February 22nd, 2021 Last Updated on: March 2nd, 2022
Native Americans occupied much of the land in North America long before the United States of America ever raised its flag and claimed that land as its own. Yet, on the whole, Native communities are largely misunderstood by many Americans.
That's why it's important to make an effort to learn about other cultures of the people, like Native Americans, who inhabit the same land. Increasing awareness of other cultures increases respect, cooperation, communication and decreases stereotypes as well as ethnic and racial division.
With that in mind, here are 10 things Native Americans wish everyone knew.
1. Native Americans are not a monolith.
To say that the Native American culture is a monolith is to claim that everyone within that group is similar in regards to their traditions, dress, language, beliefs, and general way of life. This is absolutely not true. “Native American” is a broadly encompassing term that includes almost 600 federally recognized Native tribes living in America, with many more unrecognized as official tribes. This means that there are, conservatively, 600 different ways of life, various languages with different dialects and slang, traditions, art, music, and craft, economy, topography and geography, religious and spiritual beliefs, education systems, social structures, family structures, and so on. Just like you can't take all white people in America and shoehorn them into one all-inclusive category, it would be a disservice to do the same to Native people.
2. Not all Native American tribes are federally recognized.
To reiterate, not all Native American tribes are federally recognized. The United States can deny or refute a tribe's petitions for federal acknowledgment. But for some of the petitions, they've simply yet to make a decision. The seven requirements that a tribe must meet in order to become federally recognized include:
- The petitioner has been identified as an American Indian entity since 1900.
- A predominant portion of the petitioning group comprises a distinct community.
- The petitioner has maintained political influence or authority over its members.
- The group has governing documents which include its membership criteria.
- The petitioner’s membership consists of individuals who descend from a historical Indian tribe or from historical Indian tribes which combined and functioned as a single autonomous political entity.
- The membership of the petitioning group is composed primarily of persons who are not members of an acknowledged North American Indian tribe.
- Neither the petitioner nor its members are the subject of congressional legislation that has expressly terminated or forbidden the federal relationship.
3. We don’t own our reservation lands outright.
While some tribes do not live on a reservation, more than 300 do. Some are shared by multiple tribes, while some tribes inhabit more than one reservation. The entire idea behind the reservation formed when the Constitution was ratified and the government agreed to look upon Native tribes as independent sovereign nations. The Native Americans “reserved” plots of land that no longer belonged to them outright. As stated by experts at the History Channel:
“The main goals of Indian reservations were to bring Native Americans under U.S. government control, minimize conflict between Indians and settlers and encourage Native Americans to take on the ways of the white man. But many Native Americans were forced onto reservations with catastrophic results and devastating, long-lasting effects.”
Now, reservation land is held “in trust” for Native Americans by the federal government, which means that those who live on the property cannot reap the benefits of owning land, such as obtaining equity or mortgaging assets.
4. Most of us don’t live on reservations.
Most of the Native population in North American are congregated around the central states such as Oklahoma and the southwest and northwest states, as well as Alaska and Canada—and most of these individuals do not live on reservations. They live in cities, in small quaint towns, up in the mountains, in the suburbs, and deep in rural areas just like the rest of the population.
Approximately only 600,000 Native individuals live on reservations today, but these numbers can't be trusted entirely, as Native Americans are historically grossly undercounted in the census. The total number of Native Americans and Alaska Natives living in the U.S. today? 6.9 million. So less than 10 percent live on a reservation.
5. History books are not 100% accurate.
What has your history teacher not told you? Or perhaps more likely, what does your history teacher not even know him or herself? While ignorance is no defense, many people's worldviews are shaped by what they learn in school, at home, and in society, especially when it comes to United States history. Textbooks are definitely whitewashed and written in favor of those who won the wars, which in America…were “Americans.” Yet, providing our students with a strictly “positive” version of U.S. history does not produce patriotic Americans. Rather, it produces misguided ones.
