Native American Heritage Month: We Are Still Here
Commentary by Becky Tallent
November is Native American Heritage month, and it is astounding how many stereotypical and wrong ideas are out there about America’s indigenous people.
For starters: We are still here.
Native people are part of the American fabric. We are teachers, politicians, shop workers, musicians, actors, farmers, physicians, lawyers and every other occupation. The federal government and others tried to wipe Indigenous people out, but our ancestors survived.
Second: We do not all look alike, nor are our traditions the same.
The people indigenous to the Eastern seaboard, primarily Eastern Woodlands and Algonquin, look very different from the Salish and other tribes of the Pacific Northwest. People from the plains and Southwest also have their own look.
In addition, many Native Americans have married non-Natives, so genetic traits – such as red hair – can now be found among tribal members.
Third: Each Indigenous culture is different.
There are 573 federally recognized tribes with an estimated additional 200 who are not federally recognized. That is 773 different cultures, languages, religious beliefs, governmental systems and traditions. In short, Indigenous communities are as different from one another as European, Asian and African communities are different from each other.
One thing that is especially frustrating for many tribal members are for people who use stereotypical images and ideas when talking with them. In short:
- We do not all live in tipis. Think of a tipi as an RV without wheels used in travel and hunting. Most traditional housing includes long houses, plank houses, hogans, chickees and igloos.
- Not all Indigenous people live on reservations. Only 300 of the U.S. tribes have reservations. Others may or may not have tribal lands, areas designated as tribally owned property.
- The notion all tribes are poor/the people live in dire poverty. While this is true in some areas, many tribes – including the local Schitsu’umsh (Coeur d’Alene) and Nimiipuu (Nez Perce) – have worked hard to make change by developing businesses including fisheries, manufacturing and gaming venues. The money from these ventures is normally put back into the tribe for the citizens for employment, housing, health care, education, roads, high-speed internet and other necessities.
Perhaps the most misunderstood thing about Native America is the fact all tribes are sovereign nations. Each tribe has its own constitution and laws to follow on their lands. Tribal members are also U.S. and state citizens, and, yes, members do pay state and federal taxes along with (in some cases) tribal taxes.
Something that often confuses many people is the fact not all tribes are led by men; some tribes are matriarchal, meaning they are led by women. This is not to say women boss the men around, but women were the leading decision-makers for the people. In Hadusaunee (Iroquois) history, the Great Peacemaker developed the Great Law of Peace, which left the major decision-making to the women. In the 1770s, the U.S. founding fathers took the Great Law of Peace and used the ideas when crafting what became the U.S., but they left out the part where the women were in charge.
As one Native scholar recently said about the “borrowing” of the Great Law by the U.S. founding fathers: “They couldn’t even steal the law correctly.”
Speaking of land, to many Native cultures, land is something that is spiritual, an economic resource and the tribe’s identity. It is not to be owned, a concept which came with the European settlers.
Finally, there is the idea that Indigenous people are somehow more spiritual, mystical, more connected to the earth. In truth: No more than any other group. Religion is very important to most tribal people, but, again, not all Native people practice the same religion, and Christianity has made many inroads into the various tribes. What many non-Natives erroneously call “nature worship” is Native peoples understanding nature as a means of survival.
This, in a tiny nutshell, is Native America. The cultures and histories of the tribes are well worth exploring and talking about, both in schools and out. Especially in places where tribal members live and work, which is all 50 states. Maybe this knowledge could stop the stereotypes and erroneous information that seems rooted in U.S. culture about the first citizens.
An award-winning journalist and public relation professional, Rebecca “Becky” Tallent was a journalism faculty member at the University of Idaho for 13 years before her retirement in 2019. Tallent earned her B.A. and M.Ed. degrees in journalism from the University of Central Oklahoma and her Educational Doctorate in Mass Communications from Oklahoma State University. She is of Cherokee descent and is a member of both the Indigenous Journalists Association and the Society of Professional Journalists. She and her husband, Roger Saunders, live in Moscow, Idaho, with their two cats.