Book Excerpt: Everything You Wanted to Know About Indians But Were Afraid to Ask

In his introduction to Everything You Wanted to Know About Indians But Were Afraid to Ask, author and professor Anton Treuer says that he spent most of his childhood living in a borderland outside the Leech Lake Reservation in Minnesota. He describes life there as filled with racial tension and confusion. When he was accepted to Princeton University he hoped his classmates would not be as ignorant about Natives, that they would show more racial sensitivity than the people living outside his home. However, even in New Jersey, Treuer says he faced these same challenges. It was during his studies at Princeton that he realized no matter how far he travelled he could not escape these stereotypical suppositions because, he says, Native Americans, “are so often imagined, but so infrequently understood.” At that time there were few resources and opportunities to change these perceptions. Treuer says he decided then that he needed to help redefine the image of Native Americans for non-Natives and he has dedicated his life to this cause.

He says that his most recent book, Everything You Wanted to Know About Indians but Were Afraid to Ask, “communication requires a safe place for discourse, an opportunity for genuine connection, and authentic, reliable information.” Treuer says he has tried to create this safe place for people throughout his many years as a professor of Ojibwe at Bemidji State University in Minnesota. This book, he explains, is a compilation of answers to important questions he has been asked at public lectures he has delivered throughout the nation. The questions cover topics that range from tribal citizenship to mascots and haircuts. Read ICTMN's review here

One caveat: Treuer wants to make it clear that he does not speak for the entire Native community and that these responses are strictly his opinion. 

Jonathan Joss. Photo by Dustin Tahmahkera.

Why do Indians have long hair?

There are around 500 distinct Indian tribes in North America, and their cultural beliefs are diverse. For many Native Americans, hair was viewed as a symbol of spiritual health and strength. Leonard Moose, an Ojibwe elder from Mille Lacs, said that hair was like medicine and if someone’s hair were cut, his or her medicine would leak out. Moose claimed that when he was a child, if someone had a haircut, the parents would usually use a hot rock to cauterize the wound on the child’s hair and prevent his or her medicine from draining away. Hair was a manifestation of spiritual strength or power but also a visible symbol of that power, and thus a source of pride and even vanity. All of these elements combine to provide a distinct cultural perspective about hair.

For most Indians, hair was only cut under certain circumstances. Meskwaki and Mohawk warriors plucked hair on the sides of the head, a developing tradition in wars, where scalping was commonly practiced. Many Diné, or Navajo, cut children’s hair on their first birthday and then do not cut it again. They believe that the purity of childhood preserves spiritual strength and that the haircut will enable greater development of that strength as the child grows. Among some tribes, hair was cut as part of tribal mourning customs, but this practice was not universal.

You can imagine how it must have felt for many Native children to have their hair cut against their will upon entrance into U.S. government–run boarding schools.

Jonathan Joss. Photo by Dustin Tahmahkera.

Jonathan Joss. Photo by Dustin Tahmahkera.

Do Indians have a stronger sense of community than non-Indians?

Definitely. For most Americans, living in this country has meant dislocating from motherland and mother tongue. An American can move from the East Coast to the West and shift from being a New Yorker to being a Californian. Identity has become malleable. Native Americans have a stronger tether and bond to community. Even most Native Americans who leave their home reservations to work in cities will frequently travel home for family and community functions. And regardless of personal religious choice, it is exceptionally rare for Indians to have a funeral outside of their home community, even if they’ve spent most of their life living off-reservation.

Some places have an especially strong sense of community. In Ponemah, on the Red Lake Reservation, no individuals own land. All land is held in federal trust for the benefit of all tribal members. Homesteads are established for families that live on the reservation, but those families cannot own the land on which they live. This situation makes it hard to get a loan for a house, but it has maintained a strong sense of community. The rights to homestead in a particular place are passed down through families. Almost all of the families on that reservation are living on plots of land that their parents and grandparents and great-grandparents, going back through generations, have lived on. Further, in Ponemah, the custom is to bury one’s dead relatives in the front yard. There are often many generations buried in every front yard—which makes it a lot harder to sell the family farm and move to California. And although not every single member of every single family attends every funeral, at least someone from every family attends local funerals and brings food. They do this not just because they knew the person, which, given a community numbering one thousand, they usually do. They do it simply because they are members of the same community. The Pueblos also have a remarkably strong sense of community. When there is a dance or feast day, every family participates without question or resistance.


A naming ceremony.

What are naming ceremonies?

Obtaining an Indian name is one of the most basic yet treasured customs in Indian country. Traditions vary from tribe to tribe, but there are some commonalities as well. Indian names are given in tribal languages, with very few exceptions. Many tribal members believe these are the languages of the spirits, who give the names through people. For many tribes, including the Ho-Chunk, Meskwaki, Dakota, Lakota and others, there is an ancestral connection in the giving of a name. Parents do not usually pick the name for their child; rather, the parents pick a spiritual leader to bestow a name upon their child. For tribes where the ancestral connection is critical, the giving of a name creates a strong and lifelong relationship between the person receiving it and an ancestor who has gone on to the spirit world.

