21 things you can do to be more respectful of Native American cultures

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[Image description: A view of downtown Seattle, with tall buildings overlooking Mt. Rainier in the distance. Seattle was named after Chief Seattle, who was a Suquamish Tribe and Duwamish Chief. Image obtained from Pixabay.com]

Today is Indigenous Peoples Day. A colleague asked me to write and encourage people to not use sayings that reference Native American culture (“let’s have a pow wow”) or allude to Native Americans as enemies (“circle the wagons”). I realized that besides our thoughtless usage of phrases, we all probably do other things that are disrespectful. I checked in with a few of my friends and colleagues who are Native about things that they wish all of us who are not Native would do or not do. It has led to some eye-opening conversations.

The tips below, in no particular order, are from Tara Dowd, Inupiaq; Randy Ramos, Colville and Coeur D’Alene; James Lovell, Turtle Mountain Ojibwe; Joey Gray, Métis and Okanagan; Vicki Mudd, nondocumented Cherokee and Blackfoot; and Miriam Zbignew-Angelova, Choctaw, Cherokee, Chickasaw, Sauk/Fox, and African-American and Ashkenazi. Sentences in quotation marks are from them. I want to thank my colleagues for their time and suggestions for resources. This is clearly an area that many of us need to learn more about and do better on, and I’m grateful for their time and energy.

I know that Native American history and identity are extremely complex and can’t be covered in a blog post, especially one that is written by a non-Native, but I hope that at the very least, this would be a start for all of us to be more thoughtful in our interactions with our Native colleagues and community members.

