No one likes to be pigeon-holed into any kind of stereotypical box, but the long history of colonization and oppression of Indigenous people has shoved us so far from mainstream public view (and blogosphere, I might add) that it’s no wonder there exist these warped, outrageously wrong ideas about who we are. No, we don’t all live on reservations (more than 140,000 urban Natives live in LA alone!) and yes, we are currently one of the fastest growing populations. With over 750 First Nations in (what we now call) the United States and Canada alone, it’s unrealistic to think that we’re all the same. Well I’m here to make the record clear, and encourage you to fiercely challenge what you think you already know.
For further insight, a great film has been produced by Cree director Neil Diamond I highly recommend to check out called Reel Injun about the portrayal of the “Hollywood Indian.”
From the Planet IndigenUs event in 2008 “More than Bows and Arrows” which explored historical Indigenous misconceptions and stereotypes through Aboriginal artist responses to these false identities.
So since we are following directly on the heels of the Ke$ha and Juliette Lewis hot appropriation messes, here are five myths about Native culture you really oughta know about (and if you ever run into them — do spread the word about this):
1) We’re Indians
That great discoverer Christopher Columbus made one of the biggest mistakes in history, and it has forever shaped how Native people are forced to live around the world. Thinking that he had arrived in India (when he was actually in Haiti), when Columbus first saw the Arawawk people, he called them Indians, and voila, that name has since stuck on our people like glue. Even though they probably figured out this blunder within hours, today we still have government institutions like the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs where I still have to register for my Indian Status Card to prove my racial identity.
“Aboriginal” is a term generally used in Canada, Australia, and New Zealand and in Canada it denotes three distinctly different groups of Indigenous peoples: Indians (or First Nations), Métis, and Inuit. There is a HUGE amount of diversity between the three groups; many argue that they are in fact lumped-together categories instituted and separated by the government. “American Indian”,”Native American”, “Native Hawaiian”, and “Alaska Native” are terms generally used in the United States and not EVERYONE is okay with them either.
2) Only men can be chiefs
Something mainstream feminism has not done a good job of remembering is that feminism is rooted in Indigenous culture. Many of our societies were matriarchal and/or matrilineal, and women held significant positions of power. In fact the two chief system, with both a man and a woman leading, was not uncommon and is reflective of one of our principal values of balance (and equality!). Although you’ll probably never see this in any Disney movie, where I come from the men are supposed to wait for the women to reach consensus and give direction before they can decide what to do with our land.
3) Teepees and totem poles mark where we live
My relatives in the Haudenosaunee (or what you might know as Iroquois) culture are often offended by this mass assumption, since this is actually only true for most Plains Indian tribes; like the Cree and Dakota. We lived in longhouses made of wood, and definitely not all of us made totem poles.
4) All Natives have brown (or red!) skin
This is an interesting one because for some reason, people still expect to be able to tell my ethnicity just by looking at me. While I myself have darker skin and long black hair, I have several Native friends and relatives who appear “white” or have blue eyes that have to constantly fiend off these automatic racial labels. Natives come in all colors, shapes, and sizes and my advice is just to treat people like human beings. We believe we’re all related anyway.
5) Casinos and cigarettes mean we must be rich
One of the most outrageous claims I’ve heard a few times from some non-Native people is, “Well, we went to your casino, so that’s our contribution to your people.” WTF?! Yes we might have establishments like smoke shacks, casinos, or other gaming industries on our territories, but that certainly does not mean we all benefit from them, or that all the proceeds go directly to much-needed services for our people. The reality is that the government regulates everything we do; and we’re still reeling from 500+ years of colonization. Most of these industries are struggling just to break even, while more than 50 per cent of the children in our communities live in poverty.
Oh and if you need a crash-course on the genocide of Native people in America — be sure to watch the Canary Effect produced by the Bastard Fairies. It basically does a good job of summing it up from then until now in about an hour’s time.
This post first appeared in Bitch Magazine.