The Basic Indian Stereotypes
Joseph Riverwind wrote the following for the
site www.bluecorncomics.com :
It is the goal of this page to dispel the common myths which
surround the Native people of this continent. Stereotypes abound thanks
to the lack of education and the media's shortsightedness. The following
is a compilation of the most prevalent stereotypes of our people:
Few of us lived in tipis, wore
feather bonnets, or fought like "braves"
Cowboy movies during the 20th century portrayed the Plains people as
living in tipis, wearing war bonnets or feathers in their hair, riding
horses, brandishing war lances, and more. As a result of this, the
common assumption is that all Native people were like those portrayed
in films. This is very far from the truth.
Yes, the Plains people did live in tipis, and they
were nomadic. They readily adopted horses, introduced by the
Spaniards, into their nomadic life and used them war as well as for
travel. (Before horses, they used dogs to pull loads.) In the East,
the people lived in longhouses, wigwams (wooden structures similar to
log cabins), and (in the Southeast) thatched-roof houses. Out West,
the desert people lived in structures made of adobe—mortared sand and
water—which they shaped into bricks to make homes. You can research
more on the different dwellings of Native people at your local library
We had no inherited royalty
The nations of this country have never had a concept of Indian
royalty. The Indian princess is strictly a European concept. We do not
have kings, queens, or princesses. If someone in your family tells you
his or her great-grandmother was a Cherokee princess, please correct
the person on that issue.
As James W. Loewen writes in his book Lies Across
America, "Indeed, most American Indian 'chiefs' were never chiefs.
Europeans projected chiefdom onto Native Americans because they could
not easily conceive of people living in a civil society without
permanent formal rank. Also, making a 'chief' of a respected Native
(and sometimes any Native who happened to be handy) gave a European
leader an opposite with whom to deal—someone who could sell land, for
We did not smoke a peace pipe
Sitting Bull once said that there is no such thing as a peace pipe
because there has never been peace. The pipe is sacred to many people,
and we treat it with much respect. It teaches us just as the Bible
teaches Christians. We never put illegal narcotics into a pipe,
so people can't get "high" from smoking one. We use blessed tobacco
and often add other herbs, such as spearmint, red willow bark, and
bearberry leaves, for a pleasant taste or aroma.
We did not whoop
At many exhibitions we see this behavior of putting your hand in front
of your mouth and making the "whoo whoo" noise. It is even funnier
when we see boys and men doing it. The ululation was done by women
when their husbands went to war, when they returned from a successful
hunt or raid, or at the death of a loved one. The women made this
sound with the tongue and the mouth slightly closed (no hands).
The men had a war cry that they issued in battle to
intimidate and scare their enemies. This sound, coupled with the
warriors' painted faces, had a crippling psychological effect on the
recipients, often making them flee for their lives. So when we see men
doing the "whoo whoo whoo" thing, we laugh because to us they sound
like the women.
We do not pound a drum or
The drum is the heartbeat of our people. It unites us all in dance and
fellowship at powwows or traditional events unique to each tribe. The
songs we sing are old and new. Many span hundreds of years, having
been passed down from generation to generation. Yes, I said songs,
not chants. We are not Gregorian monks; they are the ones who
We do not have shamans
Thanks to the New Age craze that has spread around the world, there
are many self-proclaimed "medicine men" and "shamans"—people who claim
to follow our spiritual ways, having "learned" everything they know
from books bought at the local book store. After the book Black Elk
Speaks was published, people thought they could become instant
medicine men and women. Little do they know that Black Elk did not
tell the whole truth to the book's writer.
Some people go so far as to charge for vision quests
or sweat lodge ceremonies. Never get taken in by someone like this,
much less by self-proclaimed spiritual leaders who cannot tell you
truthfully where they received the permission and training to perform
these ceremonies. It is dangerous when these people attempt to perform
these ceremonies and involve others who do not know any better. We do
not tolerate these people within our Native communities, and lately
many of our medicine people have traveled off the reservation to put a
stop to these charlatans.
Some quick definitions of the most common names for
our spiritual leaders: Medicine
medicine man is a person who is knowledgeable in herbs and cures
for various ailments and ills. Healer—A
healer uses prayers and ancient methods for curing and healing.
Shaman—This is not a Native
American word. "Shaman" is derived from Russian Siberia and is not
used by us.
We do not worship nature
Everyone seems to think we worship the sun, trees, animals, and
spirits. There is one Creator, and we call him/her by different names.
The first priests who set foot on this land watched as Native people
raised their hands to the sun and prayed. Since they were "civilized"
rather than "savage" like us, they took this to be worship of the sun.
If the priests had asked, we would have told them the prayers were for
the force that created the sun, not the sun itself.
The same goes for animals and other aspects of nature.
We believe they have a living spirit within them. We honor and respect
them. But we do not worship them.
Our ancestors learned from observing these aspects of
nature. The traits of different animals showed them how to survive.
Our ancestors learned to hunt from the wolf, for example; they copied
the way a pack would corral and kill its prey. The first Americans
were not the only ones who learned this method. At one time, everyone
on this earth was a hunter/gatherer. Observance and respect for nature
was a learning process which ingrained itself in our ancestors' lives
and continues to this day.
We do not all have spirit
animals or funny "Indian names"
Another New Age misconception is that people can "choose" their
"Indian names," "spirit animals," or "totems." Not all Native people
have animal spirits as guardians or protectors; if they did, it is not
something easily earned. And many of us are given names, but these
names are not spoken out loud or used as a tool for
Both things are very personal, and I will only say
that yes, this is a part of our spiritual lives and is not something to
be discussed in this type of forum. But I will add that we do not get
the names as a result of a dream, a feeling, or a natural affinity for a
certain animal—and certainly not from some plastic shaman ceremony. I
will say no more on this subject.
Additional notes from Rob
Joseph limited himself to cultural stereotypes involving beliefs and
practices. Our Hall of Shame combines the cultural and personal
stereotypes—the stoic, drunk, or good-for-nothing Indian—in one
comprehensive list. Each item provides a summary of the subject but is
by no means comprehensive. One probably could write a book on each of
One overriding stereotype is that all Indians were the
same—that they all wore buckskins and feathers, lived in tipis, followed
a great chief and his medicine man, danced and prayed to nature, etc.
The Playmobil Indian Village set suggests the problem. It intermingles
what looks like an Apache warrior, a Plains Chief, a Navajo weaver, and
an Algonquin canoe.
Actually, these come from several separate, largely
unrelated cultures. As the 500 Nations title suggests, thousands
of different Indian cultures existed before Columbus arrived. They were
as distinct as the European cultures of the British, the Spanish, the
Vikings, the Russians, and the Greeks.