What’s in a word…?

Photo by POOYAN ESHTIAGHI on Unsplash


By Mahshid Hager

You have all heard it before. Expressions such as “I finally found my tribe” or “It feels so good to be amongst the women of my tribe” or “We should get back to our tribes.” You have, right? If you know me and have spent any amount of time with me, you certainly have heard me use the word “tribe”. I use it all the time. Hence the title of my blog.

When I was first searching for just the right name for this blog, I was hoping it would convey a feeling; a feeling of coming together and belonging, a feeling of sharing and being seen. “Tribe” seemed to convey all of those things, at least to me. This may have something to do with my own upbringing, which I have often described as “tribal”.

I spent the first 7 years of my life living in a house with my parents, my paternal grand parents, my maternal great-grandmother, two uncles and one aunt.  My dad’s aunt and her family lived in the house across the street and his uncle and his family lived just down the street. I couldn’t go far from my front door without running into a family member. My great-grandmother and my grandmother took care of me and my cousins during the day when parents went to work. My grandfather’s garden had several fruit trees and he planted vegetables which provided some of the ingredients for family meals. The women of the family cooked food together and shared the bounty. My childhood memories are filled with family gatherings, birthday celebrations, children running around, feasts fit for 20 to 30 people, every week.

My grandfather would often reminisce about his growing up years in Fashand, a small farming village in the Alborz province near Tehran. He would ask me to join him in picking black berries from the tree in the garden and he would always tell me that nothing in Tehran grew as well as in Fashand. “The air is cleaner and the soil is richer there” he’d say. My maiden name is Fashandi (translates to “From Fashand”), so I have always felt like I come from a line of people, a tribe, if you will, who belong to a very specific place on this earth, Fashand. It maybe naive of me, but I wanted to convey that feeling in this blog.

Pictures of Fashand, Iran Curtesy of @fashand on Instagram

About a month after I launched the blog, I was assisting at a Somatic Experiencing training in Burlingame, California. During a lunch break, I was sitting with one of my colleagues, who is also a very trusted friend and asked her if she had seen my blog and if she had any feedback for me. Now, I should start by saying that I specifically asked this friend for feedback because I respect her opinion and have known her to be gentle but honest with her perspective. She said she really liked the blog, understands what it’s mission is and is excited to see what it will develop into, but she had one feedback that may be hard for me to hear. She said she had waited to see me in person to talk about this with me. See why I appreciate her?

She said (and I’m paraphrasing): “I’m not sure you should be using the word ‘tribe’. That word has a history with Native American people and I’m not sure it’s ours to use.” Ooof! That was rough to hear. I had put so much thought into this blog. I wanted it to be absolutely perfect. Every decision, from the overall look, to the font to each picture used and the first few blog posts…everything was meticulously examined and selected with care, including of course, the name “The Tribe Of Us”. The idea that any part of it could be offensive to someone felt like a punch in the gut! Had I been across from anyone other than my dear friend, I’m sure I would have gone into a significant shame spiral. My friend was kind and gentle and stayed present with me as I tried to process what she had just told me. I think we ended things by me saying something like “Wow, you’ve given me something to think about. I’m going to have to do some research and find out more about this.”

At the time, I couldn’t have anticipated that my conversation with this friend would send me on a six-month journey of learning and self discovery, but it did. First I looked up the definition of the word tribe:

A social division in a traditional society consisting of families or communities linked by social, economic, religious, or blood ties, with a common culture and dialect, typically having a recognized leader.” – Oxford English dictionary. 

I found out the word tribe comes from Latin and the origins of it can be found in the Middle Ages when it was used to refer to the three main political devisions in Ancient Rome. It was also written in the Bible to describe “The 12 tribes of Israel”. So, the word itself has been in use by people other than Native Americans.

Then my search lead me to an online course to learn about racial issues in America. The course covered a wide range of topics, including how to become better at talking about racial issues, the idea of privilege, who holds it and why and structural racism.  In this course I also learned about cultural appropriation and explored the difference between that and cultural exchange. Cultural exchange suggests a duality, a give and take between cultures. Cultural appropriation refers to a taking or a theft of aspects of a culture (often by the dominant culture) without permission or consent.

I have spoken to numerous people who are all well versed in matters of Native American history and culture, racial issues in America, structural racism, appropriation and social justice issues. My question for them has been “Is my use of the word “tribe” offensive to the Native American Community?” The feedback I have received has been varied.

One person’s view was that “We all came from one tribe or another” and he saw no issues with my use of the word. Another one confidently said “No one in the Native American community would take offense.” Yet another suggested “If in doubt, don’t use the word. Better to be safe than sorry.” And another person noted that “Tribes have existed all over the world, including the Middle East and Africa.” His suggestion for me was to examine my relationship to the word and explore if I’m maybe romanticizing the way of life of indigenous people.”

And so I have read and interviewed and watched and explored….but I still feel like I’m at an impasse. Changing the name of the blog is not out of the question, but if I’m completely honest, giving up the use of the word tribe, still feels like somewhat of a personal loss. My use of the word doesn’t exactly feel like a “theft”. Because of my history, it feels more like it is a part of me and my culture as well. Can I honor my past and still be respectful of and sensitive to the Native American people? I want to explore what’s mine to use and what’s not mine to use. And just because feel connected to the word, does it automatically mean I get to use it? How does the larger culture perceive the word and my use of it? I have a sense that there is more to unearth and discover. 

I am writing about this because I want to be open and honest about my process. I set out to share all of me in this blog and this journey is very much a part of me and my current learning. I am also writing about this because I want o invite your feedback. What do you feel/imagine/think when you hear the word “tribe”? What does it remind you of? Do you have any articles or other resources for me to explore? Do you have any personal anecdotes or experiences that would be relevant to this conversation? I would love to hear from you.

I as I continue through this journey, my intention is learning and understanding. I will keep you posted on my progress.

Please be in touch.

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