Native People Are Still Being Misinterpreted and Misunderstood

Larry Spotted Crow Mann

In an attempt to expose a character flaw in Elizabeth Warren, Scott Brown revealed his own. During their debate Scott Brown said: “Look at her; as you can see, she doesn’t look Indian.” Suzan Shown Harjo’s recent column lays it out precisely how both candidates have walked back and sullied the discourse concerning Native Peoples. Their clash has put the ignorance and ugliness that continues to plague Indian Country once again on the world stage.

Native Peoples face the never-ending torrent of racial stereotypes, misconceptions and sports logos. When Natives are discussed outside of cultural understanding, there is the caricature of the intrepid warrior making his last stand, the government dependent and the victimized Indian who needs to be saved. Or simply the belief that Natives don't exist.

At the nucleus of this abridged definition lies a host of complex issues that are inextricably linked to long-standing issues Indians continue to confront while many others ignore.

Fueling that insidious trope is centuries of warped inculcations making the North America Indian the last vestige of racism without consequence.

However I would argue that today, the vast majority of these affronts and inaccuracies are out of ignorance. I believe most people of all walks of life are reasonable when presented with new information. But evidence suggests there is a portion of the population unwilling to separate from an ethnocentric state of mind. This lends credence to our present dilemma and continues to keep the grounds of bigotry fertile.

The American workplace, schools and other public venues have promoted the “diversity” philosophy but persist to sorely lack in the understanding and education of Native Peoples of this land.

Recently while I was among colleagues, I learned of two terms. Just when I thought I heard them all, I was introduced to: “Indian runs” and the “Tonto dance.” No, they weren’t in the same conversation but the same day. They were said by people I respect and consider friends. Though I didn’t know what these terms meant, my intuition was not far off when surmising they were derogatory, baseless or just plain stupid.

I knew my friends didn’t make these remarks just to offend me. There was something else occurring that goes to the heart of the problem: there is a shocking number of non-Natives from G.E.D to Ph.D level who don’t have the slightest clue about the original inhabitants of this land. This is a shameful fact.

There are certainly numerous reasons for that but in order for a worthy reciprocity to take place, our plight must be taken from the surreal to the tangible.

It must be noted here, Indians are not one size fits all. Some Natives may not take issue with such terms or mascots. I enjoy laughing at good Indian jokes. Those incidents occurred while everyone was having a good time socializing. Nobody seemed to have a problem with the terms except me, the Indian in the room.

So at that moment, I asked myself: Do I confront them, and change the mood from jovial to admonition? A teaching moment?

The answer was yes. In order to eliminate those archaic false tales, a new and factual account needs to be put in its place. Surely though, that could be a laborious task. On another occasion a non-native person told me he can “speak Indian.” But after listening to him “speak,” I was certain it was in Klingon. But being a huge Star Trek fan, I restrained my comment and figured this guy had just been smoking far too many dilithium crystals.

To a more disturbing incident: several months ago I was giving a talk at a nearby university when during the Q&A segment a gentleman stood up and asked:

“Why are all Indians drunks and gambling addicts?”

In a pure human to human moment they all seem to recoil in embarrassment that a fellow classmate would insult a guest who came to share in his culture.

Nonetheless I calmly responded to the student: ‘That is false. As you can see I’m not a drunk, nor do I even drink. Secondly, I haven’t gambled since I was 12 years old when my older brother Charles won my jar of pennies in a bingo game.’

As an aside my observation of the audience was confirmed at the conclusion of the lecture. That student’s fellow classmates sharply addressed him.

After over a decade of public speaking I’ve had to respond to some bizarre and outlandish questions but this gentleman’s calumny was by far the worst.

But talk about turning corn into succotash; his savage remarks provided a stellar example of the depth of prejudice that still lingers within Indian country. But on the contrary, the hundreds of other students in attendance underscored an intrinsic connection to all life in a unifying expression of civility: It’s not okay to offend people.

What all those examples illustrate is that this dilemma has numerous facets that must be earnestly addressed by all.

Every culture has their own unique narrative but they all should merge at the cross roads of understanding and equal veneration. It should be imperative citizens become more proactive in learning about the country they call home.

Although there remains many concerns to tackle, Natives are at an exciting and progressive time in all aspects of society. And a compliment of mutual respect is essential.

Thankfully we have seen a move in that direction but much more needs to be done.

Larry Spotted Crow Mann is a writer, performer, Nipmuck cultural educator and citizen of the Nipmuck tribe of Massachusetts. He was applauded for his role in the PBS Native American film, We Shall Remain, directed by Chris Eyre, and In 2010 his poetry was a winner in the Memscapes Journal of Fine Arts. His recent book, Tales from The Whispering Basket continues to receive excellent reviews.

You need to be logged in in order to post comments
Please use the log in option at the bottom of this page




