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What an Indian Is Not

An excellent article on the stereotyping of Indians:

What an Indian is not

By SEBASTIAN "BRONCO" LEBEAU, for United Press International

EAGLE BUTTE, S.D., June 13 (UPI) All Native-American people share a common ancestry with one another.

Individual tribal groups may possess different languages and customs. But the one thing that they all share with one other is a common ancestry, or ethnicity, if you will.

Does anyone remember Neanderthal? You remember him don't you? He's the caveman, the knuckle-dragging brute running around hitting women over the head with a huge club so he can knock her out and take her back to the cave and make her his mate.

That's the stereotypical Neanderthal image. But that image does not do justice to who Neanderthal was. Anthropologists have recently begun to discover that the stereotype of Neanderthal the brute is far from accurate.

Neanderthal was not a brute caveman grunting out unintelligible sounds and waving his arms around trying to warn his family and friends that the saber-toothed tiger behind the tree was getting ready to pounce. On the contrary, anthropologists are now discovering that Neanderthal possessed a remarkable degree of intelligence and the ability to communicate using language.

What is different about the stereotyping of Neanderthal and the stereotyping of Indians is that Neanderthals are getting a better deal than Indians are.

The stereotypical image of Neanderthal has changed over the past 20 years. But the stereotypical image of Indians has not.

In my short lifetime I'm only 42 years old I have experienced on occasions too numerous to count encounters with non-Indians who have asked me, "What was it like to grow up living in a teepee?"

Generally I will respond to that question with something like: "I'm sorry but I did not grow up in a teepee. I grew up in a house just like you did. I ate the kinds of food that you did. I watched the Brady Bunch and listened to Tony Orlando & Dawn songs. I went to school and learned to read about Spot running and Jack and Jill going up a hill. I discoed down and danced the night away as a young man. I read Shakespeare and cried like a baby when the Broncos lost those four Superbowls."

Oh, the reactions I get when I tell my inquiring non-Indian that I don't own a war bonnet and have never gone against the Crows.

What really throws them though is when I admit that I have horses, but wear boots and use a saddle when I'm out checking cows.

Revealing things like this about myself always causes a wave of sadness to wash over the non-Indian when I inform them that I'm not a noble savage.

And it never fails that once I have responded to the teepee question I always get the follow up, "But I thought all Indians lived in teepees."

The reason why non-Indians think like this is because of stereotypes that they have concerning Indians as a whole.

To many non-Indians, even college educated non-Indians, the stereotype of the noble savage and war bonnet-wearing Plains warrior is all that they know about Indians.

Instead of learning about Indians and recognizing the differences among tribes, we get lumped together in a single group and somehow lose the ability to stand apart from one other like our ancestors did. Oh, we still stand apart from the non-Indian, but we still don't stand apart from each other in the non-Indian view.

Stereotyping perpetuates the non-Indian myth of the noble savage.

And that is wrong.

Indians are people, too, and among all people you have good people and bad people. You have rich people and poor people. You have people who are tall, short, fat, thin, talkative, quiet, some speak their minds while others chose not to say anything.

The ancestors of the various Indian tribes still surviving in this country were people who shared commonalties and differences with one other. Some Indian tribes farmed the land and maintained permanent village sites. Other tribes roamed over the countryside hunting and gathering, traveling between seasonal camps. Some Indian tribes wore buckskins to protect their bodies against the elements while others wore woven textiles to cover themselves. Some Indian tribes sported long hair, and others short hair. And as hard as it is to imagine, some Indians hunted buffalo from horseback while others didn't hunt buffalo at all.

The only point I am trying to make, though, is this: Indians are people, too.

When you look at the science of anthropology, it isn't that old. It has only been within the past 100 years or so that Neanderthal remains were first discovered and stereotypes created of the kind of people they were. In that short amount of time 100 years Neanderthal has gone from being pictured as a club-swinging brute to being repainted and shown as being a caring parent and sharing family man.

On the other hand, Indians have been around non-Indians for 500 years and we are still the noble savages.

That's what I mean about Neanderthal getting the better deal.

Non-Indians have forgiven his looks and refocused on his human qualities.

I wonder when our looks will be forgiven and people start focusing on who we really are as human beings.

And by the way, sometimes I can really mess with non-Indians when I tell them the truth about my experiences in my life. You see, I really have hunted the buffalo and ridden in close on horseback inside a stampeding herd of these magnificent animals.

But guess what? I did those things because that was my job. I used to be the manager for the tribal buffalo herd and when the critters got out of the pasture I was responsible for getting them back in.

Running buffalo on horseback and pretending to be brave was fun. And perhaps, to a degree, I was able for a short time to recapture the freedom of being Indian and realize that I come from a great people. A people who respected themselves and those others who lived around them.

(Sebastian "Bronco" LeBeau is Preservation Officer for the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe)

Related links
Tipis, feather bonnets, and other Native American stereotypes
The harm of Native stereotyping:  facts and evidence
Stereotype of the Month contest

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Original text and pictures © copyright 2007 by Robert Schmidt.

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