Native Americans and Cultural Sensitivity

The following is a compilation of statements from Native Americans students at Central Indian Bible College, near the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation during the years 1984-1986. Opinions concerning the listed topics vary greatly from tribe to tribe….and year to year.

There are 5 acceptable terms for referring to Native Americans:

Indians – Acceptable to most, but not all, Native peoples. (Can refer to people from India.)
Native Americans – Acceptable to most, but not all, Native peoples. However, the term does imply that they have always been here; the First people.
Natives – Becoming more acceptable among Native youth in referring to themselves, but may be offensive coming from Anglos.
American Indians – Generally acceptable to most Native peoples.
Indigenous Peoples – An academic term; not often used by Native Peoples.

There are many terms unacceptable when referring to Native Americans:

Injuns – A degrading term from old westerns; unacceptable and insulting.
Skins – A slang term used by Native youth – among themselves.
Red Man – Are not human beings are more than skin-pigmentation?
Chief – Used as a stereotype of older Native males.
Squaw – A derogatory, sexist term that should never be used.
Papoose – A word with racist inference.
Brave – A term rarely used, but can apply to young Native men of courage.
Warrior – When used to describe a Native American of valor, it is generally acceptable.

Avoid stereotypical characterizations:

Male – savage, bloodthirsty, stoic, loyal followers, wise old chief
Female – squaw, “Pocahontas complex” –  self-sacrificial for a white male
General – lazy, all are craftspeople, they are “wild”, they use stilted speech (e.g., “many moons ago”),  they are heathen; primitive.

What not to teach:

Don’t talk about Natives as if they belong to the past; we are blessed to minister to the fastest-growing people groups in the United States.
Don’t talk about “them” and “us”.
Don’t allow anyone to think that Native Americans speak in broken English.
Don’t lump all Natives Americans together; there are 601 tribes in the United States.    
Don’t teach that all Native Americans “are just like other minorities”. The primary difference is that others were not dispossessed of their lands.
Don’t let anyone think that a few Europeans defeated millions during the Indian Wars. European-introduced diseases killed many millions.
Don’t assume that all Native young people are well acquainted with their heritage.
Don’t let anyone believe that Native life ways have no meaning today.
Don’t use alphabet cards that say “A” is for apple, “B” is for ball, and “I” is for Indian. Do not equate Native Peoples with “things.”
Don’t let TV stereotypes go unchallenged. Native Peoples are no more or less “savage” than any other race who has fought to defend their land.

Analyze the sources you use:

Check for oversimplified depictions of Indian cultures.
Consider the author’s background.
Examine the author’s perspective.

Resolution of problems:

How are they resolved?  (only by Anglos?)
Check the illustrations:  Are they complementary or degrading?
Look for stereotypes and tokenism.
Watch for loaded terms (ones with offensive overtones).
Note: It is best to use Native authors whenever possible.  Native America does not function from the same assumptions as Western systems do.

Fundamentals of most Native Peoples:

Adaptability:  In social and technological change, Native Peoples are survivors.
Competition:  Life is cooperative, not competitive.
Possessiveness/Materialism:  Necessities of life are shared, not owned.
Life: All life is sacred.  Abortion is almost non-existent on most reservations. 
Time: Oriented to the present, not tomorrow; a cyclical (seasonal) rather than lineal (sequential) sense of time. “Indian Time” means “when the time is right”. Many Indian languages do not have a future tense. A relaxed attitude concerning time indicates neither indifference, sloth nor irresponsibility.
Responsibility:  Assigned early in life; children often treated as freethinking adults.
Individuality:  Tribal identity is often primary and individual identity secondary. 
Discipline:  Parents tend to prefer guidance rather than spanking; “Denial-of-privilege” is often the preferred form of discipline.
Eye-Contact: Among some tribes, direct eye-contact is a marked sign of disrespect.
Respect:  Respect for the elders is very important.
Silence:  Silence often denotes respect – but not necessarily agreement.
Cooperation:  Cooperative sharing and working together is a fundamental principle.       
Communication:  Interruption of a speaker is often perceived as very rude, therefore most Native students will not “shout out’” answers in class sessions. Among some tribal groups, children are taught to follow directions and not ask questions. Many are more likely to respond in smaller group sessions.
Non-Verbal Communication:  Highly-sophisticated forms are common.
Learning Skills:  Many learn best by observation, thinking, understanding, feeling and then acting. The process is more important than the product.
Social Interaction: There is a tendency to be reserved among strangers.

Most Native Americans tend to be more reflective than impulsive.

Bear in mind that there is no such thing as a “generic Indian.”
Each tribe, and each individual, is worthy of the respect endowed by the Creator.

Maxim of the Moment

Marry for money and you’ll starve for love.