Saturday, May 16, 2009


Most people are aware that stereotypes about Indians exist just as they do about any minority -- or majority. But few realize that the Indians themselves make assumptions about whites, esp. whites from outside. You have to live around Indians long enough for them to either kind of forget that you’re white or for them to stop considering you dangerous, before you find out what those assumptions are.

The first one I ran into was the Indian woman who told me when I first came in 1961 that she had stopped making friends with whites because “they never stay.” She had had her heart broken again and again by becoming close to someone who left after a few years. Of course, that’s built in to a situation where most whites were on the rez because of teaching or working for the BIA. Now that there is Indian preference, the few whites who come are either really intentional about staying or are tied into local ranching or merchant families, who have economic attachments. Still “white people are transient” is the ironic stereotype from a formerly nomadic people. I don’t count white summer people because they’re so obviously transient that it’s not a stereotype -- it’s just the plain fact.

Recently I was talking to an older Indian woman and mentioned my niece. “Oh,” said this woman, “I didn’t think you had any family. I never think of white people as having family.” She meant that for her the norm is “all my relations” who generally cluster up with whoever has an income or a house or enough influence with the powers-that-be to be useful. There are very few Indian loners. It’s just not their style. So my choice to live alone means to them there are no relatives. Whites who marry Indians are sometimes a bit shocked when they realize that means they’ve married a whole clan. But if people are living on the edge, that’s one way to survive.

As there become more resources and as more people become used to isolation while living in the city, relieved only by cell phones, computers and television, there are more Indian people who are a little guarded, but they are still more likely to tolerate and even welcome people coming to visit. Some expect it and see it as a compliment that many people come by, in spite of the expense of coffee and sometimes something more. If a college-educated Indian is involved, best to call ahead, same as urban whites.

White people in the past have been authority figures and Bob said that in earlier times, if a white person pulled into the ranch yard, no one would be home. You might glimpse shirt tails disappearing into the brush. If you waited quietly by your pickup, an older man would generally come from somewhere. (This happens today at the Hutterite colonies.) In the old days it was because Indian children were seized without warning and carried off to residential schools without even telling their parents. Even today it might mean a warrant was being served, but the officer would likely be Indian.

One should approach with caution white families of the strange American sub-culture of throwbacks, little knots of defiant opposition that may have come out of moonshining and continue through illegal drugs, and consider themselves MORE virtuous than the surrounding hedonistic culture. I don’t know of any Indian families like this, but small groups of whites immigrate to the high slopes of the Rockies, thinking they are in the 19th century and going to the wilderness. They assume Indians are 19th century people who might be allies. Indians assume they are crazy.

To Indians all white people have mysterious resources from some other place: money or connections or information, so there’s never any worry about how whites will survive. At holidays all white people disappear someplace mysterious, going “home.” The kids think of it as a kind of “cargo cult” deal by which people acquire a lot of stuff. When I stayed in Heart Butte over Christmas, the kids were concerned that I was doing the wrong thing and might suffer for it. I tried to tell them I WAS “home,” but to them it was THEIR home and one person’s home can’t be an entirely different kind of person’s home. No one shares home in that way: home means place and people who are blood relations.

Much of the "old" white stereotyping has dispersed now because of television, but that has brought in a whole new set of stereotypes, partly because it coincided with the exodus of most of the white people on the rez except in the summer. So now the younger Indians think all white people are like the examples on sit coms. But they have been introduced to the idea of black white people and they have firmly grasped the idea that black white people are more powerful than white white people. They’re better basketball players (which is a major criterion) and white people are very careful around them. Yellow white people are invisible.

The biggest stereotypes that are (thankfully) dying out are the stereotypes that Indians have about Indians. Like cowboys in the bunkhouse reading Westerns to see what they should be like, some Indians read anthropology and try to follow the descriptions as though they were prescriptions. This pleases summer white people who like to be told “what Indians are really like.” They do NOT want to hear that Indians are like anyone else.