  1. Understand that being Native means different things to every person. “To some people, it means being Indian. To some, it means being Native. To some it means being American Indian. Native American. Indigenous. Alaskan Native. First Nations. Some folks exclusively use their tribe’s name.” Here’s an article, for instance, about the complexity of the term “Native American” and “American Indian.”
  2. Find out whose land you are on, and honor it. “Remember that every inch of the US land was acquired illegally so that’s the deficit that organizations need to understand as they begin working with tribal people and entities.” If you don’t know whose land you are occupying, here’s an awesome map where you can enter in your city in the US or Canada and it’ll tell you, along with links so you can learn more about the Nations or tribes whose land you are on.
  3. Never ask anyone if they’re an “enrolled member.” There is so much complexity to this question. “You may be 100% eligible and not enrolled.” Many people are from multiple tribes. Some people may not have their paperwork for a variety of reasons.
  4. Do not lightly claim that you have Native American heritage. Don’t lightly say things like you have an uncle who was a shaman or your grandmother was a Cherokee princess. No one is a Cherokee princess. No tribes had that term in the history of Indigenous people so just stop with that non-sense. Along with this, you don’t become Native just because your DNA test says you are. Like just DON’T.” Here’s a thought-provoking article on why so many people claim to be Cherokee.
  5. Avoid sayings that diminish or disparage Native culture. As mentioned above, don’t say things like “let’s have a pow wow,” “lowest person on the totem pole,” “too many chiefs, not enough Indians,” “Indian giver,” “circle the wagons,” etc. These phrases are disrespectful, and we still use them every day. “Spirit animal” is another one; some colleagues suggest using “Patronus” instead (that’s a reference from Harry Potter.)
  6. Don’t “play Indian.” As this article states, “While minstrel shows have long been criticized as racist, American children are still socialized into playing Columbus Day celebrations, Halloween costumes, and Thanksgiving reenactments stereotype Indigenous Peoples as one big distorted culture. We are relegated to racist stereotypes and cultural caricatures.” Avoid treating Native communities and members as logos, mascots, costumes, caricatures, etc.
  7. Be where people are. Go to the reservation and Native community organizations. Visit your local Native cultural center. Learn about the culture and history.
  8. Support Native artists and businesses by buying Native. Buy art, jewelry, clothing, and other items made by Native people and communities. Do not buy “Native” items that are not made my Native Americans and that are just taking advantage of Native culture to make money; be aware of scams by non-Natives who claim that proceeds from sales are benefiting Natives. These scams are illegal according to the Indian Arts and Crafts Act of 1990 and should be reported.
  9. Invite an elder or tribal leader to do an opening prayer or invocations at large events. This is a way to honor and to bring attention to the tribes whose land the event is taking place on. But do your research first so you do it right. And make sure you honor people’s time, culture, and expertise by providing an honorarium to the leader or organization.
  10. Understand that there are over 550 tribal affiliations in the US. They are extremely diverse and have different languages and cultural customs. This is why it is important to do your research. Do not lump everyone together. A colleague mentioned, for example, being asked to represent the tribe whose land the organization was trying to honor, even though she is not a member of that tribe.
  11. Don’t assume that tribal people get money from casinos. As mentioned in this handy simple guide, “Out of more than 560 Federally recognized tribes, only 224 operate gaming facilities. About three-fourths of those tribes reinvest revenue in the community. In 2006, only 73 tribes distributed direct payments to individual Tribal members.”
  12. When disaggregating data, make sure to include Natives. Even if they are a small percentage. “I mean, think about it,” says a colleague, “They are such a small percentage of the overall population BECAUSE of the injustice done by colonization and ethnic cleansing.” It does not help to further minimize people’s existence by excluding them.
  13. Don’t expect every cultural custom will be explained to you. For example, when you are at a cultural event. As a colleague mentioned, “We don’t want to feel like an exhibit and have to explain everything going on.” Also, there might be times when people are required not to talk about something. If you work with kids, for instance, be sensitive about forcing them to share their culture. “Some things are not meant to be shared.”
  14. If you’re at an event, be thoughtful and patient around time. Events may not start or end on time. This does not necessarily mean that people can’t be punctual. They may just value other things more highly, such as creating space to build relationships, or to be inclusive of everyone’s stories.
  15. Be sensitive during meal times. Food is a significant part of many communities and cultures. A colleague mentioned that in her tribe, elders eat first, and those who are able-bodied are expected to get plates for the elders or for mothers with small children. Be aware when you are at an event and not just jump directly into the food line.
  16. Don’t say costume when referring to native dance outfits and traditional wear. A dancer’s outfit is called regalia. As mentioned in this article on pow wow etiquette: “Often pieces of the regalia are family heirlooms. Regalia is created by the dancer or by a respected family member or friend. The feathers in particular are sacred and highly valued and cared for. The beadwork may take a very long time to complete. Sometimes years have gone into the final completion of a dancer’s regalia.”
  17. Do not assume Native Americans have high rates of alcoholism. Actually, as mentioned here, Native Americans have “the highest rate of complete abstinence. When socioeconomic level is accounted for in a comparison group, alcoholism rates are no different for AI/ANs than for other ethnic or racial groups.” Adds a colleague, “But alcohol WAS used to obtain illegal signatures for treaties and access to lands and resources that belonged to tribal people. So maybe don’t invite Natives to do ‘business’ in a bar without checking in first.”
  18. Do not tokenize people. As with other marginalized communities, they’ll know if you are only trying to look diverse, or to look good for a grant application or something. Spend time building actual relationships, and ensure people and organizations are equitably compensated.
  19. Ensure the voices of Natives are amplified. We’ve seen when non-Native journalists are paid to tell stories about Native communities and their struggles. Let’s ensure the people whose stories are being told are the ones telling them. However, we all need to do our own research and reflections so our Native colleagues are not always having to educate us.
  20. Don’t bring up the land bridge theory. Many communities are very sensitive to the theory that Native Americans came over from Asia through the Bering Strait. You can read a couple of articles from Native perspectives here and here, but it may be best not to bring it up.
  21. Check your white privilege. “Native people don’t have time or the emotional energy to labor through your hang ups around race issues or your identity crisis.” Do your work to understand your own heritage and the privileges that come with it, and understand your family’s history, including the parts that may be challenging, that may have involved displacing Natives from their land, for example.
  22. (Update). Use the present tense. Many of us make the mistake of using the past tense when talking about Native communities, and according to this article, “A staggering 87 percent of references to American Indians in all 50 states’ academic standards portray them in a pre-1900 context.” Many kids believe that Native Americans only exist in the past; they have no understanding of current Native cultures and challenges, and we adults often inadvertently contribute to this. As a colleague states, “the use of only the past tense contributes to the genocidal narrative that we’re anything but still here.”

