The law works differently in different countries. If you commit a crime in one country, and jump over the border to an adjoining country, what can or might happen to you depends on the arrangements that have been made between the two countries.
Similarly, the law that applies, and the actual application of the law if any, is complicated when it comes to non-natives committing crime on native lands, which are separate nations, within the United States. I am very far from an expert on this. What I know about it comes from conversations with my friend Shawn Otto, who wrote a novel set in this boundary space between native and non-native lands (Sins of Our Fathers: A Novel, excellent story, go read it).
PZ Myers commented on something related in a recent blog post in which he notes a recent study suggesting that nearly half of non-Native Americans do not believe that Native people exist.
Recently, a host on a wildly popular podcast, who is Indian (as in from the Indian subcontinent, in Asia) took to referring to himself and his compatriots as “real Indians,” a reference to the idea that Columbus got it wrong when he referred to the indigenous people he ran into in the Caribbean as “Indians,” thinking he was in Asia while at the same time not having a very clear concept of what “Asia” might actually be.
I found that reference deeply offensive and I’m neither Asian-Indian or American Indian. Its just that Native Americans have enough trouble being taken seriously that I’m pretty sure they don’t need some over privileged Hollywood type from California suggesting that Native Americans are in some way non-real.
I grew up in Upstate New York, and later moved to the Boston area. That was, in a sense, going backwards in historical time in relation to Indians. From my own studies of regional history and archaeological work in the time period, I knew that a very large percentage of the Native cultures near Boston, and anywhere near Boston, were wiped out way early in the Colonial Period, while Native groups played a more persistent role in US history in New York and nearby areas of Canada. Putting this another way, we are not even quite sure of the full range of tribes that existed or what they called themselves, along the Massachusetts coast, while the New York area Haudenosaunee and some Algonquin groups are well known in history, and very much present both on and off reservations.
I remember moving to Milwaukee for a year, and discovering that Wisconsin had what was referred to as the “Indian Problem” by some people. It sounds a little more obnoxious than it actually was. The problem was disagreement over fishing rights and regulations in commonly held territories, and it was a problem that involved claims by Indian groups vs. claims by the state. I heard the term “Indian Problem” later, and read it in older documents, when I moved to Minnesota. The process of taking land from Indians, and otherwise pushing them out, moving them aside, or starving them off, was very recent in Minnesota. There are living people who’s grandparents had artifacts from the Dakota War(aka “Sioux Upraising” or “Little Crow’s War”). Some of those artifacts may have been body parts from Native Americans executed after the uprising was put down. In historic documents, the “Indian Problem” seems sometimes to refer to the constant threat of Indian attack in areas near Minneapolis or Saint Paul, well within the current boundaries of the Twin Cities metro area, early in the 20th century. These attacks are memorialized in stories and newspaper accounts, way post-date the Dakota War, and I’m 100% sure they never ever happened. They were used as a publicity stunt to make the idea of traveling out to the Twin Cities to stay in a hotel and take in the fresh air more exciting for New Yorkers and others out east.
The study mentioned above is described here. The study shows that Native American erasure from common or popular understanding in the United States is partly due to the way Native people and issues are treated by the media. Also, Natives are largely underrepresented, or absent, in educational programs, or where they appear, it is as historical figures or factors as though they existed in the past, but not necessarily now.
I actually don’t see this as a huge problem in Minnesota, and I assume it is more of a bi-coastal and possibly Southern thing. Native American presence in Minnesota is pretty out front, and I think it would be very difficult to find that more than a tiny percentage of Minnesotans think Native Americans don’t exist. Of the several individuals running for Governor or Lt. Governor in Minnesota this year, at least one is a Native American. This does not mean that the attitude about Native people is good. It probably isn’t on average. Native American reservations are often discussed in the same light as really bad urban neighborhoods, as places to avoid. At best, Native Americans are interesting or quaint.
(I note that the above mentioned Shawn Otto write the script for a brand new planetarium show in our local natural history museum, in which a kid bonks his head and ends up in an oz-like world where he learns about the history of the universe. The role is played by a young Native boy. That was helpful.)
