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Avoiding Indian Stereotypes

Kara Stewart, a reading resource teacher and a member of the Sappony tribe, contributed this article.

Be an active stereotype buster. Give students the facts: 78 percent of Native Americans in America don’t live on reservations (according to 1990 census figures); the jobs they hold are the jobs other races hold—teachers, police officers, bank clerks, doctors, lawyers, business people, entrepreneurs, and farmers; they don’t all have black hair and “red” skin but may have brown, blonde, or red hair, blue or hazel eyes; Indian kids wear clothes like other kids wear; Indians don’t hunt for subsistence foods but go to the grocery store like everyone else!

Show photographs of contemporary Native Americans engaged in activities (not all crafts). Photographs and biographies of notable contemporary Native Americans are wonderful. Photographs of contemporary Native American kids and their families, photographs of Indian business men and women or other professionals, photographs of the houses Indians live in today (which are usually just like other students’ homes)—these are all great ways to balance and complete the picture students have of Indians.

Think about each topic before you present it. You wouldn’t teach about African American history by having students choose African American names used in the 1800s, so don’t teach about Indians by having students choose Indian names.

If you wouldn’t have students sing songs about how wonderful it was to conquer the people of Africa, don’t have students sing songs about how wonderful it was to conquer the Wild West. Don’t use offensive terms like squaw, redskins, and braves. Don’t allow war whoops and mock scalpings. Be aware that many books used as standard reading in schools present stereotypical views of Indians and adjust your reading list or discussion accordingly.

Don’t single out Indian children during Native American studies any more than you would single out other children during studies relative to their heritage. “Johnny, you’re German aren’t you? Care to explain Adolf Hitler?” or “Suzy, you’re black. How do you feel about segregation?” Both are clearly ludicrous and no educator would say those things! However, it is fairly common for educators to say something akin to, “Paul, you’re Indian. Tell us about Indians’ religious beliefs.” Quite problematic, since there is no such thing as Indians’ religious beliefs, any more than there is such a thing as Africans’ religious beliefs. Even if the teacher had said, “Paul, you’re Seneca. Tell us about the Seneca’s religious beliefs,” he or she still would have been off base, since some Seneca families may be Baptist, Methodist, Unitarian—just like other races have diverse religious beliefs. It contributes to the learning experience for the entire class if an Indian child volunteers to share information he or she is comfortable sharing, but to put a child on the spot is inappropriate.

Do not assume that Indian children are experts on Indians. Just as a black, white, Hispanic or Asian child may not be able to explain the religious principles of the church they attend, an Indian child may not be able to explain theirs either. If you do not expect a white or black child to have answers to questions about their cultures, don’t expect an Indian child to have answers to questions about their Indian culture.

Ask Indian families and students for their input regarding lesson plans. Calling and speaking with Indian parents well in advance of a lesson’s presentation and asking their views is instrumental in getting that input. Speaking to your Indian students privately before presenting lessons is a good way to monitor comfort levels. Be flexible and try to understand parents’ and students’ points of view.

To summarize my advice to teachers: make sure you have correct facts and present all relevant points of view to your students, think about the effect your words and activities will have, further no stereotypes, and be willing to cooperate with Indian families. You owe all of your students this.