I know this is a simplistic list that can’t possibly cover hundreds of communities and cultures, but I hope it’s a start. Thanks again to all my colleagues. Please let me in the comment section anything I missed or got wrong, or other things it would be important for us all to know.

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  • CCDC ACTION

    Thanks, as usual this is terrific. I did not know the origin of the word “circle the wagons” —and we had been referring to regular meetings in our community as “pow wows” and will stop doing so immediately. I especially appreciate the importance of disaggregating data even if the numbers are small. In the disablity world, Native Americans have the highest percent of people with disabilities in our state (14% as opposed to 9% for total state). However when you look up numbers lke % employed full time full year there is no data. That is because of excessively low numbers. When I speak I make a point of this—while the overall number of about 27% of us have full time full year jobs the number of Native Americans with this privilege is so low it is not even counted speaks volumes to the magnitude of oppression, discrimination and lack of opportunity. My point is that even when there is not actual data the lack of data should be noted. Again, thank you.

    • Thanks, CCDC, for adding to the important topic of data disaggregation.

    • Something I just learned this year–circling the wagons was actually used as a defense method in Europe in the early modern era of warfare–say the 1500s and 1600s. I suspect that, in terms of modern pop culture, when people say “circle the wagons,” they are referring to wagon trains in the US. But historically speaking, it goes further back!

      That said, I’m not going to use the term, because most people wouldn’t get that I’m not referring to native people as a threat.

  • Dare Henry-Moss

    Thank you for this important article. I hope someone with experience and perspective on this can help me with how to reconcile the paradox of numbers 4 and 12. When there is an awareness that self-report of Native American ancestry is exaggerated because of the reasons described in the referenced article, how should accurate reporting on demographics best proceed without erasure through aggregation? My answer to this in the past has been to use a multiracial category with all reporting multiple races, but I want to make sure I’m being sensitive to the unique concerns expressed here.

    • Thanks for being thoughtful about this, Dare. It is a complex issue, and I don’t have the answer. I hope Native leaders and researchers may be able to provide some perspective.

      • Megan “Trinity In-Home Care” P

        I agree with the wish for more understanding of #4. This is an issue in my family, as my great-grandmother was Native, and this is something which has brought me pride. However, because this was late 1800s (my grandpa was born in 1910 and obviously has long since died himself), there is next-to-no information about her or her family, or her tribe. We live in Kansas, (which is part of why we don’t know what tribe she would have been in; there are SO many possibilities in our part of the country). I live in Lawrence, home of Haskell Indian Nations University, which is rich with Native culture and pride– but also represents the honest story of how Haskell came to be here (if you want your heart to break, look this up). I want to share that with my children in a way that makes them feel personally invested, care about this true history and feel proud of their own history. But their phenotype is heavily European and we don’t have solid information about my ancestry. I don’t want to offend my Native friends and neighbors, but I want my children to understand that it is part of their story, too. Especially after the incident with Elizabeth Warren a few years ago, I’m very unsure what to do.

  • I think #4 “Do Not Claim You Have Native American Heritage” is a bit problematic. I appreciate your intent, but many people actually DO have Native American heritage and they should not have to lie about it either. My ancestors had to deny their identities b/c of bigotry and intolerance, claiming Dutch ancestry out of fear. It is very sad that so many descendants still have to deny it 200 years later to avoid becoming cliches. There has to be a way to tell the truth in a sensitive manner. How about “do not claim Native heritage lightly, or “be mindful that simply having indigenous blood does not mean you understand the Native American experience.” People have a right to acknowledge and honor all their ancestors. Lying creates negative energy and there has to be a better choice between either denying your heritage completely or risk coming off as that that gauche Cherokee princess!

