Ten Things You Don’t Know About American Indians
See also Teacher/Parent Resources for what to say / what not to say ideas! See below for other articles.
10 Things You Don’t Know About American Indians Apr. 9, 2014 By Braudie Blais-Billie
There are many misconceptions when it comes to modern American Indians and the way we identify ourselves in society. As a Seminole Indian woman, I’ve had my share of “rain dance” jokes and uncomfortable conversations.
These stereotypes stem from inaccurate portrayals in popular culture that were never properly challenged. They establish a limited perception. Movies, television shows, mascots. There’s poverty porn, media that sensationalizes marginalized communities with exploitative or voyeuristic motives. Even Disney perpetuates these problems.
But Native America is far more complex than what mainstream media and education depict. I can go on for pages about my tribe alone and its colorful history. Though I’m in no position to speak on behalf of all indigenous community, here are a few basics I think everyone should know.
1. We exist today and live contemporary lives.
Being type casted or dismissed is a problem American Indians face daily. Hearing, “Do you live in a teepee?” is like a rite of passage.
We are so marginalized that references to shaman, “Redskins,” and dream catchers are all that certain people think of when they hear “Native American.” We’re represented as artifacts in a museum, a few chapters in a history book. A group of people frozen in time. I’ve had experiences with people who didn’t even know American Indians were still alive!
So I’m here to say yes, we do exist today. We drive cars, tweet about Game of Thrones, listen to Beyoncé. Though some of us may chose to stay in touch with our traditions, Native Americans aren’t “mystical” or “savage” people from the past. We go to college, write books, become doctors, run businesses.
2. There are multiple ways to address Native America.
Native Americans, Natives, American Indians, Indians, Indigenous peoples, First Nations peoples, Aboriginal, Indian Country. The list can go on. It’s ideal to use the name of a specific tribe or nation, like Sicangu Lakota or Comanche. It’s the difference between asking a Japanese person “how’s Japan?” as opposed to “how’s Asia?”
With whichever term you use, be cognizant of your relationship to whom you’re addressing, where you are, etc. Context and respect are everything.
3. We don’t all look the same.
Some Natives are tall, some are short, some are fair-skinned, some are dark. We have varying highness of cheekbones, varying weights, varying hair lengths and hair color.
Native American is not so much a “racial” identity. It’s more of a political one. We share the same relationship to the United States government in that we are indigenous, but are distinct nations from one another across North America.
4. There are more than 560 federally recognized tribes in the U.S.
To be federally recognized means to be legally recognized by the United States Bureau of Indian Affairs. Even still, there are thousands of tribes, bands, nations, and peoples throughout the U.S. that are not recognized on a government or legal level. They self-identify as American Indian. Tribes are separate entities from the United States, are self-governing individuals with tribal courts and elected leaders. “Domestic Dependent Nations.” Though not entirely sovereign, like a foreign country, American Indian sovereignty continues to be pushed and expanded.
5. And each tribe has its own identity as a nation, independent from one another.
I can’t stress it enough: Natives aren’t a unanimous culture across North America. We don’t all hunt buffalo or wear buckskin. Every tribe has its unique languages, traditions, histories, politics, economies, religions, and overall ways of life.
Of course, there are overlapping practices and characteristics because of complicated histories. Still, each nation remains individual. Southeastern tribes are totally different than Northwestern ones. I can’t speak for totem poles because Seminoles don’t practice that tradition, but my friend from the Shuswap nation can.
There are countless nuances between nations. It can be hard to keep up with, but it’s what makes Indian Country so intriguing and beautiful.
6. Some Natives live on reservations, some don’t.
Reservations are areas of land owned and managed by Native nations. Not every tribe has a reservation. With the Dawes Act in the late 1880s, there are only ~300 reservations in the U.S. today. Reservations vary in size and location. The Navajo nation has territory equivalent to the size of West Virginia.
Then there are Natives who, due to the Indian Relocation Act of 1956, come from families that were encouraged by the government to move off of reservations and into cities to “assimilate.”
7. There are American Indians in the U.S. that don’t speak English.
Once, on a train, I was telling my ex-boyfriend about my great grandmother. I explained how we weren’t that close because of our language barrier: she only spoke Miccosukee, one of the two languages spoken by Seminole people in Florida. He was shocked.
Oral history is a vital part of our history. Though the number is dwindling, there are elders who speak their Native language exclusively. Bilingual individuals are more common. Many nations keep their languages alive, preserving them and teaching them to younger generations.
To remain linguistically sovereign is important. Language allows us to control our own narratives and resist colonial oppression.
8. Land is not just property to American Indians.
The gap between European and indigenous concepts of land is the most fundamental issue Natives face with the U.S. and Canadian governments. For Native communities, land transcends the value of “property” as Locke coined it, and functions spiritually as well as economically. Indigenous religious beliefs and ways of life are tied to the earth and what it produces. It’s a living entity that is not perceived as something to exert ownership over. Instead, there’s the notion of a respectful relationship with the earth. Give and take. Things like waterways, forests, and buffalo are essential for life and prosperity, and can even hold sacred value.
