One of the things that I run into a lot as someone of Native American heritage is people who have the past mixed up with the present. There are many people who really have no idea what Native Americans are like today. All they’ve ever been exposed to is what they see on television , or at the movies, or what they’ve read in books. The truth is we are the same as our ancestors in some ways, but in others we’ve definitely moved into the twenty-first century.
One of the places that the misconceptions seem to come most from are states on the eastern seaboard where contact with the natives was a few hundred years before non-Indians made it to other areas of the United States, and where assimilation occurred much sooner than elsewhere. I remember one story from my mother-in-law who went to college at NYU and one student saying to her, “I thought we killed you all.” Many people have this misconception that we no longer exist as a culture or people. Of course her response was, “You tried.” Not that he personally tried, but that non-Indians in a general sense tried. Another example, was a man my husband worked with when he lived in Virginia who asked him, “So, where are your feathers?” The look on my husband’s face when he tells this story is comical, all wide-eyed. Of course he told him that they were at home where they belonged. These are just a couple of good examples of people having no idea what Native Americans are like today.
What it’s important to remember is that Native Americans are in many ways just like every other American in that we have jobs, we go to college, we like to watch movies, or go to church, or read or whatever. The difference is that some of us do a few other things as well, some of us go to the sweat lodge regularly, and other similar types of ceremonies. Many of us go to powwows as well, and are traditional dancers or singers. Some of us like to do bead work or quill work and other types of traditional crafts too. For many of us, keeping the traditions and languages alive is very important as well. However, I don’t see this as being all that different from a Japanese or Italian American family that speak their native tongue at home, and make foods from their country of origin or observe holidays from their home country.
In many respects we’ve blended into mainstream society quite well. Sometimes this was because we were forced to by the government, sometimes by choice because there was not enough work on the reservation and we wanted a better life for our families. Sometimes it was for other reasons, but whatever the reason was or is, the important thing to keep in mind here is that Native Americans are not that different from anyone else. Yes, we’re still here, we still exist as a culture, as do the many federally recognized and some non-federally recognized tribes and cultures. Some Native Americans believe in preserving our past, others don’t want to and would just as soon assimilate into mainstream society, it really depends on who you talk to.
Being Native American means different things to different people. There are many, many people whose families were forced to assimilate early on and where the culture and language has been lost for a generation or more. These people may have a genuine desire to learn more about their Native American ancestors and where they come from. They may even call themselves Native American, or if they know the tribe, by the tribe which would be more accurate. But they may really know nothing about what it means to be a member of that tribe or to be Native American in a general sense. Then there are the Native Americans who were raised on the reservation and raised around whatever tribal culture they come from, speaking the language, and practicing their tribe’s traditions. Most of these are enrolled in a federally recognized tribe and some believe that if you aren’t, even if you can prove your ancestry on paper that you don’t have the right to call yourself Native American. The point I’m making is that Native Americans run the gamut from those who claim they are because they have some ancestry, to those who come from mixed families, to those who are from the reservation, and everything in between. When you understand this, then it is easier to have a dialog with anyone from any part of this spectrum because you know not to make the mistake of making assumptions about what it means when someone says they are Native American, or Indian, or Lakota, or Dine, or Apache or whichever tribal identification or culture they claim as their own.
Exercise #2: Building on the first exercise, write a scene with your character interspersing some Native American information regarding them with your story line. Just a paragraph or two will suffice. For example, you could write about your character attending a powwow and how it felt for that character to be a traditional dancer. Again this is just an example, you can pick any piece of information from your research or personal experience and add little details.