"The Potawatomis didn’t have a word for global business center"?

In advertising, Chicago, language, native languages, potawatomi by Adrienne K.14 Comments

I was waiting for my connecting flight at Chicago O’Hare, and spotted this advertisement on the opposite side of our gate. Close up on the text:

It reads:

“Chicago is the Potawatomi word for onion field. Apparently, the Potawatomis didn’t have a word for global business center.”

This is an example of the use of Indigenous language and imagery that many people wouldn’t think twice about, or find any inherent issues with. But let’s look at this a little deeper:

  •  The use of past tense. It’s not “The Potawatomis don’t have a word for…” it’s “The Potawatomis didn’t…” Implying that the Potawatomi no longer exist or are using their language. 
  • The implication that “Indians” and “Global Business Center” aren’t in congruence. Which is assuming that Natives are static, unchanging, and unable to be modern and contemporary. “Potawatomi” and “Onion Field” are fine together, because American society associates Indians with the natural world, plants, animals, etc. But there is definitely not an association between “Potawatomi” and “Global Business”. 

But, in reality, of course Potawotomis still exist today, are still speaking their language, and do have a word for Global Business Center (or multiple words…).

Language is constantly evolving, adapting to new technology (remember when google wasn’t a verb?) and community changes.  I remember reading a long time ago in one of my Native studies classes about the Navajo Nation convening a committee to discuss how one would say things like “computer” or “ipod” in Navajo language, in an effort to preserve language and culture and promote the use of Navajo language among the younger generation.

In fact, here’s an awesome video of a guy describing his ipod in Navajo, complete with concepts like “downloading” (there are subtitles/translations):

To imply that Native peoples wouldn’t have the ability to describe a “Global Business Center” reeks of a colonialist perspective (we must “civilize” the savage! show him the ways of capitalism and personal property, for they know not of society!). Native peoples have been trading and communicating “globally” for centuries, long before the arrival of Europeans.

Thanks, Chicago, for giving me one more reason to strongly dislike your airport, because all the canceled flights, lost luggage, overnights in airport hotels, and 10 hour delays (all true stories) weren’t enough.

(Thanks to Hillary for taking the picture, since my sidekick pales in comparison to the iphone)

  • That is infuriating. I live in a Tibetan refugee camp and I hate how so many people assume that there are no modern Tibetan technology words. All Tibetans are floating buddha-like monks, right? No, for god’s sake. The nomads in Tibet have nicer cell phones than I do! I’m the only one of my friends lacking an Iphone! It’s sad for me that in a lot of the schools out here in exile I have to use words like “Computer” “Internet” and “Blog” even at universities, when in Tibet I was able to use Lokle, drawa and zintri for those same respective words. Tibetans in Tibet, (similar to the Navajo convention) have developed entire HTML and technology dictionaries. In Tibet, compromising and using English or Chinese words is shameful.

    People need to stop and realize that just because people aren’t white Europeans doesn’t mean that they are backwards barbarians living in the stone age. They also need to remember that adapting doesn’t have to mean “eurocizing”. (I’d say westernizing, but in the case of Native culture, Europe is to the East of America, so I think it’s a pretty innacurate word!)

    Of course there are native words for “business center”…grumble.

    Finally, I should leave with an example.

    When I left Tibet, I knew words for computer, blog, internet, three different words for arrest, several words for gun, and bomb (depending on the type of bomb) but I hadn’t learned the word for “Trust”. (Blame living in a big-brother dictatorship) Language grows and adapts with it’s situation. Native Americans, like Tibetans, live in a technological world, and the language has both intentionally and naturally adapted to match. A hundred years ago, English definitely didn’t have a word for mp3 player either!

  • How about Potawatomi words for ethnic cleansing, cultural genocide and land appropriation? How about recognising that without violence against the original inhabitants of that onion field, there’d be no global business centre in Chicago, Clear Channel? Idiots….

  • This is really shameful. I live in Chicago, travel out of O’Hare occasionally, and I had not seen this. It looks like a partnership between the city government and ClearChannel created this ad. They need to get some heat for this. I know I am just some random person posting on your blog, and I am not Native myself, but this is really pissing me off!

  • Here, I fixed it for them.

    Thanks for the iPod video; that was really nifty.

  • This is a wonderful post, thank you. And that video made my night.



  • Rob

    Another great posting, Adrienne!

    Some additional thoughts here:


  • Great post! How utterly annoying and infuriating. I would love to sign a petition to have this taken down as it is very offensive. Someone who is interested or me could start a petition on change.org. What are everyone’s thoughts?

    I have the book – A Dictionary of the Ojibway Language by Frederic Baraga. In this book it says that Chicago is a Cree word that means – “from, chicag, or sikag, a skunk, a kind of wild cat, word, which the local term makes: chicagok.”

    I lived in Chicago for a mere 3 months but couldn’t stand that city. Its way too fast paced for me and it was a very oppressive place to live. I like how the Cree word describes Chicago. 😉

  • ugh how disgusting. i would definitely sign your petition, if you make one!
    also, ipod video was fantastic!

  • Boneheaded airport advertising aside, that ipod video was great! It reminded me of hearing descriptions of modern technology in Icelandic (which is a language mostly unchanged for the last 1000 years plus). Kennings and portmanteaus can describe just about any concept, and they’re probably present in every language.

  • I’m in for the petition! I LOATH advertisements like this. And what’s worse, when I throw a public hissy fit over them, usually whoever I’m with looks at me and says ‘What do you care anyway, you’re white?’ Which is quite possibly the WORST thing you could say to me because it’s an assumption based off of my pale skin and green eyes, when the truth is that my Cherokee grandfather married a German/English girl, and their daughter married a Irish/Italian boy, and had my twin sister and me. The flippant judgements people make based off of a glance is revolting. Furthermore, telling me to ‘get over it’ because I LOOK white, and because my heritage is mixed, rather than solid Native blood is just another way of smoothing history over. I don’t understand that. If I go out drinking on St. Patty’s day, everyone tells me to live up that Irish heritage. But if I try to learn about my Native heritage, or honor it in any way, people (non family members) tell me that I’m grasping at the past and trying to ‘be different’. It makes no sense to me.

  • The ad is in bad taste, I agree, but I think you misunderstood what they were getting at. I think what they’re trying to say is that if the Potawatomis had had a word for “global business center” back when Chicago was founded, the city would have been named that word or phrase instead of “onion field.”

    It’s a lame attempt at humor, handled poorly. They should have seen the minefield they were stepping into.

  • Andrew, I think everyone understood the joke. We just didn’t think it was funny- and ‘a lame attempt at humor, handled poorly’ has never, ever, ever been an acceptable reason to engage in casual racism or cultural appropriation. (Okay, actually, in reality, this reason has been accepted a lot. But it shouldn’t be.) Just because they weren’t trying to be offensive doesn’t make their actions okay. They need to be called on such behavior.

    Also, salixmirabilis, you totally made it better. And still funny! Look at that!

  • I realize this is a bit old, but I’m writing the company an email anyway. I’ll let you know if anything comes from it.