This is why the loss and destruction of Native land (North America) is so devastating. Confining nations to allotted areas and destroying the environment disturbs this essence of existence and identity.
9. A genocide was enacted upon Native America.
Did you know that Adolf Hitler was inspired by the indigenous genocide in North America when he created concentration camps? Manifest Destiny and the Third Reich are creepily synonymous. 80-90% of the American Indian population was killed between Columbian contact and today.
The Trail of Tears, San Creek Massacre, Wounded Knee Massacre, the Camp Grant Massacre, the list goes on.
When the years of Indian wars came to an end, a new kind of violence emerged. In the late 19th and early 20th century, the Bureau of Indian Affairs founded American Indian boarding schools. For decades, the establishments literally kidnapped children from their homes and families. The children were physically, sexually, and mentally abused in order to “kill the Indian and save the man.” They were coerced into becoming English-speaking servants and laborers.
Genocide can be physical or cultural. Today, remnants of these alarmingly recent tragedies surface in the forms of racism, poverty, drug abuse, and historical trauma. Colonialism is an ongoing system, not an isolated event.
10. Native America is changing the world.
It’s empowering to think that every indigenous person living today is descendent of fierce survivors. And we’re not only surviving, we are making strides.
There’s Winona LaDuke, Anishinaabe activist, environmentalist, economist, and author of three books. She’s even run as Vice President alongside candidate Ralph Nader on the Green Party ticket. Adrienne Keene’s honest blog Native Appropriations has amassed over 50k followers on Facebook, and grabbed the attention of companies such as Paul Frank for their problematic behavior. There are also musicians like A Tribe Called Red, hailing from the Cayuga Six Nations and Nissiping Ojibwe Nation, representing Native expression.
Though there are still huge issues to overcome before Indian Country can rest, Indigenous Resistance is alive and well. With the advantage of the Internet and greater opportunities for education, each generation is getting louder and louder. We are beginning to portray ourselves in the media on our own terms.
In the famous words of Native movie Smoke Signals, “It’s a good day to be indigenous.”
Journal #3094 from sdc 4.18.14
Common Native American Stereotypes Debunked June 21, 2013 | by Shannon Ridgway
Growing up in the Midwest, I can remember sitting in school, learning about the Civil War and the (supposed) reasons behind it: White Southerners kept Black people as slaves, treated them as second-class citizens (or less than), worked them to the bone, and refused to give up this free labor until the inevitable result was war.
We were taught how wrong this was — the enslavement of our fellow citizens, the rendering of other people as less than human, simply because their skin was a different shade than ours.
We were taught that Southerners held racist and stereotypical views toward a group of people common to their geographical area, yet we refused to acknowledge our own stereotypical views toward the group of people common to our geographical area — Native Americans. And growing up, I heard many things said about the Native American ethnicity.
Some things were good, most were bad, but all had one thing in common: They were sweeping generalizations – overarching assumptions that ascribe a specific set of characteristics to all people of a certain culture. Otherwise known as stereotypes. My fellow Midwesterners had some learning to do.
Like those Southerners of the Civil War era (and others who hold racist beliefs today), we needed to move beyond stereotypical perceptions of Native Americans.
But to move beyond stereotypes, first we have to understand them.
1. All Native Americans are alcoholics.
One of the stereotypes ascribed most commonly to Native Americans is that they are all alcoholics. This is simply untrue.
According to a study published by the National Institute On Alcohol Abuse And Alcoholism (NIAAA), white people — specifically, white men — are more likely than any other demographic group to drink alcohol on a daily basis, start drinking at a younger age, and drive while under the influence of alcohol.
Furthermore, this same study acknowledges that the alcoholism that does exist within Native American culture is linked to the culture’s history of economic disadvantages and racial discrimination. In other words, those that do suffer from alcoholism within the Native community may be trapped in a cycle of oppression and hardship that’s difficult to break free from.
2. Native Americans are lazy.
As a whole, the term “laziness” is difficult to define. However, in U.S. culture, we tend to say people are lazy if they lack concrete goals, fail in their education, or lack what is known as “work ethic.”
If we use this ethnocentric definition of laziness in examining the Native population, we see that they are far from lazy.
77 percent have a high school degree, and although only 13 percent have a bachelor’s degree, this percentage has doubled within the last ten years.
In addition, of those 25 and older with a bachelor’s degree, 78 percent are within the fields of science and engineering, traditionally higher-paying occupations.
Actually, there are only 324 federally recognized reservations and as of 2010, only 22% of Native Americans live on them.
4. American Indians receive special benefits and privileges from the government.
Okay, here’s the deal on this one: Yes, Native Americans often receive educational benefits like reduced tuition and Pell Grants, but so do other historically disadvantaged people, like the disabled and war veterans.
