Indigenous diversity is an American experience

ICT editorial team

Reclaiming Native Truth research shows Native Americans as invisible when our values contribute to national identity

Cheryl Crazy Bull

With the founding of the United States of America, there emerged an “American identity” story. That story says that immigrants came to America for the purpose of establishing a society that erased differences by treating all differences as isolated and unnecessary. 

Because of the role of Great Britain in the establishment of early colonies, English became the main language of communication and Protestant religions were the majority ways of worship. Catholicism and Judaism were considered undesirable.

Settlers believed that speaking the languages of their home countries was unacceptable.  Their shared desire for a better life was rooted the quest for an American identity derived from white European roots. Their shared desire for a better life was rooted in a belief that the United States must be a homogenous, melting pot, assimilating all peoples into one shared identity in order for the country to thrive.

In keeping with the beliefs of many of the Nations that occupied lands throughout the western hemisphere, the indigenous peoples who lived in what is now North America were viewed as less than human. They were “savages” to be either defeated through warfare or assimilated through education. The incredible diversity of indigenous societies including Native languages and place-based ways of living were obliterated by the overwhelming desire of settlers to colonize lands and resources.

Over the last two years, the research and narrative initiative, Reclaiming Native Truth, affirmed what Indigenous people still understood about how we are viewed by American society. The research showed that Native Americans are mostly invisible, and when they are visible, there are many misconceptions about identity and lifestyles, and serious perpetration of stereotypes and myths about our identities. The monolithic view that Indians are stoic and warlike, live in tipis, and subsisted through gathering and hunting, perpetuates the view that we are all the same.

Yet indigenous peoples are incredibly diverse in all aspects of life – we live in uniquely different locations, speak distinct languages, and have discrete social, economic, religious, and governance structures. And while we may share universal values such as our dedication to kinship and family and our practice of reciprocity and stewardship with the earth and all things on it, we enact those values in numerous distinctive ways. 

Educating others about our uniqueness and our diversity as indigenous peoples helps us to be seen accurately from both historical and contemporary perspectives. 

The most accessible ways for us to educate others are to influence educational systems and to impact the entertainment and news media industries. People learn a lot about tribal people from what they see in the movies or read about in local papers. 

Educating people about American Indians and Alaska Natives and creating the ability for people to discern the accuracy of those portrayals must be the responsibility of this country’s educational institutions. 

Many states where there are American Indian and Alaska Native populations have implemented school curriculum to be more inclusive of Native histories and cultural knowledge. States like Washington and Montana have done so through legislation and financial resources. This can be replicated throughout the United States whether or not there is a significant Native population because indigenous people live everywhere – in rural and urban settings and on Indian reservations. We become visible when our history is told and our contemporary experiences are seen.  

We can also influence higher education institutions. Tribal colleges and universities epitomize the quest for place-based education and identity. They are resources for higher education institutions who want to influence the rest of society in its acknowledgment of Native contributions and diversity.

Colleges and universities can ensure that indigenous knowledge is incorporated in its curriculum – in its science and math classes, throughout world and American history courses, in literature, in education and in law. Indigenous medicinal knowledge can be part of health curriculum and can be introduced to medical personnel. All lawyers can learn about trust responsibility and sovereignty. All teachers can be taught about Native history and how to honor and recognize the contributions of Native peoples including children in their classes. 

At this time, the United States is experiencing challenging social upheaval which appears to be rooted in the very identity narrative that I shared in the first part of this essay. Yet in order to be one people, I do not believe we have to be the same in our beliefs, our social interactions, our languages, our prayers, with that homogeneity emerging only from white European ancestry. 

Although the research in Reclaiming Native Truths certainly implies that people believe we must all be the same to be seen as American, the research also tells us that Indigenous values are viewed by others as important to creating a better society.

We must work together, indigenous peoples and their allies, to ensure the visibility of Native peoples, languages, cultures, and customs. Education can influence the beliefs of others to create a better society.

Cheryl Crazy Bull is President & CEO of the American Indian College Fund.