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Woke city council removing ‘chief’ from top positions to avoid offending Native Americans

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Officials in Duluth, Minn., are dropping the title “chief” from two top positions in the city over concerns that the term is offensive to Native Americans and others.

As reported by MPR News, the City Council is planning to consider an amendment to the town charter changing the names of “chief administrative officer” and “chief financial officer” to simply “city administrator” and “financial director,” respectively.

“We are dropping the name ‘chief’ with intention and with purpose so we have more inclusive leadership, and less language that is rooted in hurt and offensive and intentional marginalization,” Duluth Mayor Emily Larson told reporters in explaining the reason for the changes.

In May the Duluth charter commission supported the name changes unanimously. Afterward, Larson asked for a unanimous vote from the city council recommending the changes “to more accurately reflect the city that we are, and the city that we are becoming.”

MPR News notes further:

Larson said the discussion to change the position names started internally with concerns that staff raised. The city’s charter — the document that grounds the city’s work — is made up of very masculine language, Larson said. 

When a gender is identified, it’s always “him.” City staff wanted a more “people first” and “gender-neutral” language “that can better reflect the work we do now,” Larson added. 

Alicia Kozlowski, the Duluth community relations officer and a member of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, said that “chief” is often used as a derogatory term against Native Americans.

“I think there are other titles that we have the opportunity to use to steer away from language that may put people down based off of their race or culture,” she claimed, noting that city officials wanted to get ahead of the issue before it became one.

More changes to titles with the term “chief” are expected, according to Larson. She said city officials are now looking into changing the title ‘Police Chief’ and ‘Fire Chief.’

The mayor said that Police Chief Mike Tusken and Fire Chief Shawn Krizaj are both open to changing their titles, but she said that city officials have to consider the fact that ‘police chief’ and ‘fire chief’ are terms that are intertwined with a host of related professional organizations and affiliations.

MPR News noted that it’s “unclear” if other cities in the state are considering similar changes to their titles. The site noted that a spokesperson from the Minnesota League of Cities said officials there were not aware of any other communities where ‘chief’ in job descriptions has become problematic.

For her part, Larsons said dropping ‘chief’ is wise considering there are other titles that can be utilized without causing any negative connotations, “and to do that in a way that is more inclusive, more reflective, more accurate, and more modern.”

No one was quoted in the story explaining how it was possible to derive a negative connotation from the word ‘chief” as it appeared in official Duluth city job descriptions, or how it is offensive to Native Americans when used in that manner.

It seems a stretch to claim that a Native American could be offended by the title of “chief city administrator” when the term has no tribal associations or undertones.

But apparently, the City of Duluth is not the first to consider it.

An op-ed in Canada’s National Post calls the idea absurd.

“It would be nice to think that the Toronto District School Board’s (TDSB) decision to stop using the word ‘chief’ in job titles would mark a low point in the long history of bureaucrats tripping all over themselves to signal impeccable virtues. We have our doubts,” the paper’s editorial board wrote in October 2017.

While noting that the term ‘chief’ is used as a racist slur against Native Americans does happen, “dropping ‘chief’ from job titles isn’t a serious response. It’s tokenism,” the editors noted, adding:

The word “chief” is not of Indigenous origin. It’s [sic] comes from French, and from Latin before that. This is not an issue of “cultural appropriation.” Indeed, it’s not even clear Redbird (or anyone else) objected to its use at the TDSB. This seems to be an action taken to ward of some future hypothetical offence — not just tokenism, then, but pre-emptive tokenism.

Jon Dougherty

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