Why are American Indians called out for the “special” benefits they receive, while others are not? Besides, the government took their land.
By giving Native people educational and monetary advantages, we are simply fulfilling a legal contract in exchange for the cessation of their land.
This “special treatment” is not, in fact, special treatment at all, but rather, part of an agreement that still stands today.
5. Native Americans overreact to their likenesses being used in school celebrations or as team mascots.
When I was in high school, a Native American student petitioned the school to stop using the term “Arikara” (in reference to the Native tribe of the Dakotas) as the name of its homecoming celebration.
She also petitioned to stop the use of the terms “Chief” and “Princess” and to ban the “ceremonial Arikara dance” (which included a bunch of white Midwestern teens dressed in Indian costumes doing their version of a rain dance to tribal drumbeats). And people. Flipped. Out. “Don’t you get it? We’re celebrating your culture, not demeaning it!” we said. Riiiight.
Because white people smearing war paint on their faces and donning headdresses is soo different from dressing in blackface and performing slapstick comedy in front of a crowd.
Here’s the thing: If we want to celebrate Native culture, we must respect it.
And this means not making a mockery of it in the name of “school tradition.”
Some people don’t understand the problem with positive stereotypes.
After all, who wouldn’t want to be like the wise, strong Native American shaman (which isn’t even a term Natives use in their culture, by the way — it originated in Europe) from the movie Poltergeist II — yes, I’m dating myself here — who uses his supernatural Indian powers to save the Freeling family from the evil forces invading their home — and using cool Indian animal metaphors while doing it?
But the thing about positive stereotypes is that they set the bar unrealistically high. And it’s still problematic when you assign one idea to an entire group of people.
1. Native Americans are spiritual and wise.
While it’s true that Natives have a history threaded with cultural traditions, it would be inaccurate to say that every one of them is spiritual and brimming with vats of wisdom ready to be dispensed at any time.
It’s just like saying that all Canadians are super laid-back, all New Englanders are punctual, and all Southerners are hospitable.
Just because you see it portrayed on TV or read about it in a book doesn’t make it accurate for every individual, even if it’s accurate for some.
Having these pre-conceived “positive” notions of qualities that people of certain cultures or ethnicities are supposed to possess only places undue pressure on those who don’t “measure up.”
2. American Indians are animal lovers, tree-huggers, and sun-worshippers.
When we think of the Native culture, often the first thing to come to mind is their supposed love of animals — especially eagles and wolves.
We also tend to think of Natives as being extreme environmentalists who worship nature and the earth. According to this great resource, Native Americans worship a Supreme Being just like other cultures do.
The stereotype of the nature-worshipping Indian comes from early European settlers in America who observed Native peoples raising their hands to the sky in the form of prayer, which they misinterpreted as “sun-worshipping.”
The animal-loving stereotype may also have its roots in early European colonization. Early Native Americans observed the behavior of animals to learn how to hunt and survive in undeveloped land, similar to what other hunter/gatherer societies did.
So just because Native American ancestors observed the behavior of animals and tried to understand their environment, doesn’t mean they are tree-worshippers or extreme environmentalists. And even if some are, who are we to judge?
3. Native Americans are all dancers and storytellers.
Again, some traditional dancing and storytelling is part of Native culture — just like the tango and meringue are part of Latin culture and gospel music is part of African culture.
But to say that all Natives are rain-dancers is just like saying that all Latin Americans dance like Ricky Martin, all Africans have great singing voices, and that all Jewish people are good with money.
And therein lies the problem: If we already believe something about someone, what motivation do we have to get to know them as individual people?
Fortunately, there are a few things that we can do to acknowledge when we’re stereotyping and move past it:
• Be honest with yourself. If you hold assumptions about people based on their race, class, sex, social status, or any other demographic characteristics, acknowledge that it’s an issue for you, even if it’s hard to admit or makes you feel embarrassed.
• Check yourself. About to tell a racist joke? Catch yourself in the act, and stop before you go through with it.
• Step outside your comfort zone. Learn about people of other cultures, ethnicities, and religions. The more you learn about others, the less likely you are to judge them.
• Correct others when they stereotype. When you hear others make racist, offensive, or stereotypical remarks, call them out on it! When engage others in discussion of their own prejudices, we engage in positive dialogue and increase our own awareness as well.
To move beyond stereotypes, first we have to understand them.
I’m still working on my fellow Midwesterners to move beyond their prejudices.
I hope that one day, we can talk openly and respectfully about the Native culture, without letting these learned prejudices crowd our perceptions.
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Shannon Ridgway is a Contributing Writer to Everyday Feminism from the great flyover state of South Dakota (the one with the monument of presidential heads). In her free time, Shannon enjoys reading, writing, jamming out to ’80s music and Zumba, and she will go to great lengths
to find the perfect enchilada. Follow her on Twitter@sridgway1980. Read her articles here.
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