesn’t give me a pass. Asking about how racism affects a person and being given an answer means I can choose to listen and do something, or I can stay silent.

To be precise Chief derives from Old French chef or chief which comes from Vulgar Latin capum which in turn is derived from the Latin caput meaning head. When English speaking Europeans encountered the Indians they simply applied this generic word to the leaders of the various tribes or nations they dealt with. It is not a word invested with deep meaning and I wonder whether the use of the word chief to designate the leader of a sovereign polity might not have been somewhat derogatory. If the English settlers and explorers had believed the people they were dealing with to be equals they might have referred to their leaders as kings or princes. But this is a digression.

I have long been a champion for Indigenous rights and reconciliation. Yet I am ashamed to say, the thought had never even occurred to me that the title I proudly held could evoke such a response, or even be viewed as disrespectful to the very reconciliation process that I support.

That might be because the title she proudly held is not, in fact, disrespectful nor would it evoke any response at all from sane people.

So upon reflection, I have changed my title within the organization to president and lead executive officer.

Is anyone’s life going to be improved by Ms. Roome’s decision? Is the life of a single Native American Indian going to be made better, even if every Chief Executive Officer in Canada changed their title? Is Ms. Roome really doing anything to help anyone? No, of course not. All Ms. Roome is doing is making herself feel better about herself and looking virtuous in front of her peers. Going out and providing concrete help to the First Nation communities would require hard work and sacrifice on her part. She would have to give up her high salary and cushy lifestyle. Changing her title costs Ms. Roome absolutely nothing.

It seems to me that all this political correctness, wokeness, or being a social justice warrior, or whatever you want to call it is not really about helping the oppressed or marginalized at all, despite the pretensions. None of these people seem to be at all interested in actually going out and helping anybody. They are not even all that interested in finding out what the supposed oppressed really want or think. Are Native Americans really offended by the use of the word chief? Do they really care if sports teams use American Indian themed names? Who cares? There is virtue signaling to be done?

It seems to me that the woke are more like some middle school clique than fearless crusaders for the oppressed. Like the members of a clique, they have their own jargon and manners to distinguish the cool kids, the in-group from the nerds. That is all this professed concern for the marginalized really amounts to, separating the cool kids from the nerds, the virtuous from the bigots. It is a way for them to feel good about themselves and an excuse to bully the uncool.

Is Ms. Roome and others like her were really going out and helping the oppressed, they would deserve our respect and admiration. Since all they are really interested in doing is showing off what wonderful people they are, they deserve nothing but ridicule.

 

Redskins

Since President Obama has little of importance to do these days, he has decided to enter into a controversy over the name of the Washington football team, the Redskins. This name is reputed to be very offensive to our Native American population and changing this name, and other names of sports teams based on Native Americans is a top priority in the Native American community. Or is it? Actually, it seems that the great majority of Indians are not particularly offended by such names, and even if they are, most Native Americans have far more important things to worry about. I found this interesting story on the subject from the D. C. CBS affiliate, courtesy of the Drudge Report.

The name of a certain pro football team in Washington, D.C., has inspired protests, hearings, editorials, lawsuits, letters from Congress, even a presidential nudge. Yet behind the headlines, it’s unclear how many Native Americans think “Redskins” is a racial slur.

Perhaps this uncertainty shouldn’t matter — because the word has an undeniably racist history, or because the team says it uses the word with respect, or because in a truly decent society, some would argue, what hurts a few should be avoided by all.

But the thoughts and beliefs of native people are the basis of the debate over changing the team name. And looking across the breadth of Native America — with 2 million Indians enrolled in 566 federally recognized tribes, plus another 3.2 million who tell the Census they are Indian — it’s difficult to tell how many are opposed to the name.

The controversy has peaked in the last few days. President Barack Obama said Saturday he would consider getting rid of the name if he owned the team, and the NFL took the unprecedented step Monday of promising to meet with the Oneida Indian Nation, which is waging a national ad campaign against the league.

What gets far less attention, though, is this:

There are Native American schools that call their teams Redskins. The term is used affectionately by some natives, similar to the way the N-word is used by some African-Americans. In the only recent poll to ask native people about the subject, 90 percent of respondents did not consider the term offensive, although many question the cultural credentials of the respondents.

All of which underscores the oft-overlooked diversity within Native America.

I don’t think that I would be too upset by a team called the Whiteskins. I might even root for it, even though I am not much into sports.

Tommy Yazzie, superintendent of the Red Mesa school district on the Navajo Nation reservation, grew up when Navajo children were forced into boarding schools to disconnect them from their culture. Some were punished for speaking their native language. Today, he sees environmental issues as the biggest threat to his people.

The high school football team in his district is the Red Mesa Redskins.

“We just don’t think that (name) is an issue,” Yazzie said. “There are more important things like busing our kids to school, the water settlement, the land quality, the air that surrounds us. Those are issues we can take sides on.”

“Society, they think it’s more derogatory because of the recent discussions,” Yazzie said. “In its pure form, a lot of Native American men, you go into the sweat lodge with what you’ve got — your skin. I don’t see it as derogatory.”

Neither does Eunice Davidson, a Dakota Sioux who lives on the Spirit Lake reservation in North Dakota. “It more or less shows that they approve of our history,” she said.

Generally speaking, people name teams for people and things they admire. That is why you often see teams called Vikings or Bears but never Cockroaches or Liberals. The reason Indian names are used is because people admire the Native Americans as warriors and for their culture.

Redskins primary logo 1982
Offensive? (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Native Americans are at the bottom in just about measure of social and economic progress. Most reservations are located on marginal land with few resources or job opportunities, unless the tribe can attract a casino. Poverty, crime and alcoholism are endemic to many Indian communities and they have to put up with an often corrupt and ineffective Bureau of Indian Affairs. It is likely that most Native Americans have more pressing issues to deal with. Of course solving these sorts of problems is difficult for activists. It is a lot easier to file lawsuits.

In 2004, the National Annenberg Election Survey asked 768 people who identified themselves as Indian whether they found the name “Washington Redskins” offensive. Almost 90 percent said it did not bother them.

But the Indian activist Suzan Shown Harjo, who has filed a lawsuit seeking to strip the “Redskins” trademark from the football team, said the poll neglected to ask some crucial questions.

“Are you a tribal person? What is your nation? What is your tribe? Would you say you are culturally or socially or politically native?” Harjo asked. Those without such connections cannot represent native opinions, she said.

Indian support for the name “is really a classic case of internalized oppression,” Harjo said. “People taking on what has been said about them, how they have been described, to such an extent that they don’t even notice.”

Harjo declines to estimate what percentage of native people oppose the name. But she notes that the many organizations supporting her lawsuit include the Cherokee, Comanche, Oneida and Seminole tribes, as well as the National Congress of American Indians, the largest intertribal organization, which represents more than 250 groups with a combined enrollment of 1.2 million.

I suppose that Suzan Shown Harjo has a better grasp of the concerns of her people than they do themselves. I think she should save for efforts for real concerns.

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