    • Thanks, Sherie. I edited it a little bit. It is not trying to say no one should claim Native ancestry, but that we should all be more thoughtful and, as you said, not do it lightly.

    • Bill Leslie

      Well said! No one should be able to tell you how to define your heritage, and you should never have to deny or be afraid of the truth.

  • Patrick

    With all the respect for native culture and history that this privileged white scientist can muster, I’m confused by number 20… neither linked article seems to talk about *why* native peoples have a problem with the Bering Strait theory, just that they don’t think it holds weight. The first article also makes some claims about earth science and genetics that are not based on our current scientific understanding.

    I can understand if it’s a difference between traditional origin stories and scientific anthropology, and that’s fine. I can also understand a sensitivity to being labeled or categorized by “race” or ethnicity, and the historical and modern implications thereof.

    But as someone who is genuinely curious about how all of us Homo sapiens got distributed all over the planet, should human migration be taboo?

    I’m by no means defending the Bering Land Bridge theory—anthropology and paleontology are notoriously weak sciences because evidence is spotty and a lot of theories are best guesses. It may become clear with new discoveries over the next 50 years that it was all by boat 20,000 years ago.

    But, as is referenced in #10, I’m not willing to paint all native peoples with the same brush and assume that everyone believes in the same creation/delivery story, any more than I would think all Christians are young-earth creationists.

    I think better references for understanding the anthropological perspective would be this one: https://www.voanews.com/a/native-americans-call-for-rethink-of-bering-strait-theory/3901792.html and for understanding the cultural perspective would be this one: http://www.native-languages.org/bering.htm

    • Thanks, Patrick. I added the links you referenced.

    • Bill Leslie

      Well said. Thoughtful dialogue.

    • Joe Whittle

      What would you say to a Native person who told you their people were created in a hole in the Earth and emerged from it onto this land when no people walked upon it and all the animals could speak?

  • bettybarcode

    “Do not lightly claim that you have Native American heritage. Don’t lightly say things like you have an uncle who was a shaman or your grandmother was a Cherokee princess.”

    Hear, hear. My mother once claimed this very thing: sketchy Cherokee ancestry. In reality, we are a hopelessly ordinary blend of Western European national origins.

    My profession is local history & I teach basic genealogy research sources. I have to say that white folks claiming some miniscule shred of Native ancestry is second only in the Bogus Urban Legend Hall of Fame to “My house was on the Underground Railroad. There was a tunnel!” Don’t assert it unless you can prove it through genealogical research with primary source documents.

    The claim is possible only with an American history completely cleansed of fear, disgust, condescension, and predation towards Native peoples. It asserts a nonexistent past of instantly assimilated Indians & whites somehow interacting and courting as equals.

    • bettybarcode

      Oh, and a quick postscript: If you work in or serve on the board of a historical society, art gallery, or museum, read up on the NAGPRA act, which concerns the repatriation of human remains and sacred objects:

      https://www.nps.gov/nagpra/

    • Mehitabel

      “Along with this, you don’t become Native just because your DNA test says you are. Like just DON’T.” Every time I see those DNA test ads where the woman says “I’m 26% Native American”, I just cringe. I’m some small part Native American myself, judging from an old family photo of one of my great-grandparents, but that’s not “my” culture. I never knew her – she died before I was born. I have no right to try to appropriate that culture just because I have one ancestor who was a part of it long ago.

      • Bill Leslie

        Good point. The non-dna elements – language, music, spiritual elements, values, are as important (dare I say, more important?) than the dna elements. I wrote about this in an article for a genealogy magazine about my own ancestors. Before 1500, on one ancestral line my ancestors were French. Then they moved to Ireland for 150 or 200 years. Then to America. Then to Canada. Then to America. What is the heritage? I would ask, what language(s) do they speak? What recipes do they use? What music do they play? And a hundred other questions. I’m not sure I would ask about family dna…

    • Kestrel

      A question for you or for anyone else here… We adopted my daughter and there is pretty strong anecdotal evidence that her paternal birth grandmother was Native American, but we don’t have any contacts on that side of the family. Any suggestions for a young woman who wants to discover more about her birth family heritage?

