September 13, 2010

Frequently asked questions about Indians

While asking what he should call Indians, Michael Cooke also asked if there was a Native reference book he should read. He wanted something that would explain the basic differences between tribes, distinguish what's real from what's stereotypical, etc.

After checking my shelves, I said I didn't think so. You'd probably need at least three books just to cover the basics. One on history, one on modern-day politics (including gaming), and one on pop culture (Indians in entertainment, advertising, etc.).

I did point him to a couple of FAQs:

American Indians 101--Frequently Asked Questions

American Indian FAQ for Kids

I also could've pointed him to my Essential Facts About Indians Today.

Tellingly, the two FAQs answer different questions with little overlap. That shows how hard it is to tell everything you want to know about Indians in one posting.

So what's the problem?

Indians originally had thousands of cultures spread across two continents--fewer now, alas. But multiple cultures are true of any significant race or religion--e.g., Africans, Asians, Christians, Muslims. For any significant group, you'll have many of the same questions: how many are there, where do they live, what do they believe, what do you call them, what's the difference between subgroups, etc.

Of course, Indians have roughly twice the recorded history of other minorities in America. And they have an infinitely longer prehistory here. That means the history portion of any FAQ or book has to be longer.

But the real problem is that Indians have unique issues that don't apply to any other American minority. These include:

  • Sovereignty.
  • Dual citizenship.
  • Treaties.
  • Land held in trust.
  • Reservations.
  • Indian law.
  • Blood-quantum requirements.
  • Taxation.
  • Federal recognition of tribes.
  • Gaming.

    You could write a book about any of these subjects, and people have. When you consider the Indians' much longer history, plus the subjects unique to them, you can see the problem. I'd say Indians are several times more complex than any other racial or religious group. That's why it's so difficult to encapsulate them in one FAQ or book.

    For more on the subject, see The Best Indian Books.

    Burt said...

    Asking what, “he should call Indians”, Michael Cooke should call us what we are, indigenous peoples by definition of the aboriginal birthright we hold and as individuals, call us by which tribe or nation we come from.

    And because we differ in nations, regions, languages and cultures, I feel it has always been rude and racial to refer to all natives the one word (Indian) that begs to question the legitimacy and accuracy, with which Americans’ seem to identify with their own history, or lack thereof, in the definition and act of calling us all “Indians”.

    Most natives, in general, do not like being called American Indian, or Native American when approached by non-natives. Even the word “tribe”, can have its negative connotations, since our brothers up north and out west are sometimes referred to as nations or bands.

    The only time I feel it acceptable to be asked, “What tribe”, I am or if I am “Indian”, is when I am being asked by another fellow native. Because another native is more likely to actually show interest and curiosity of what tribe you are and where you are from, whereas non-natives usually do not care what tribe you are, where you are from because the easiest summation and least act to cause thinking is to group natives into one race.

    Mr. Cooke should read native authors if he wants to really understand our perspective(s). I have met and spoken with Simon Ortiz, Sherman Alexie and N. Scott Momaday. One of my favorite non-native writers is Peter Matthiessen. There is also a book called, “Indian Givers: How The Indians of the Americas Transformed the World,” by Jack Weatherford. It lists the contributions “Indians” have given America, in everything ranging from government and structures of societies, economics and products, agriculture and foods, the arts, healing and medicines, and of course, military and warfare.

    dmarks said...

    very well said, burt