However, changes are gradually coming as we continue to uncover the half-truths and flat-out falsities perpetuated by antiquated textbooks. Future editions of textbooks in our schools could very well paint a fuller, more accurate picture of the events in our history.
If you're curious, “An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States” by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz is a good starting point.
6. Regalia is not a costume.
Native tribes each have their own form of regalia, which consists of the sacred clothing, accessories, and artifacts we wear and treasure. The colors and stitching are deep in symbolism and the entire process of hand-making the regalia is significant in itself. Native individuals wear regalia to pow wows, ceremonies, and other important events while using them to dance and share stories with others. Putting on regalia is meaningful and a time of great pride. It is a form of self-expression not to be taken lightly.
Those who dress similarly and wear them as “costumes” during a holiday or sporting event may think they are being playful when in reality, they are offending a culture. Not only are these fake regalia costumes portrayed incorrectly, they often sexualize girls and women by showing excessive skin, and making the costume unnecessarily tight. The fact that they are available online and in stores is a testament to how far we still have to go.
7. We didn't choose the term “Indian.”
In fourteen hundred ninety-two…
Columbus sailed the ocean blue.
This part is true. However, he obviously did not land where he expected to. Christopher Columbus thought he was headed toward India, where he wanted to see for himself the magical places he had been reading about and what he had heard from Marco Polo. Gold and spices were calling his name. Unfortunately, he miscalculated the distance (badly) and ended up in what is now the Bahamas, which were inhabited by a group of people who named the island Guanahani. Because Columbus thought he had landed in India and didn’t realize his mistake for some time, he coined the indigenous inhabitants of the newly discovered world “Indians.”
The Smithsonian Magazine online has quite a detailed and interesting story about Columbus’ voyages and his huge mistake that ended up in disaster, if you want to know more.
8. We don't celebrate Thanksgiving the same way.
Go read up on the true history of Thanksgiving and you will see why many Native American families do not celebrate it the same way that non-Natives do. There's a reason many have taken to calling it “The National Day of Mourning” since the 1970s. While some use Thanksgiving as a reminder to be grateful, kind and compassionate, many Americans still believe in the false childhood stories of colonists and Natives coming around a dinner table feasting on what they have prepared together, to celebrate the harvest and the coming-together of two groups of people.
Make no mistake: this did not happen. The Natives were stolen from, made a mockery of, and murdered. On Plymouth Rock today, a plaque at the site notes:
“Thanksgiving Day is a reminder of the genocide of millions of their people, the theft of their lands, and the relentless assault on their cultures. Participants in National Day of Mourning honor Native ancestors and the struggles of Native peoples to survive today.”
9. We don’t want your pity. We need allies.
Historically, like many other cultures, Native Americans have gone through oppression, execution, segregation, racism, and separation. They've been removed from their land, taken from their families, made mascots of, made into symbols by other cultures, forced into poverty, and abandoned by their government.
However, they still don’t want your pity. What will pity do? It won’t raise awareness, grow important relationships or secure much-needed funding and programs to help Native people. It won’t improve the lives of the historically disenfranchised in any meaningful way.
What Native Americans need are strong allies who will stand up with them to fight the unnecessary and continued oppression and segregation.
10. We're still here, and we're doing incredible things.
We still have a long way to go toward an adequate and accurate representation of Native American communities. We're grossly underrepresented in the media, and when we are featured, it's typically in an unflattering light. It's no wonder we're often referred to as the “invisible minority.”
The truth is, much of the U.S. doesn't see it, but Native communities across the country are doing wonderful things. We're creating beautiful, stunning art, we're making timeless films, we're dancing beautifully and passionately, we're making waves in politics, and we're just getting started.
Don't believe me?
Deb Haaland recently stepped in as Interior Secretary for President Joe Biden's administration.
Michaela Goade recently became the first Native American illustrator to win the Caldecott Medal.
Taika Waititi rolled out a new show about Native Americans with an entirely indigenous writers room.
A young indigenous environmental activist is changing the world.
I could go on, but I encourage you to pay more attention to all of the ways Native communities are changing the world for the better. You might be surprised.
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