Did I ever tell you about the four years I spent in prison back in the late 1990s?
Well, actually, it was just two hours on Thursday afternoons as a volunteer with the Native men’s group at Nebraska State Penitentiary in Lincoln, Nebraska.
I could gussy up the experience and say I was teaching inmates. But mostly I was just hanging out. Many prisoners, particularly those who’ve been in a while, are starved for new faces and happy to get some fresh conversation.
Sometimes I’d talk to people about serious issues. Other times we’d just shoot the breeze. One day while inside, I was talking to a guy. Nothing serious. I don’t even remember about what. He asked something of me. I said, “You got it, chief.”
Now here’s the thing. Growing up in New York City, “chief” was (and still is) in the same class of words as “boss” and “buddy.” They’re all informal monikers one man might casually give another if you don’t actually know each other’s names, or as a temporary nickname even when you do. It’s a sign of modest respect and affection in the moment. In a typical New York City context, they’re all completely harmless words and have zero racial connotation.
But the moment “chief” slipped out of my mouth in prison, I immediately remembered that of course this particular word has a very heavy connotation for Native people, particularly men.
His entire demeanor changed in a heartbeat. We’d been happy, joshing around. Now he stared right through me.
“Don’t you ever call me that again,” he said quietly, anger flashing in his eyes. Continue reading How The Washington Post Embarrassed Itself Badly