  • Carolyn Owens

    And please, those in Cleveland, Atlanta, and Washington, change the names of your teams NOW – even to this white girl they are horrifying. I can’t imagine how awful it is for those the names disparage. See Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt episode for ideas on new names. Or some laughs at least.

    • Tony Keene

      I’m native and I really couldn’t care less.

  • Maura Grogan

    To elaborate on #22 it’s also important to note that 78% of all Native Americans live off reservation, mainly in our cities. This report recently published by the National Indian Urban Family Coalition is an important source of information and policy suggestions. http://keepitsacred.itcmi.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/5/2015/06/NUIFC_digital_Bookplain.pdf

  • Still a fan

    Really great article, thank you. I will admit that our very fair-skinned family claims Choctaw, but that the jury is still out. That said, we have all been raised to understand that there is another, untold side to American history, especially for my generation growing up in the 60s. My mom was adamant that I understood the flip side of the Oklahoma land rush, for example. I read every book I could get my hands on at that time including Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, and continue to stay aware of Native issues. So despite the fact that we fit the profile of white people claiming Native ancestry, and more than likely are 100% European, it did instill in us a healthy awareness of, and resistance to the one-sidedness version of history we got in school. I had some pretty heated discussions with my 11th grade high school history teacher for sure! Anyway, thanks again for this extremely helpful set of guidelines. Sadly, we still seem to have a ways to go.

  • Tony Keene

    I dont appreciate you miss representing my culture. Or trying to speak for it.

  • Paul Cajamarca

    Recognition that Native people span both North and South America is especially important. It’s very disappointing when the genocide and the resilience of indigenous people outside North America goes unmentioned.

  • Kristi McClelland

    Love, love, love this blog! Very complex issue with concrete suggestions from folks most impacted. Love the links you included as well. To add just one more layer of complexity (the world is truly a complex mosaic or tapestry, ever evolving), there are indigenous cultures from around the globe and many immigrant communities (in western WA and around the country) represent that demographic. We need to outreach and embrace them and their cultures as well. Thanks…

  • Brandy Steffen

    As always, thank you for your thoughtful and thought provoking posts! Thanks.

  • Bill Leslie

    Wow. Where to begin?

    4. Do not lightly claim that you have Native American heritage Let me get this straight, a Non-Native person is telling me how I need to define my Native heritage? Anyone have a problem with that? I can’t see giving any person – of any heritage – the right to tell me how to define my culture or heritage.

    5. Avoid sayings that diminish or disparage Native culture. The suggestion is, as I see it, that we remove references to Native cultures from our language. But language is dynamic – we have acquired many words from Native peoples – and our language has infiltrated their languages, too.

    To say that we have “too many chiefs” is not disparaging a Native people. The word “chief” is of French derivation, and was in use in hundreds of years before Columbus sailed.

    “Circle the Wagons?” The Romans were circling the wagons for protection by the fourth century.

    In the end, I think this suggestion will only diminish Native peoples culturally.

    9. Invite an elder or tribal leader to do an opening prayer or invocations Seriously? We can no longer have a Christian prayer at many public events, but we are encouraged to invite a tribal leader to inaugurate special events?

    19. Ensure the voices of Natives are amplified Let me see if I get this right. We are encouraged to find out about Native peoples, but we are not allowed to talk about Native peoples, or write about them.

    And this rule doesn’t apply to the author of this blog entry, a non-Native. Just to the rest of this.

    There is some truth in this post. And a bunch of it I strongly disagree with.

