Common Myths about Native Americans

Common Myths about Native Americans August 2021

Despite the growing awareness of and interest in Native American history and culture, many common myths remain all-pervasive. While most are not based on racial prejudice, the fact that they remain perpetuates misconceptions that are often insensitive to the feelings of Native American people or display many distortions of history and cultures. Here are some of the most common:

  • Let’s start with the one that has recently been in the news. For centuries it was taken for granted that the use of Native American mascots is a way of honouring and showing respect for American Indian people. It is only recently that the growing realization that terms such as “Redskins” and “Braves” perpetuate stereotypes, many of which are not just offensive but may be taken to be a racial slur and an misappropriation of their image. The bottom line is that the use of these names and mascots reminds Native Americans of the limited ways in which others view them and, by extension, in some cases, how they view themselves.
  • Next comes the myth that there was one huge Native American culture that spanned the continent before the arrival of the Europeans. It began with the assumption, in 1492, that Columbus had reached India and that all the natives were “Indians.” The rapid westward expansion of the European settlers left no time for understanding the people who were being displaced, and it was simpler to think of them as a single homogeneous people who had to make way for the expansion to the West. The fact is that there were a huge number of distinct tribes with their own languages, belief systems, religions, tribal identifies, and cultures. These distinctions ranged, for example, from the Navajo of the Southwest to the Iroquois of the Northwest and the Ohlone of what is now the San Francisco Bay Area.
  • Many people still think that Native Americans get special treatment and benefits from the government. The truth is that Native Americans pay taxes like everyone else, but while the spending on Native American health services was just under $3000 per head, the national average spent on non-Native Americans was just under $8000.
  • The myth that reservations were given to the tribes so that they would have a place to live after their ancestral land was taken from them, is not nearly close to the truth. Native American nations once occupied and controlled all of what is now North America, the reservations were for the most part useless lands that were set aside in the U.S. under the 371 treaties ratified by the Senate and signed into law by the President which after further reductions under the 1887 Dawes Act encompass just a few million acres.
  • It is generally accepted that Native American is the politically correct terminology. However, most Native Americans prefer to be known by their tribal affiliations such as Pawnees, Dené, Shoshone, Muwekma Ohlone, etc. The ethnic identity Native American should be considered when the context requires a broader description of the indigenous peoples of the Americas, as in the case of this article.
  • Manhattan was not sold for $24. Manhattan was named after the Manhattoe also known as the Wecquaesgeek Tribe who were a Musee-speaking band of the Wappinger Confederacy of the larger Lenni Lenape Nation. They controlled the upper three fourths of Manhattan. It was the Canarsee tribe of Brooklyn and western Long Island who occupied the lower region of Manhattan who negotiated with the Dutch and entered into an agreement allowing for the settlement of New Amsterdam. Native tribes did not own land, but controlled the access to the animal, fishing, and plant resources within certain territories.
  • North America has a rich and an over 13,000 year-long history that spans millennia before the arrival of the Europeans. To ignore this fact is to perpetuate the many myths about the original inhabitants of this land and rob America of its true history. Luckily, tribes like the Muwekma Ohlone, despite the limited resources available to them, are now trying to spread awareness of their history, heritage, language, culture, and contributions to the growth of modern America.