Statistical constructs about what Indians are like are pretty risky to even talk about. If one says that “surveys show” elevated levels of drunkenness, unwed mothers, family abuse, theft, and so on, the Indian listening will think they personally are being accused of all these things and they will vigorously quarrel with all these ideas. Besides, when these things are part of your own family life of whatever color, you learn to keep them secret. You only drag them out when intrafamily or interfamily warfare breaks out, as around tribal elections. Then everything comes out, usually full of exaggerations and wrong assumptions. Therefore, given the ambiguity of reservation life, no one ever really knows anything about anyone. They just have their suspicions, which gradually develop into convictions. There are more family stereotypes than racial stereotypes. X family are drunks; Y family are thieves. Whites are greedy, undependable, and addicted to lawyers.

Every stereotype serves a purpose, justifying something from the point of view of the stereotyper and sometimes becoming self-fulfilling. There used to be an educator here who had two major convictions about Indian kids which he passed on as Truth. One was that Indian kids can’t handle sequences (like the alphabet) and the other was that Indian kids will always avert their eyes. Maybe. Or maybe this guy was just obnoxious, in their faces. But he’s made a living ever since by touting his grasp of Indian kids. When I asked, they said they couldn’t remember the guy. He didn’t stay long.


Art Durkee said...

The one that rankles with me is when some more militant buck gets in my face about "stealing his culture" when in fact I only want to learn about it because I have so much respect for it. Granted, this is a very understandable (if predictable) chip on the shoulder to run into. There is plenty of truth behind it. Nonetheless, it is a knee-jerk prejudice. In fact, I've personally known a couple of pipe-carrier older men, Ojibway and Lakota, who were pleased to teach those they felt were honestly interested and respectful. It becomes a paradox: who do you teach your culture to, to preserve it and pass it on, if not enough of your own tribe wants to learn it and live that way? How do you resolve that dilemma? Hopefully with honor and respect. It's a very human question, after all.

prairie mary said...

It's just standard rez blackmail. These are the same kids who said to me in high school that if I didn't give them a good grade, their dad would come beat me up. The French/Algerian theorists did a great mischief when they put this tomahawk in their hands.

They get a lot of free drinks out of their attitude.

Prairie Mary

Vagabonde said...

Interesting to learn that Indians stereotype whites, it shows that they are like the average US person who stereotypes people of other countries, or heritages that they don’t know anything about. Actually the average adult, US citizens, are not that interested to learn about other cultures, because they feel theirs is so vastly superior to others. It is also hard to find good, accurate information here. A few years ago I was going to Canada and wanted to read a good history book about the country. I went to a huge bookstore, looked in World History, then in US History and never could find a book on Canada. When I asked the store assistant he said “Canada? you want to read about Canada? well, don’t think we have much on that, we carry what people are interested in”. I think it is the same about Indian Reservations – the average American does not care, or never thinks about that. I had a class of Chinese trainees whose contract with our company included some “cultural trips” . My boss said “take them to 6 Flags” and when I said I wanted to take them to the Cherokee Indian Reservation in NC, he was totally astounded that anyone who enjoy that. The Chinese love the trip.

Anonymous said...

I am truly in awe at this individual's level of ignorance, illogical understanding of "stereotype", and willingness to foist an absurd statement such as the one posted, in whatever manner they deem convenient or truthful. As an "educated" American Indian, I find this viewpoint, which appears to be eloquently stated, contary to the realities of the Indian and his way of thinking, in general. I don't think one can truly understand the animosity of you're behavior, seeing as how most will adhere to the principles of it's perception. Since there appears to be no way to pry through the narrow-mindedness of some, it only seems right to understand the ways that breed such a point of view. It is wrong to behold a point of view which one plans to carry out to the degree of wrongful accusation. As far as this Indian is concerned, Praire Mary has had far more than his/her share of time denouncing the Indian based on "stereotype", and it is now time for he/she to return to the hole from whence they came. I just have one question. Why must you ally and align yourself with the very same forces that would bury you if they had but half a chance?