    • Joe Whittle

      That’s a helluva a lot of fragility, whitesplaining and “Christian victimhood” for someone trying to pass off Native cred in a comments section. Weird how someone would claim that cred and then spout a bunch of stuff that is broadly offensive in our communities. When I see this type of commentary it usually comes with a Cherokee princess mythology. (And yes I am Native- and I gladly tell people I am enrolled because there are way too many fakes and wannabes out there pretending like they have a right to speak for Native people while propagating nonsense.)

      • Bill Leslie

        Joe, I offered some respectful comments. I don’t think I “spouted” anything. And I don’t think my comments merited your name calling. Ifyou want a thoughtful dialogue, let’s do that. If not, you win, I give up. Everything you said is right, everything I said is wrong. I keep hoping that the internet can be a place for learning and dialogue and exchange, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. On pro-choice or pro-life sites, if you disagree with anything that is said, you are flamed. No growing, no learning, no thoughtful exchanges. Same on 2nd Amendment websites or sites in favor of more gun control. If one voices anything other than the extremes, you get thrashed. BTW, I’m a linguist, among other things, I’m reluctant to accept that my pointing out the etymological source of a word or phrase would be called “spouting” anything. And BTW, I also said there is some truth in the original post.

        • Joe Whittle

          Your drastic reinterpretation of the OP’s words and blatant subjective reframing of them is surprising if you are a linguist. Whatever your reasons for bringing that subjectivity to your linguistic analysis, your opinions do not reflect any awareness of (or at the least agreement with general consensus within) social context from an Indigenous Native American perspective. That’s not to preclude varying perspectives within that context, or claim myself that I am a speaker for “all” Native people; but it is to preclude your ability to make claims to that context as some sort of qualifier for your subjective opinions. Which you seemed to do. This article reflects broad consensus among Native rights and issues activism and your opinions do not. That is a fact. Certainly there are some nuances missing from it. One being that we actually do rely on discussing enrollment as a way to determine who is fraudulent and who is legitimate among white passing claims to Native heritage. I say that as a mixed race tribal member who gladly shares my enrollment status to dispel any suspicions. Because I happen to know just my own tribe alone has a half dozen completely fraudulent and fake “tribe” claiming to be us in the areas we were extirpated from. This is another reason we do rely on Federal recognition; with full understanding of the dualities of racist systems that quantify our blood and determine our identities. These are the subtleties that non-Native people will never understand, and Cherokee princess mythology families never do either. So when I say “spouting off”, it’s comments that make some claim to speak from a Native perspective, that clearly don’t, that I’m referring to.

          • Bill Leslie

            Signing off of this conversation. One thing to consider: If I am wrong, or have offended, it was unintentional, and consider that my intent was to increase communication. Your first post was designed to intentionally offend – three times in the first sentence – and your intent was to shut down dialogue. You have succeeded. Well done! This is so typical of the internet.

          • Joe Whittle

            Like I said, making yourself the “victim” as opposed to simply letting this article be who it is about; Native people. It doesn’t matter who wrote it. They are among few white folks who are clearly working hard to come correct, and here you are trying to counter their work. As a Native person, that offends me regardless of who you are. And it certainly doesn’t make me feel like that perspective is coming from an ally to Native people, let alone an actual Native person yourself. So yeah go ahead and keep acting like its you and Christianity or whatever else that’s victim in this discussion and article.

  • De_Minimis

    Glad to see this discussion. This may be a contrarian opinion, but as someone who is enrolled Cherokee, I would be okay with people asking if I or others are enrolled. A lot of cultural appropriation and fakery has taken place under the guise of “my ancestors didn’t get the paperwork/refused to sign up/were excluded by other members back then” etc. This especially goes for Cherokee! One time my boss was telling me all about a “High Priest of the Cherokee Nation” who was speaking at his church, and it was so hard to not roll my eyes the more he talked about it. Following #3 kind of aids and abets people who are doing #4.

  • Abigail Soto

    I love all of this, as usual. Thank you, Vu. #22 especially spoke to me as I recently came across this type of language in a media piece put out by our local Community Foundation. I wrote them back about it and received a very thoughtful and respectful reply. I am reminded by your post again to speak up even if my voice shakes.