Who's making up Indian culture myths?
The one true thing we used to know about Indian culture myths was that they
were born in the non-Indian imagination, but some of the newer ones are
being invented by Native people.
We learned from movies that Indians walk without making a sound -- even in
the woods on those crunchy, noisy leaves. We read in history books that
Native peoples ceased to exist at the end of the 1800s and lots of people
believe it, despite living evidence to the contrary. And, politicians
declare that all Indians are casino-millionaires, but they can't explain
away the pesky fact that Indians are the poorest people in the United
The culture myth that Indians have no concept of ownership started off as a
story about how easy it is to get something for nothing -- as in the one
about Indians selling Manhattan for $24 in beads -- and morphed into a
story about how there's enough land for everyone and Indians are just
greedy, so non-Indians are justified in stealing it.
Some Native writers are building on that culture myth and asserting that
Indians don't even have a word for "ownership." I would be surprised if
there were any Native heritage languages without words that mean "belong"
and "mine" and "ours" and "yours" and "theirs."
Another culture myth that seems to have come from Native, rather than
non-Native, people is that Indians have no word for "art." That cropped up
in the early 1990s at a Native art conference, where you'd expect people to
know better, and arose from an older one invented by anthropologists and
archeologists: everything in Indian life is functional.
There are all sorts of nuanced words in Native languages that mean art.
Some stand for art combined with purpose, such as spiritual beauty; and
some are stand-alone words for art for its own sake, such as drawing and
It is odd that artists would have come up with such a loopy notion, when
there is so much art in Indian life, past and present. Native artists would
have to be ignorant about both their tribal art heritage and their
traditional language in order to come up with that concept or to agree with
I was appalled to see Native reporters on a panel at a national journalism
conference a few years ago invent the culture myth that Indians have no
word for "news." No word for news? Native languages have many words for
news, more than are found in the European languages.
Some Native languages have words and phrases for emergency news, old news,
news you can use, news that's being fact-checked and gossip that isn't news
but the people believe it. Most Native nations have traditional positions
and job titles for news gatherers and news reporters.
In order for Native journalists to have invented this culture myth, they
must not have spoken or understood their heritage languages or ever asked
any of their Native language speakers anything about a tribal context for
their chosen profession.
Two popular and interlocking culture myths are that the Europeans are
"linear thinkers" and Indians are "circular thinkers." This is supposed to
mean that European thought is rigid and analytical, while Native thought is
natural and intuitive.
Some have used linear thinking versus circular thinking to illustrate the
difference between European and Native American cultures, but both linear
thinking and circular thinking are too simplistic to describe or explain
away whole peoples. They actually represent the same kind of thinking,
except that the straight line never makes a point or connects with anything
and the circle keeps covering the same ground over and over again.
The linear and circular models are fine to describe one-track minds and the
simple-minded. To represent complex thinkers -- healers, philosophers,
physicists, cartoonists and the like -- you need to advance to spherical
models, with interlocking satellites (think ecological interconnectedness),
or to lines moving at different levels, angles, directions and rates of
speed (think Einstein's parallel universes and theory of relativity).
But, here is something I offer at the risk of creating a new culture myth
and sending non-Indian linguists scrambling. It seems that we really have
no word for "mascot."
That is, in the few Native American languages I've surveyed, there are no
words or concepts for "mascot." For my survey, I asked Native language
experts if there is a word for mascot in their heritage language.
"There's no word in Tsistsistas [Cheyenne] for mascot," said Dr. Henrietta
Mann, who is Cheyenne and a leading Native educator. "The closest concept
we have to 'mascot' is 'pet,' but that's not a traditional concept."
Virginia Beavert, who is Yakama and is editing the Heritage University
Yakama Language Dictionary, said that the "Yakama people do not actually
have a mascot." She described Coyote as culture hero, but not a mascot.
"Coyote 'Spilyay' made predictions to where certain kinds of roots,
berries, medicines and other important survival foods were to grow to
benefit the people. He was a trickster who made the laws."
Dr. William Demmert, who is Tlingit (which means "people" or "human
beings") of the Eagle/Wolf clan and a well-respected educator and language
expert, said, "I am not aware of any name for a mascot or pet -- no such
animal -- animals would have been referred to as 'beings.'"
Albert White Hat, whose nation is the Sicangu Lakota Oyate (Lakota Burnt
Thigh Nation or Rosebud Sioux Tribe), is a Lakota language instructor at
Sinte Gleska University. He said, "I don't believe we have a concept of a
mascot. We have different societies that use the name of an animal nation,
like Elk Society. These societies are for any need or request of the tribe.
They also compete in sports and other activities. The animal-nations they
use[d] were their spiritual guides or inspirations."
"There is no name for mascot in Tewa," said Dr. Tessie Naranjo, who speaks
Tewa and is from Kha P'o Owingeh (Singing Water Village or Santa Clara
Dr. Ofelia Zepeda, who is Tohono O'odham and a professor of linguistics at
the University of Arizona, answered the question about the existence of a
word in her language for mascot with a resounding "No."
Jimmy Arterberry, who is a Numunu (meaning "the people" or Comanche) tribal
culture and arts activist, answered in the same way.
Bill Means, who is Oglala Lakota and one of my co-plaintiffs in the lawsuit
against the name of the Washington football club, responded to an assertion
by a non-Indian linguist that one mascot -- "Redskins" -- came from
"The word 'redskin' is strictly from the interpreter," said Means. "The
literal translation to Lakota would be 'Ha Luta' or 'Ha Sha,' which I have
never heard used. After contacting several family members and one Lakota
language expert from Oglala Lakota College, we have all come to the same
conclusion: that the word 'redskin' can only be the word of the
This may be news to the National Football League, but we do have words for
"news" and we don't have any for "mascots."
Suzan Shown Harjo, Cheyenne and Hodulgee Muscogee, is president of the
Morning Star Institute in Washington, D.C. and a columnist for Indian