Other tribes, such as the Ojibwe, do not usually have an ancestor connection in the giving of a name. For them, names come from spirits, not from people. Those who officiate at naming ceremonies are more like translators. Name givers speak to the spirits and the people. They translate. The names are usually obtained from fasting or dreams, and each name has a story behind it. Someone might see a vision or have a dream about a giant bear descending through the clouds and give the name “Bear.” Some Ojibwe chiefs have used public names, in addition to their spirit names, that suited their purposes. Bagone-giizhig (Hole in the Day) and some other Minnesota Ojibwe chiefs even used their fathers’ names to capitalize on their recognition and prestige.

Many Ojibwe tribal elders instruct people to have a feast four days after the birth of a child. The purpose of this first feast is to welcome the arrival of a new spirit in the world. In some places, the naming ceremony is performed at this feast. For others, it happens later. Both parents have equal say about choosing a name giver. The only requirement for name givers in most tribal traditions is that they have an Indian name themselves....

How many tribal languages are spoken in North America?

There may have been as many as 500 distinct tribal languages in North America prior to sustained contact with Europeans. There are now around 180, but the number is shrinking quickly. All world languages are members of families, such as the Germanic or Romance language families. And languages in the same families (like English and German) have some similarities, although they are not always mutually intelligible. There are 56 language families in North America and over three times that number in South America. Sometimes Native American languages spoken by groups that are geographically adjacent (like Ojibwe and Dakota) are as different as Chinese and English.


A naming ceremony.

Do Indians face racial profiling from law enforcement?

Racial profiling does still happen. Whites can be sure that the color of their skin was not a factor in being pulled over for speeding, but an Indian, especially one with tribal license plates, never knows for sure. Beltrami County (Minnesota) and Red Lake have had disagreements about exercising one another’s arrest warrants, and the Beltrami County sheriff ’s office intentionally profiled Indians, pulling over cars with Red Lake plates to see if the subjects of the warrants were in the vehicles, using only the racial profile (tribal license plate) to decide whom to pull over and investigate. That problem is being actively addressed by the Beltrami County sheriff ’s office now.

In Minnesota, Indians comprise one percent of the state population and 17 percent of the state’s prison population. But Indians are not 17 times more likely to commit crimes. The system investigates, charges, tries, convicts and incarcerates Indians at a rate much higher than the general population. There are some great people working in law enforcement today who are trying to change this situation, but clearly much more needs to be done. A 2010 Arizona law intended to combat illegal immigration allows police to pull over anyone who they have “reasonable suspicion” is an illegal immigrant, which many people believe has increased racial profiling of Indians and Mexicans.

Most Indians are policed by non-Native people. That’s only a problem when race becomes a factor in how citizens are treated by law enforcement. Since race is a factor in many Indian cases, racial profiling continues to be a problem.


Are all Indians rich from casinos?

A few groups are well-off, many groups are improving but still disproportionately poor, and some groups have most of their citizens living in abject poverty. The advent of casino gaming has affected some Native Americans far more than others. For tribes that have a monopoly on gaming in a given region

and a very small number of tribal members, casinos have provided a dramatic impact on their members’ financial status. But for most Indians who live in rural areas or come from tribes with large numbers of members, the impact has been much smaller.

Each tribe is an independent nation, with no legal obligations to other tribes. Casino profits are not shared by all tribes in America. Wealthy tribes often engage in philanthropy with less fortunate tribes, and in Wisconsin all tribes agreed to share a small percentage of revenues. But those developments have not come close to leveling the dramatic wealth disparities among tribes, even in Wisconsin.


Why can’t Indians just move on?

Historical trauma is a complicated subject. It’s kind of like this. Someone was hitting the Indian in the head with a hammer for decades, and it did a lot of damage. Now the government is (for the most part) done hitting the Indian in the head with a hammer. But there is still all this damage that takes a very long time to repair. And the government is not interested in repairing the damage—it all happened in the past. So Indians are left to heal themselves. Language and culture loss, many health issues, substance abuse, the educational opportunity gap, lack of economic opportunity, and many other problems in Indian country can be directly attributed to specific government policies. It’s easy to push people into a pit, but it can be very hard for them to climb back out.

Another way to look at it is this. If a husband cheats on his wife but then decides he wants to reconcile the relationship and make it work, he cannot say, “It all happened in the past. Just forget about it.” Making peace has to start with him saying, “Hey, I did you wrong. I am sorry. And it will never happen again.” Then there is a chance that they can reconcile the relationship. That is a fair analogy to what happened with the U.S. government and the Indian. Instead of cheating in a marriage, the U.S. government used genocidal warfare, residential boarding schools, suppression of religious freedom and a host of pernicious policies against Indians. But the government has never even said that it was wrong, much less apologized, much less tried to make things right. And every time the government comes up with a new English-only law, or ignores the 50 percent unemployment rate in some Indian communities, or allows a state like Arizona to ban the teaching of ethnic studies in public schools, or tries to renege on or renegotiate a promised treaty right, Indians see it as another hammer blow to an ancient wound. The historical baggage and the ongoing damage make it very difficult for Indians to move on, discard anger, forgive, or heal. And the fact that most Americans have no understanding of this dynamic makes the struggle all the more frustrating. 

Excerpted from Everything You Wanted to Know About Indians But Were Afraid to Ask, by Anton Treuer published by Borealis Books. ($15.95 paperback, $12.99 e-book).