The Power of Your Words: Using Respectful Land-Related Terminology
By Wynnē Weddell & Faren Rajkumar
Travelers are often called to put our experiences into words, whether we blog about it, post on social media, maintain a website, or create videos. Sharing stories of our adventures is how we can honor memories and celebrate this beautiful, chosen life of wandering and exploration.
It’s worth contemplating the power of the specific words we use to describe places, people, culture, and land. Just like mindful speech in conversation, mindful terminology is an important practice when writing and posting on any platform. Words have the power to convey respect, honor history, show support for the underrepresented, and create a small wave of awareness that could grow into real-world change.
Grounded in respect for Indigenous land and history, here are some contextual examples of terms we encourage the nomad and outdoor adventure community to avoid using:
Problematic sentence: “We got lost in the wilderness this weekend.”
Although it can evoke earthy, free-spirited emotions, this term actually signifies the irreversible schism that occurred during colonization. The divide between Mother Nature and humans is cut deeper when we call natural places “wilderness”, contrasted by the “civilization” of our modern homes and cities, and the term conjures up the idea that humans are separate from nature. Native people have inhabited every part of this continent since time immemorial, therefore the term wilderness is misleading.
Instead, use these words: traditional lands of the “__”, forest, mountains, outdoors
Problematic sentence: “Time in the great outdoors was much needed after quarantine.”
This catchy phrase echoes in every National Park, and seems to celebrate the bravery of humans who leave the comfort of home to explore outside. But calling these spaces “The Great Outdoors” can be traced back to the white cis-male colonial legacy of those privileged men who decided to build trails, put up signs, and commemorate parks to profit from the new lands they had grown obsessed with and taken from first nations peoples.
Problematic sentence: “Creating the National Parks was the wisest decision of America.”
This is certainly a difficult one to eliminate in practice and is more neutral in some contexts. That being said, North America has been home to Indigenous peoples before written records and before this piece of land was mapped out and named by colonizers.
Instead: So-called America, Turtle Island
Problematic sentence: “When I got into vanlife, I finally found my tribe.”
The word tribe has been used throughout history by European colonizers to describe the first inhabitants of the lands they colonized, and has been used by the U.S. Government in the context of savagery to force first nations people to use the term in order to gain legal recognition.
The word has now become trendy to describe any like-minded people/group of friends. This is highly problematic, as the word has become glamourized and dismisses tribal nations’ political, legal, and social circumstances when used in improper contexts and especially by non-Natives.
Instead: crew, squad, family, circle
Problematic sentence: “Hiking in Utah’s desert playground is my favorite pastime.”
When referring to recreational lands as a playground, it shows disrespect for the land and those who call it home. To indigenous peoples, nature is not a playground.
“Squaw Lake”, “Squaw Valley”
The use of the term s**** is considered offensive, derogatory, misogynist and racist. It is never okay.
Finally, A Word On Indigenous Land Acknowledgements
Problematic Example: “This weekend, I climbed in the Santa Catalina mountains.”
We encourage referring to mountains, trails, lakes, areas by their original names, and not the names given to them throughout colonization. Not acknowledging these lands by their original names facilitates the erasure of culture.
Instead: “This weekend I went climbing at Babad Do’ag (traditional name for these mountains of the Tohono O’odham nation who call these lands home).”
We hope you found this guide informative & helpful. If you have any questions, please feel free to email us at email@example.com, or DM us on Instagram @diversify.vanlife!
Photos courtesy of Wynnē Weddell & Faren Rajkumar.