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Feminist Intersection: 5 Native Myths You Really Oughta Know About

No one likes to be pigeon-holed into any kind of stereotypical box, but the long history of colonization and oppression of Indigenous people has shoved us so far from mainstream public view (and blogosphere, I might add) that it's no wonder there exist these warped, outrageously wrong ideas about who we are. No, we don't all live on reservations (more than 140,000 urban Natives live in LA alone!) and yes, we are currently one of the fastest growing populations. With over 750 First Nations in (what we now call) the United States and Canada alone, it's unrealistic to think that we're all the same. Well I'm here to make the record clear, and encourage you to fiercely challenge what you think you already know.

For further insight, a great film has been produced by Cree director Neil Diamond I highly recommend to check out called "Reel Injun" about the portrayal of the "Hollywood Indian".

From the Planet IndigenUs event in 2008 "More than Bows and Arrows" which explored historical Indigenous misconceptions and stereotypes through Aboriginal artist responses to these false identities.

So since we are following directly on the heels of the Ke$ha and Juliette Lewis hot appropriation messes, here are 5 myths about Native culture you really oughta know about (and if you ever run into them - do spread the word about this):

1) We're Indians
That great discoverer Christopher Columbus made one of the biggest mistakes in history, and it has forever shaped how Native people are forced to live around the world. Thinking that he had arrived in India (when he was actually in Haiti), when Columbus first saw the Arawawk people, he called them Indians, and voila, that name has since stuck on our people like glue. Even though they probably figured out this blunder within hours, today we still have government institutions like the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs where I still have to register for my Indian Status Card to prove my racial identity.

"Aboriginal" is a term generally used in Canada, Australia, and New Zealand and in Canada it denotes three distinctly different groups of Indigenous peoples: Indians (or First Nations), Métis, and Inuit. There is a HUGE amount of diversity between the three groups; many argue that they are in fact lumped-together categories instituted and separated by the government. "American Indian","Native American", "Native Hawaiian", and "Alaska Native" are terms generally used in the United States and not EVERYONE is okay with them either.

2) Only men can be chiefs
Something mainstream feminism has not done a good job of remembering is that feminism is rooted in Indigenous culture. Many of our societies were matriarchal and/or matrilineal, and women held significant positions of power. In fact the two chief system, with both a man and a woman leading, was not uncommon and is reflective of one of our principal values of balance (and equality!). Although you'll probably never see this in any Disney movie, where I come from the men are supposed to wait for the women to reach consensus and give direction before they can decide what to do with our land.

3) Teepees and totem poles mark where we live
My relatives in the Haudenosaunee (or what you might know as Iroquois) culture are often offended by this mass assumption, since this is actually only true for most Plains Indian tribes; like the Cree and Dakota. We lived in longhouses made of wood, and definitely not all of us made totem poles.

4) All Natives have brown (or red!) skin
This is an interesting one because for some reason, people still expect to be able to tell my ethnicity just by looking at me. While I myself have darker skin and long black hair, I have several Native friends and relatives who appear "white" or have blue eyes that have to constantly fiend off these automatic racial labels. Natives come in all colors, shapes, and sizes and my advice is just to treat people like human beings. We believe we're all related anyway.

5) Casinos and cigarettes mean we must be rich
One of the most outrageous claims I've heard a few times from some non-Native people is, "Well, we went to your casino, so that's our contribution to your people." WTF?! Yes we might have establishments like smoke shacks, casinos, or other gaming industries on our territories, but that certainly does not mean we all benefit from them, or that all the proceeds go directly to much-needed services for our people. The reality is that the government regulates everything we do; and we're still reeling from 500+ years of colonization. Most of these industries are struggling just to break even, while more than 50% of the children in our communities live in poverty.

Oh and if you need a crash-course on the genocide of Native people in America - be sure to watch the Canary Effect produced by the Bastard Fairies. It basically does a good job of summing it up from then until now in about an hour's time.

