Native People Are Still Being Misinterpreted and Misunderstood

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.

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