nancee's picture
I'm a white gal who, I think, has developed a little deeper understanding of American Indian issues -- hey, I've been a subscriber to ICT since 1999. It started with an interest in the history of the Indian Wars, but then on a trip to Montana, I realized that NA history didn't end with Crazy Horse or even Wounded Knee I. In fact, I find the history of the legal battles even more fascinating and illustrative of the inherent bias of the dominant culture, even those who would consider themselves "friends of the Indians." When I try to discuss these issues with other white liberals, I get a tolerant smile and "Have you been to the museum in DC?" As if that's all there is. Sadly, within the Democratic party, Indian issues have come to be associated with the sixties and the "radical" viewpoints the party now chooses to disown. Notice how even President Obama will play up his support in the Indian press but keeps those issues out of the mainstream.
andre's picture
Larry has written a very intelligent expose of the stereotypes and barriers to full acceptance of the Native experience in America and Canada today. He's right, a great deal of work remains to remove these vestiges of racism.
soldierblue's picture
Heya Larry....well I can tell you several things....from what you have spoken on first....the most basic reasoning for the continuance of what persists...is that the primary literature in schools has little variance in the art of "teaching"...dont know as you've looked at the text books recently for high school and grade school...but the ones I have seen start off with a singular lie..."first came the explorers"....and in the mumble after that phrase "with their native guides".....and so the stooopidity begins...and it is only reinforced in further realms of secondary education....and most think that thats enough so they dont seek out anything else....and they figure thats the conclusion of what they need to know....thats what I call....{willful ignorance}...or the other strata being they know its not right but they choose to pursue it no further...as to the kinds of slights...and rank prejudice we see as native folk...there is what I call {tacit silence}...where the prevailing view of a particular act creates its own reinforcement...a classic example being the "tomahawk chop"....and because they dont see anyone protesting it in any demonstrable way...they walk thinking "hey no one said anything...so it must be okay"...ppp!...and the generic general comment of NDN's are drunk and gamble...that presupposes we buy into the the programming oh! er eddication....which says we're part of their melting pot...yea right...and saying all natives come under the generics that say we all lived in hide lodges...and lived on the plaines...never mind that there were 500 nations of our majority already here...and had manifested here...not come from somewhere else...the term itself red man a description we got blanketed with because the "pilgrims"...who first encountered the Beothuk people who used ocher clay as a natural mosquito repellent...and there are other terminologies...and being a spoken word artist myself....I have heard much of the same as you have...even just on my local level....good article..I am of the Great Osage nation...enjoyed the thoughts...soldierblue
gsevalikova's picture
While Googling "why don't churches repudiate Christopher Columbus?" I came upon the strangest, disturbing website on this subject regarding CC and stereotypes : Vine and the Fig Tree. It sounds like a fascist terror organization, and they want to impose a Euro- Taliban style government here. Columbus is a hero in their pantheon,(vftonline.org)- that's the site. It has a substantial amount of anti-Native screed in there. Given that China is now staging live fire drills on Senkaku Island chain and the US ,Japan is going to practice retaking the islands, one needs to remember why CC wanted to invade Asia to begin with. He did not " bear Christ" as his name suggests- but he sure brought religious corruption and oppression-by-monarchy. (AJW.asahi.com)
niijii's picture
Boozhoo Spotted Crow, As an elder and veteran just wanted to say how great it was to read your piece. If only there were more young people like yourself ah what a better place it would be. Please keep on keepin on, stay strong and never,never give up your voice. Migwech, Glen Douglas
tmsyr11's picture
Native People are Still Being Misinterpreted and Misunderstood”….that is an understatement in itself following controversies and political sentiments to illegal immigration, generalizing language/culturals/traditions, “two-spirits” promotion, gaming/casino exploitation, and 562+ established federally recognized tribes. 1 = It’s apparent how most of America views legitimate American indian people especially when THOSE representative indian movement throw their vocal support behind illegal immigration. According to these righteous representatives, we are no longer ‘indian people’ – we’re indigenous to the Americas; we’re participants in the United Nations Declarations of Indigenous Rights. So what is difference between 'native' and 'indigenious'? Supporting illegal migration interests only confuses the general populace in who's who in taking advantage of resources (particularly if you not legit US citizens). 2 = in light of Elizabeth Warren debacle NOBODY anymore does not need to substantiate they are American Indian anymore – so long as we take their word for it and they are DEMOCRATIC. But the rest of average Indian Joes and Janes still have to show proof of Indian from their BIA 4432s. 3 = The “two spirits” indoctrination is not entirely accurate as being in the forefront of most Indian tribes though they were respected and had a place in traditional indian societies. Two spirits carried out their roles and knew their place in traditional societies. 4 = with all the indian gaming and compact agreements, why are indian tribes (particularly in the Western US) still below the Govt. proverty levels – where is the indian gaming money going to? Who and what organizations are benefiting from Indian Gaming Funds? Lastly, with 562+ indian tribes and living on an economic scale of rich indian tribes (Eastern) versus poor indian tribes (Western), there is going to continue to be a growing disparity in economic as well political scales. Who runs and operates the National Congress of American Indians? Who maintains stewardship of the Museums: National and Smithsonian? Who recommends and establishes federal policies on Indian Health and Indian Affairs? It sure isn't the poor indian Western tribes as the Lakota, Navajo, Plains Indian.....
abuela's picture
Successfully exerting control over the mass of humanity requires continuous dividing and conquering. A conquered people never remains conquered, including the descendants of the invaders. Their land and culture was stolen from them before they set foot on this land, forcefully replacing it with a religion that requires obedience and worship, and a hierarchy, a caste system. Control requires a simplification, of the Source, and of all Life into good and bad/useful and non-useful, including the people, broken into groups with tags. There is a concerted effort to put free people back into their boxes, Women, the Elderly, Children, First Nations People, Black People, Asians, People of the Middle East. Those with the power generally can't be bothered in sorting all of it out into smaller categories, or ever will see individuals. People with power who also acknowledge their humanity need to be enlisted to help in re-creating the world. Breaking down the walls between knowing and assumption is an on-going task for all people who see, since the walls are continuously rebuilt. And too many people are lazy to bother thinking. You have a good start, and the more Media outlets you can start, like Osage Media, the more Indians are in the business of the arts, especially music, the faster an understanding will spread against the misinformation.