A few years ago there was an effort by the state, I think through the Department of Education, to have more reference to Native peoples in schools. The way they did this was, in my view, not smart. Although the standard itself was somewhat better defined, they essentially required that every core course taught in the schools incorporate something about Native Americans. That’s it. Simple. This, of course, required that, say, the physical science teacher, or the math teacher, be sufficiently expert in Native American studies of some sort, to come up with something, and sufficiently enlightened to not end up doing something harmful, misleading, or hateful. There are a lot of ways to get a key bit of subject matter into a curriculum. Telling each teacher to come up with ten minutes on that topic no matter what they are teaching has never been done before, for any topic. Why this topic? Clearly, the mandate was not being taken seriously.
From the Women’s Media Center coverage of the above mentioned report:
When exposed to narratives about Native people that included factual information about present-day Native life, more accurate history, positive examples of resilience, and information about systemic oppression, respondents from all demographics showed more support for pro-Native policy and social justice issues. Information that was shared with respondents included simple statements such as “The government signed over 500 treaties with Native Americans, all of which were broken by the federal government. From 1870 to 1970, the federal government forcibly removed Native American children from their homes to attend boarding schools.” On key issues such as the Indian Child Welfare Act, racist mascots, and tribal sovereignty, 16-24 percent more people supported the position of tribes after being exposed to these new messages.
That large a shift in public support can easily be the difference in an election outcome, a bill’s passage, or the actions of large corporations, such as sports teams. Positive and accurate portrayal of Natives in the mainstream media has the potential to significantly advance Native rights in this country. Alongside the report, Reclaiming Native Truth released a guide for allies on how to improve coverage of Native Americans. The guide includes examples of positive messaging and questions for media makers to ask themselves, such as “Am I inadvertently contributing to a false or negative narrative by not taking into account or including contemporary Native peoples in my work?”
“The research really challenges the media to do their job better. The media has a deep ethical responsibility to not fall into these standardized tropes,” said Echo Hawk. “We can do a lot in terms of empowering Native voices and telling Native stories, but we can’t do it on our own. We need non-Natives as allies who are also talking about us and championing accurate representation.”
Photo above: Minnesotans learning about Native Americans at the Mille Lacs Indian Museum, in Minnesota.
4 thoughts on “Native Americans Actually Do Exist”
It IS a real problem of nomenclature, Columbus (or his contemporaries) did wrongly assign a name on people and a continent who had nothing to do with “real” Indians, as the denomination was used then and is still used now.
This is a case where splitting semantics is warranted.
I had a colleague from India who was offended in the other direction: on some administrative paperwork, he had to put his race and didn’t like one bit to have to design himself as an “East Indian”.
I don’t think Quebecois and people from France would like it either if an American bureaucrat (i.e. someone outside of their community) started to insist that they refer themselves as “West French” and “East French”, respectively. And at least in this case both our people are connected, culturally and in relatively recent history, so wanting to use the same denomination has some basis in reality. That’s not the case for Native Americans/Indians.
Well, “West Indians” and “East Indians” are connected, too, but you have to go back to the time the ancestors of the future Native Americans crossed the Bering Strait.
I guess the guy on the podcast was not saying that Native Americans/Indigenous people/First Nations don’t exist. Just that “Indian” should solely design people from India.
Look, Greg. In your sentence I quoted just above, you had to use qualifiers whenever you use “Indian”, and generally you use “Native Americans” to avoid confusion. It seems to me all of us could drop the term “American Indian” and go for a nomenclature without a build-in confusing factor. Especially now that people from India are more and more present in North America.
Maybe it would be simpler to ask Native Americans how they want to be called.
It’s my understanding that they are fine with being called Indians.
I use AmerIndian for this. Native American is confusing cuz I am a Native American too, and just like the AmerIndians my ancestors came from somewhere else. To talk about AmerIndians is sorta tough as they consider themselves not AmerIndians nor ‘Native Americans’ but Charekee(spelling), Sioux, Apache, etc.
After a number of years being with AmerIndians, their history is easy to tell…they were people and as such were not perfect. The USA were (and still is-see pipeline) a pack of criminal, bigoted aholes that killed as many as possible, as often as possible for their personal gain; and the whites of USA are still doing so (& to other non-whites & poor-whites) when they can!
In states that do not allow casino gambling, and in some that do, such as Louisiana, the existence and popularity of Indian casinos does not allow the reality of Indians to be doubted. (I suppose that reality might suggest to those prone to stereotyping that all Indians are rich. Ya’know, like Jews are supposed to be.)
BTW I have some acquaintance with Western New York state and Thomas Perry wrote a series of novels which include local color and which feature a native WNY Indian woman named Jane Whitefield who helps people in trouble with the mob and other villains disappear.