Considering Names and Titles During Native American Heritage Month


We are well into autumn of 2021, and in many parts of the Northern Hemisphere, this is a time of harvesting and harvest celebrations. It’s also a time that some of us get easily distracted into watching professional sports such as football and the baseball playoffs. For Native American/Indigenous People in our society, this time of year can spark painful reminders of the trauma inflicted on their ancestors and culture at the hands of the European settlers and the U.S. and state governments. Hearing the fans of a sports team with a Native American nickname and mascot sing a fake “Indian” war chant as they gesture a “tomahawk chop” only adds insult to the injury. So does the re-telling of the story of the “First Thanksgiving” as a deceptively harmonious portrayal of the Wampanoag People feasting with the Pilgrims that glosses over the massacres and cultural destruction of the original habitants of this continent. Indeed, the holiday we observe on the fourth Thursday of November is referred to as Thanks-Taking and is observed as a National Day of Mourning by many Native Americans and their allies.

Names matter. What we call things matters. The Native American Committee of SEIU Local 1000 (NASEIU) hopes to shine a light on the experience of our members and coworkers of Native American heritage and spread awareness of issues that continue to harm the community. A small step in spreading awareness and stopping further harm was taken on June 30, 2021, by Karla Nemeth, the Director of the California Department of Water Resources (DWR). In an internal email to all department employees, she wrote, “Today DWR is creating a more inclusive workplace by embracing an important change ­— the time for which has more than come. As of tomorrow, July 1, 2021, DWR will be actively removing the word “chief” from employee working titles. The term “chief” has important meaning to indigenous cultures and is reserved for respected tribal leaders.  As such, it will no longer be used at DWR as a working title for any of our employees.”  The word “chief” in position titles has been replaced by “Manager,” and the “Office of the Chief Counsel” is now the “Office of General Counsel.” 

Some have pointed out that the word “chief” is not of Native American origin; it comes from Latin and French. Indigenous peoples had and their communities continue to have, their own titles for their leaders. The website explains the context of the problem with this title: “Native leaders were highly disrespected by the USA. So, calling someone ‘chief’, is just a way to continue that disrespect. Being called ‘chief’ carries with it the same insulting, belittling sting for a Native man as being called ‘boy’ does for African American men.” (  No one is claiming that DWR was being intentionally disrespectful by its now-former use of chief in position titles, but taking this action is in alignment with its mission and policies addressing diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Learning this was eye-opening to many employees of DWR, and now, NASEIU is sharing this news with the SEIU Local 1000 community. Members and the community at large are invited to watch this space in the coming weeks to learn more about our Native sisters and brothers in our workplaces, our union, and our community.

To learn more about the people that lived since time immemorial on the land we now call California, check out the Digital Atlas of California Native Americans on the website of the Native American Heritage Commission, a part of the California Natural Resource Agency, at