Those who find “chief” problematic consider its use beyond the Native American community a form of cultural appropriation that diminishes the term’s significance: The Indigenous Corporate Training blog notes that the salutation “hey, chief” has “the potential to trivialize both the hereditary chief who has the power passed down from one generation to the next along blood lines or other cultural protocols and the elected chief who is chosen by band members” of respective Indigenous nations. “Being called ‘chief’ can make people feel very uncomfortable, especially if they are not chiefs,” it says.
Sure, some object to the cultural appropriation argument on the grounds that “chief” is not an Indigenous word. It traces to French, and before that, Latin, borrowed by English long ago. However, this misses that “chief” has taken on a culturally specific usage among some Native Americans. The head of the Cherokee Nation (one of three federally recognized Cherokee nations), for instance, is titled “principal chief.”
Yet this remains a tricky case. Reasonable minds will, after all, differ on how far we’ll go to resist the natural process of meaning change that words undergo: The Indigenous Corporate Training site also cautions that “Pow wows are social gatherings for ceremonial and celebratory purposes and are conducted under strict protocol. Using this phrase to refer to a quick business meeting denigrates the long, cultural significance of the pow wow.” But one could argue that “pow wow” is now two different terms, one with the original meaning and one that simply refers to a get-together or assemblage, in much the same way that “conclave” has expanded beyond its Catholic meaning and has now taken on a more catholic meaning, referring to any kind of conference. Believe it or not, even the word “thing” began as referring to a meeting.
More to the point, though, because “chief” is an English word and has such an array of meanings in English beyond the one referring to Native American leaders, the cultural appropriation argument does become somewhat fragile: “Chief of police” and the chief reason for doing something — among the ordinary and long-entrenched uses of this word — are now to be classified as inappropriate because there happens to be another use that describes the presiding rank in certain Indigenous nations?
In other words, one might ask: To what degree can we say that the word “chief” belongs to Native Americans? Ireland’s prime minister is called the “taoiseach,” which translates to “chieftain.” JoAnne Bass is the chief master sergeant of the Air Force — the top enlisted person in that branch of the military. If using “chief” in her title can be considered offensive, what else might we have to classify? What about “tribe”? Like “chief,” in American culture, “tribe” is often used in reference to Native American nations: The federal Bureau of Indian Affairs, part of the Department of the Interior, refers officially to sovereign “tribal governments.” Some Indigenous nations — the Narragansett Indian Tribe, for example — formally designate themselves with the word “tribe.” Yet that word, too, has a wider scope: The ancient Roman polity was divided into units called tribes; Matthew 19:28 discusses “the 12 tribes of Israel.”