Improving Understanding of Native American People and Cultures

As a Native American, I am simultaneously visible and invisible. I am visible because of my appearance, since I am brown and have dark hair. However, I am invisible because I do not look like a stoic indigenous person depicted in an Edward S. Curtis photograph. Because of this simultaneity, encounters with some new colleagues and students become teaching moments. The conversation that often ensues goes something like this:  

Other: Where are you from?
Me: I moved here from New Mexico.
Other: Where are you really from?
Me: New Mexico.
Other: Where are your parents from?
Me: New Mexico.
Other: Your grandparents?
Me: New Mexico. What do you really want to know?
Other: You must have immigrated from somewhere.
Me: No, I’m from here, and I’m indigenous to this country.
Other: I thought you preferred “Native American.”

Yes, such conversations really do occur — not only for me but for many other Native Americans as well. Accordingly, I usually explain that while “Native American” is more of a contemporary term, I prefer “American Indian” because it has historical and political significance that’s tied to the American Indian movement of the 1970s. If there is continued interest on behalf of the other person, I inform them about how our country is a nation of nations by explaining that our federal government has government-to-government relationships with sovereign tribal nations, including mine: the Navajo Nation. Our sovereignty, however, is not always acknowledged or respected, as evidenced by the approval of the Dakota Access Pipeline, despite the protests of the Standing Rock Sioux Nation whose homeland and water supply will likely be affected. 

In these conversations, I further explain that as an enrolled citizen of the Navajo Nation, I have an enrollment number that is akin to my social security number in order to access any services or programs that are available to Navajo Nation citizens, such as healthcare and educational scholarships. The teaching continues since this short lesson is followed with questions filled with erroneous assumptions: “So you really do get everything for free and don’t pay taxes because you live on a reservation?”  

That assumption, however, is a myth because we are subject to income taxes, just like everyone else in the U.S., in order to have the same access to government services like healthcare and education. Per trust and treaty obligations, tribal nations receive healthcare through the U.S. Indian Health Service and education through the Bureau of Indian Education, but the delivery and quality of these services are usually at subpar levels. 

As for current reservations, they were established when tribal nations relinquished vast portions of their original homeland in treaties with the federal government that were eventually broken or not honored. Moreover, between 1887 and 1934, the Native American land base was reduced from approximately 138 million acres to 48 million acres. Despite our tribal sovereignty, some people don’t understand what that is, so they change the subject to contemporary issues such as mascots and casinos. 

One question I often hear is, “Don’t mascots honor you?” The mascot issue has been a problem for decades, and the most egregious act of disrespect is the Washington, D.C., football team, whose owner has said he will never change the team’s name. 

This issue also exists in the educational arena, most notably at colleges and universities. While some tribal nations have granted permission to teams at some institutions — such as the Seminoles at Florida State University, the Chippewas at Central Michigan University, and the Utes at the University of Utah — this is blatant cultural appropriation that allows and encourages people, especially sports fans, to continue to depict us as mascots. Together, we need to take a stand and demand the discontinuation of this depiction, as it is not an attempt to honor us but rather devalues us as humans.

Another common question is, “Don’t all of you have casinos?” According to the National Indian Gaming Association, in 2017, 250 tribal governments conducted gaming operations that contributed to $32.5 billion in gambling revenues and $4.8 billion in ancillary revenues for a total of $37.3 billion — money that is used for social services, education, and nation-building. For some of the more successful tribal nations, there is a per capita distribution of these funds for enrolled tribal members; this can sometimes be counterproductive when it comes to pursuing higher education. 

Moreover, since not all tribal nations have the capacity or infrastructure to establish casinos, many tribal communities still fall below the national poverty level. While tribal casinos provide employment and impact state economies, there are also downsides to the gaming industry.

Impact on Native American Students

American history is taught from a white heteronormative perspective that leaves most other underrepresented populations out of the conversation. So, when Native Americans are mentioned, it is in the historical context of extinction with the focus on their being uncivilized. There is little mention of how indigenous knowledge and wherewithal contributed to the survival of the first immigrants — the Pilgrims.  There is also hardly any acknowledgement of the use of indigenous languages in the World Wars — most notably, the use of Navajo code talkers in World War II.

Moreover, this ahistoricism is unfair to Native American college students as they are often expected to be spokespersons for all indigenous communities. Because we have 567 distinct tribal nations with different languages and cultures, a lone indigenous student cannot be expected to know and understand all of the challenges and issues that Native Americans collectively face. It is important to be cognizant of this when interacting with these students and to recognize and respect that your institution of higher education, whether it’s public or private, exists on what was once the traditional homeland of indigenous people — the first Americans.●

Lee Bitsóí, EdD, is an enrolled member of the Diné (Navajo) Nation and chief diversity officer at Stony Brook University. He is also a member of the INSIGHT Into Diversity Editorial Board. This article ran in our November 2018 issue.