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9 comments have been made. Post a comment.


Thanks for this! It's a shame that we have to ease people out of tokenizing & cultural stereotypes, but sometimes it's a needed first step. Hopefully people who don't know much of this will read it and be more informed in the future.

just wanted to thank you for

just wanted to thank you for this article, it gets pretty tiring having to debunk stereotypes about First Nations people.

Wow Jessica, I must say that

Wow Jessica, I must say that I was once again thuroughly impressed by your work.

The way you were able to sum up some of the most annoying strereotypes with regards to the indigenouse people is amazing.

I espcially liked that little part in the end when you said how the reserves hardly ever benefit from the use of casinos and how most of on-reserve children and in poverty. This is an epic reality for most on-reserve families across the country, and beyond.

This is why I take it upon myself to do my part in my community. Even though my reserve is small, I do my part to make it look like the rest of the city.

I feel it is important for people to not even notice when there on the reserve. This is because of that very stereotype that comes along with reserves, and how "ghetto" and "rugged" they are presented as in the media.

Anyways, I just wanted to thank you again for doing your part in making sure that the word is out there that being Native isn't exactly what people presume it to be.

Your an AMAZING woman, and an inspiration to all indigenouse people.

Your #1 fan,
Sara Abram :) lol

Love it!

I watched this video in my nursing class recently
It's sad to say I was oblivious to it..I mean I was aware of it to some degree but I never thought it was so bad. But there needs to be more awareness. I actually know a few people who aren't aborignial but they go to reserves to teach or help contribute to the health system by being nurses. I hope maybe one day I could do that too..It's a shame to see that many well-developed, non third world countries doing this. I'm from Sri Lanka where there was a long battle of government oppression where those who were tamil were minorities. I don't know the current status of the place now because like Canada this form of oppression is hidden and citizens are usually distracted.
Well anyways great job!

Thanks so much for writing

Thanks so much for writing this, especially #4. I was born and raised on a reserve and live in a city now, but most people that I know, even inside my own family, have a hard time accepting the fact that I identify as Anishinaabe when I have pale skin. It's so important for these mythes to be busted, so thank you again! Chi-miigwetch!

I am also Aanishnaabe,

I am also Aanishnaabe, Kitchi Migwetch (much thanks) for posting this. It is important to hear other Native voices saying important things like this.

Thank you so much!

I have done a few posts in a few places about a few of these points. I've heard a lot of great things about you, and have enjoyed your series some time. I am just amazed at your work. Thank you so much! Especially for Point #4. Really. Word.

You can do one of two things; just shut up, which is something I don't find easy, or learn an awful lot very fast, which is what I tried to do. ~ Jane Fonda

re: #2 myth: short book on 19th C. feminist and Haudenosaunee

This reminds me of a fascinating little booklet self-published many years ago by an independent scholar: Sisters in Spirit: Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Influence on Early American Feminists, by Sally Roesch Wagner, Ph.D. I stumbled upon this while searching for information about an important 19th century American feminist theorist/writer, Matilda Joslin Gage, the lesser-known member of the women's rights triumvirate of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Gage. Gage lived near and had friends in the Haudenosaunee and Mohawk nations, wrote about these nations' governance and social customs for newspapers and in books.

In my community we have an

In my community we have an Indian Casino that does very, very, very, well. They donate 2% of all annual income to the city and due to the revenue garnered by the casino they have set up many social services for their tribe. Drug use and alcoholism is still rampant in their community but it is primarily a generational thing since for the last 5 years there has been a huge push for helpful education amongst the youth. This current generation growing up is actually one of the first bi-lingual generations in the tribe (which is so fucked up but isnt surprising since the town also used to have a Indian Boarding School) and that wouldn't have been possible without the casino.

It's a pretty interesting situation and outside of the fact that casinos ultimately harm a community in the long and that the management is currently in the process of a nasty anti-Union campaign I'd say that it as really helped the native community come out of mass poverty.