Myths and Stereotypes about Native Americans: Most Non-Indians Don't Know a Great Deal about the First Peoples of the Americas, Mr. Fleming Avers. but What's Worse Is That Much of What They Do "Know" Is Wrong

Article excerpt

WHEN IT comes to Americans' knowledge about Native American (1) culture and history, one might say there are two types of people--those who know nothing about Natives and those who know less than that. That's not exactly true, but most Americans are not very familiar with the first peoples of the Americas. Though some might argue that it is wholly unnecessary to have any knowledge about Native peoples, most would probably agree that some exposure to Native perspectives is a good thing for students. And Americans probably believe that it is the responsibility of the public education system to provide that exposure.

Because many people have such a limited knowledge of Indians, we are, arguably, among the most misunderstood ethnic groups in the United States. Native Americans are also among the most isolated groups. Thus the knowledge that most people have about Indians does not come from direct experience. What people know is limited by their sources of information--and, unfortunately, much of the information about Indians is derived from popular culture.

Even in areas where the concentration of Native peoples is high--say, in the West--most people do not know very much about the history and culture of the first citizens of their region. Even if non-Indians are familiar with Indians, the impressions they have of Native people can be quite negative. In fact, in states like Montana, the expression "familiarity breeds contempt" is descriptive of the tensions between Native and non-Native people.

Stereotyping is a poor substitute for getting to know individuals at a more intimate, meaningful level. By relying on stereotypes to describe Native Americans, whites come to believe that Indians are drunks, get free money from the government, and are made wealthy from casino revenue. Or they may believe that Indians are at one with nature, deeply religious, and wise in the ways of spirituality.

I do not intend to dispel all of the stereotypes or address all of the many myths about Native peoples; instead, I'd like to offer my perspective on the most important considerations that teachers and others might keep in mind when assessing curriculum, developing lesson plans, or teaching Indian children. Many of these myths may seem ridiculous, even silly, but each one is encountered by Native people on an almost daily basis.

Myth 1. Native Americans prefer to be called Native Americans. One of the most significant conversations with students seems to be the most basic. The first question people often ask me, as a Native person, is, "What do you want to be called?" Often, this is asked in the interest of political correctness, but as often it is a sincere question. There are several choices--including "Native American," "American Indian," and "Native"--and good arguments for, or against, using any one of these.

"Native American" seems to be the preference in academic circles. In my own writing or lectures, I am accustomed to using "Native American" in reference to the first peoples of this country (although in conversation I'm more likely to use "American Indian" or "Indian"). I am unapologetic in my use of these terms and don't find it necessary to spend lots of time (save in this article) explaining to others why I do, or do not, use one term or another.

"American Indian" and the shortened version, "Indian," have long been the subject of debate. Some Natives point out that the term "Indian" is an unhappy legacy of Christopher Columbus' so-called discovery and that the term is, therefore, a legacy of the subsequent colonization of the lands of the Native peoples of the Americas.

In Canada, the term most widely used to describe aboriginal people is "Native." Again, as with "Native American," one can argue that we are all natives of our respective countries of affiliation.

This discussion does not have any resolution. We, as Native people, are quite schizophrenic about it ourselves. …