November is Native American Heritage Month, and it is astounding how many stereotypical and wrong ideas are out there about America’s Indigenous people.
For starters: We are still here.
Native people are part of the American fabric. We are teachers, politicians, shop workers, musicians, actors, farmers, physicians, lawyers and every other occupation. The federal government and others tried to wipe Indigenous people out, but our ancestors survived.
Second, we do not all look alike, nor are our traditions the same. The people indigenous to the Eastern Seaboard, primarily Eastern Woodlands and Algonquin, look very different from the Salish and other tribes of the Pacific Northwest. People from the Great Plains and Southwest look different still.
In addition, many Native Americans have married non-Natives, so genetic traits — such as red hair — can now be found among tribal members.
Third: Each Indigenous culture is different.
There are 573 federally recognized tribes with an estimated additional 200 who are not recognized. That is 773 different cultures, languages, religious beliefs, governmental systems and traditions. Indigenous communities are as different from one another as European, Asian and African communities are different from each other.
One thing that is especially frustrating for many tribal members is people who use stereotypical images and ideas when talking with them. These include:
n We do not all live in tipis. Think of a tipi as an RV without wheels used in travel and hunting. Most traditional housing includes long houses, plank houses, hogans, chickees and igloos.
n Not all indigenous people live on reservations. Only 300 of the U.S. tribes have reservations. Others may or may not have tribal lands, areas designated as tribally owned property.
n The notion all tribes are poor/the people live in dire poverty. While this is true in some areas, many tribes — including the local Schitsu’umsh (Coeur d’Alene) and Nimiipuu (Nez Perce) — have worked hard to make change by developing businesses including fisheries/forestry and manufacturing. The money from these ventures is normally put back into the tribe for the citizens, offering employment, housing, health care, education, roads, high-speed internet and other necessities.
Perhaps the most misunderstood thing about Native America is the fact all tribes are sovereign nations. Each tribe has its own constitution and laws to follow on their lands. Tribal members are also U.S. and state citizens, and yes, members do pay state and federal taxes along with (in some cases) tribal taxes.
Something that often confuses many people is the fact not all tribes are led by men; some tribes are matriarchal, or led by women. In Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) history, the Great Peacemaker developed the Great Law of Peace which left the major decision-making to the women. In the 1770s, the U.S. founding fathers took the Great Law of Peace and used the ideas when crafting what became the United States, but they left out the part where the women were in charge.
As one Native scholar recently said about the U.S. founding fathers “borrowing” the Great Law: “They couldn’t even steal the law correctly” because they left the women out.
Another major issue is land. To many Native cultures, land is something that is spiritual, an economic resource and the tribe’s identity. It is never to be owned, a concept which came with the European settlers.
Finally, there is the idea that Indigenous people are somehow more spiritual, mystical, more connected to the earth. In truth: No more than any other group. Religion is very important to most tribal people, but, again, not all Native people practice the same religion, and Christianity has made many inroads into the various tribes. What many non-Natives erroneously call “nature worship” is Native peoples understanding nature as a means of survival.
This, in a tiny nutshell, is Native America. The cultures and histories of the tribes are well worth exploring and talking about, both in schools and out. Especially in places where tribal members live and work, which is all 50 states. Maybe this knowledge could stop the stereotypes and erroneous information that seems rooted in U.S. culture about the first citizens.
Tallent was a journalism faculty member at the University of Idaho for 13 years before her retirement in 2019. She is of Cherokee descent and a member of both the Native American Journalists Association and the Society of Professional Journalists. She and her husband live in Moscow with their two cats. She also writes at spokanefavs.com.