Native American Protocol:
On Use of the Title ‘Chief’
Many informal social organizations have sprung up in the 1990s and these past three years among descendants of Native Americans and people who want to be Native American. Most of these organizations do not have leaders who are themselves members of federally- or state-recognized tribes, and the vast majority of these organizations are not registered with the TN Secretary of State or with the federal government as a 501(c) nonprofit organization. In their goal of appearing to be more authentically Indian and traditional, and to compensate for their organization’s small size and lack of direct Native American cultural relationship, their leaders have taken on the traditional title of ‘Chief’ for their own self-aggrandizement.
Tennessee’s oldest Native American organization is the Native American Indian Association of Tennessee (NAIA), founded in 1983. It was also the primary writer and organizational sponsor of the first Commission of Indian Affairs legislation passed by the state in 1983. NAIA is the only statewide 501(c)3 non-profit organization with an all-Indian Executive Board of Directors elected by its membership. Its elected leaders are its president, vice-president, secretary, treasurer and board members.
The only other Native American Indian organizations in Tennessee that were also started in the 1980s are the Faraway Cherokees/Native American Intertribal Association of Memphis (est. 1984), and the Alliance for Native American Indian Rights (est. 1989). Both of these organizations also use standard Euro-American business titles for their organizations’ officers, acknowledging that they are not tribes with the right to use traditional titles.
Traditional use of the title ‘Chief’ is an honor restricted to those leaders of Native American tribes who have received the title through tribal selection or inheritance. It is not appropriately used by leaders of social clubs, and is not used by recognized Native American organizations (e.g., the National Congress of American Indians, the Native American Rights Fund, Native American Indian Association of Tennessee) to denote their leaders.
In Tennessee there are no federally- or state-recognized tribes. All tribal organizations were “removed” from the state in the Removal of 1838 as ordered by President Andrew Jackson. Tribal leaders and traditional elders, some with the title ‘Chief’, others called ‘Chairman’, do come to Tennessee from time to time, and it is appropriate to address them by this title when they visit.
Use of the title ‘Chief’ by persons who are not tribal business or traditional leaders is considered offensive. Non-Indians addressing individuals who are not federally- or state-recognized tribal leaders or elders by the title ‘Chief’ is also considered offensive to traditional Native American people.
In sum, it is not traditionally appropriate to address any person who resides in Tennessee or the leader of any Native American organization in the state of Tennessee, regardless of their position of leadership, as ‘Chief’.
If you have any questions regarding actual tribes and tribal leadership, please feel free to contact NAIA in Nashville, or the United South and Eastern Tribes in Nashville, on the web at www.usetinc.org.