What Does an Indian Look Like?

Harlan McKosato

“They don’t look like Indians to me, and they don’t look like Indians to (other) Indians.” This was a statement by Donald Trump at a congressional hearing on Capitol Hill concerning Indian gaming. He went on to say, “I think I might have more Indian blood than a lot of the so-called Indians that are trying to open up the reservations,” he said in a radio interview with Don Imus. He was referring to tribal people in Connecticut who were cutting into his own casino profits.

First of all, Trump looks more like a giant Oompa Loompa than anything else. I haven’t seen any orange-skinned Indians in all my days. But I have seen really dark-skinned ones and really light-skinned ones. Which brings up the question, “What does a 21st Century Indian look like, or what are we supposed to look like?”

I’m sure many non-Indians have an image in their minds of a traditional Indian Warrior with brown skin, long dark hair, dark eyes, muscled up, clean shaven and very handsome – kinda like me (aaaye) – sort of like the Indian Warriors they see on the cover of those Indian romance novels at the grocery store. But that stereotype was never reality. Native people come in all shapes and sizes; and these days all skin tones.

What the people who hold on to this image don’t realize is that being Native American is not what you look like. It is a cultural identity, but it also has political implications. We have a unique political relationship with the U.S. government – both as tribal governments and as individual tribal citizens. But don’t get me wrong, you don’t have to be a tribal member to be Native American. This brings up issues of blood quantum, disenrollment and Native children having their identities stolen; which leads me off the subject.

Now we Indians have our own tongue-in-cheek stereotypes about what our other relatives look like. Some that come to mind are the toothless Indian; the Indian with a flat rear end; the wide-footed Indian; the pot-bellied Indian man; the chicken-legged Indian…okay, okay. Like many stereotypes there is some truth to this list. I’ve seen my share of all of the above. Especially those flat behinds (haw!)

I remember a few years ago I was at an art sale benefitting homeless Indians here in Albuquerque. An artist showed me a portrait he had drawn of an Indian Warrior on horseback, apparently an image from the Indian Wars era, and something struck me. The warrior had a mustache. My first thought was Indians don’t have facial hair.

But then I had a flashback. I recalled making a special visit to the archives of the National Library of Congress in Washington D.C. It was in the mid-1990s and in the basement of the building was this room full of large metal filing cabinets, and inside were file folders full of archival material that had been collected about American Indians that were filed in alphabetical order by tribe.

A Mesqwaki friend of mine brought me a file folder of Sac & Fox photos that seemed to be from the 1800s. There was a photo of my great-great grandfather, Chief McKosato (Mah Kwa sa to). He was in a studio with his wife; grandma. He was wearing traditional Sac & Fox dress including a bear claw necklace and beaver headdress. He also had a little bit of a mustache coming out of the top corners of his upper lip.

It was an eye-opener. Today, I see a lot Indians with hairy faces – some with full beards. So down goes another stereotype about how an Indian should look. And there are others that I don’t have time to mention. Just know that there is no one way that Native men, women and children should look anymore. I myself was guilty of believing in a certain stereotype when I was younger – that all Indians should have brown skin, dark brown eyes and long, straight dark brown or black hair. It finally got through to my brain and my heart about what Native people look like in reality.

Some of us, don’t have straight hair and some have blond hair and blue eyes. Things change and things evolve. Let’s just hope that one day soon people like Donald Trump will stop being ignorant and stop stereotyping Natives on how he thinks we should look. 

Harlan McKosato is a citizen of the Sac and Fox Nation of Oklahoma. He is the Director of NDN Productions, an independent media production company based in Albuquerque.

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