Sweeping generalizations brought about by those unfamiliar with the historic ethnological foundations of any particular cultural group have always been a point of insensitive contention throughout the American societal landscape. The multitude of ways these longstanding ethnic stereotypes are manifested and upheld by individuals inevitably erodes the public’s ability to understand these cultural groupings more appropriately. This absence of pursuing and attaining cultural knowledge has undoubtedly reinforced the misguided perceptions held by many people regarding Native Americans and who they indeed are as a collective but fundamentally varied cultural group.
These largely incorrect and well-established perceptions regarding Native Americans as all residing in the exact social, traditional, economic, and religious boundaries have been detrimental to realizing the breadth of diversity exhibited between the various tribal communities throughout America. Regardless of the immense differences of each respective tribal community and the historicities surrounding them, many non-Natives, particularly in the United States, still believe that all Native Americans are entirely the same. These beliefs all encompass a wide range of identicalness; whether that all Native Americans own and operate casinos, or all receive special privileges and benefits from the government, or all are alcoholics, or all of their ancestors lived in teepees and wore headdress regalia, amongst countless others. The manifold of these recurring conventional beliefs fundamentally diminishes the cultural richness found throughout each respective tribal community.
To think this way is akin to categorizing all individuals residing in Europe as sharing the same language, religious practices, economic pursuits, and traditions. As we know, this is not true to believe in our contemporary era, and in many respects, would be outright ridiculed if suggested in any public or academic setting. Today, the diversity found throughout Europe is common knowledge, with each country residing in its sphere imbued with a distinctness that establishes them as independent and extrapolated cultural societies. While Europeans may undeniably share in many collective understandings, they are still uniquely different in innumerable ways.
Similarly, we should strive to understand to envision Native Americans in the same vein. Historically, Native American communities significantly differed in language, religious practices, attire, social structuring, economies, physical appearance, gender roles, and world views. These differences extend even further to their environments, or later removal to reservation lands, which varied considerably between the coastal, desert, forest, mountains, plains, and arctic regions dispersed throughout the continent. To this day, tribal communities have vast contradistinctions, with members from one tribe entirely dissimilar from members from another tribe.
Leading up to the pre-contact of the Americas by European settlers, it is estimated that over 1,000 tribes had existed in North America, South American, and Canada, with approximately just as many, numbered languages spoken amongst them. The disregarding of this diversity in many portrayals of Native Americans in popular media, which often details its focus on the Plains tribes, who have historically lived in teepees and hunted bison, is both disheartening and culturally inept on the part of the broad American citizenry. This popularization has led many non-Natives to believe that all Native Americans upheld cultural elements specifically from the Plains tribes, which is an unfair assessment of how tribal communities creatively persisted in their natural habitats.
As the teepee is one of the most famous representations of Native American culture in the United States, it has become a vital component of the American ideology on Native American culture – and its continual misinterpretation. As detailed earlier, many films, televisions series, and books infuse its symbology throughout their respective works. This misunderstanding led many individuals to view it as a structure that all Native Americans had used and inhabited, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. For example, the Arikaras and Pawnees lived in earth lodges, with the Wichitas having lived in grass structures. Tribes in the Southeastern part of the United States, such as the Chickasaws and Cherokees, lived in incubated roof structures supported by wooden poles. Tribes around the Great Lakes region, such as the Winnebagos and Shawnees, and tribes such as the Huron and Abenaki, lived in earth housing, wigwams, and longhouses. Pueblo tribes, such as the Hopi, lived in pueblo settlements. Northwest tribes leading up to Alaska lived in cedar plank longhouses. The Inuit people lived in igloos, which were temporarily lived in during the hunting season, living the remainder of the year in domed, earth-covered homes.
Modes of sustenance varied between various Native American communities as well. Southwestern tribes were usually agriculturists, utilizing a combination of farming and hunting to survive. Southeastern tribes had diets that consisted of deer, fish, and other small game, which complemented their growing of beans, squash, and corn collected and consumed throughout the year. Tribes surrounding the Great Lakes hunted elk, beavers, and moose while also fishing and growing tobacco and corn, from which they traded with other tribes in the local area. Tribes in the Pacific Northwest primarily fished for salmon amongst other fish and harvested various berries. Alaskan tribes hunted seals, elk, and small whales, with those tribes living away from the Alaskan coast hunting mainly land mammals.
Even from a geological understanding, classifying tribes as regionally based does not exclude them from showcasing considerable variety amongst each other. Many tribal communities live next to each other but do not share the same language, like the Hopis and Navajos, or perhaps share numerous variations of one language. Differences in language, traditions, attire, and religion between tribes nearby can also exist, with one tribe believing in one creation story. In contrast, a neighboring tribe a few miles away may have an entirely different creation story, for example. Tribal art varies abundantly, too, especially in regards to color, design choice, and meaning. Some tribes in the Pacific Northwest used totem poles, others in the Southwest used wall paintings, and Yurok tribes even used bodily tattooing, amongst countless other artful practices performed by tribes.
The effects of contact with European settlers also differed greatly depending on the social, political, and economic systems of the tribes, transforming their ways of life in irreversible ways. After contact, many tribes in the Southeast became heavily active in the deer-hide trade. In the Southwest, many tribes both traded and battled with the Spanish colonialists. In the Pacific Northwest, tribes were heavily inundated by Old World diseases brought in by European explorers and traders, significantly reducing their population. In the Northeast and upwards to the Canadian border, the fur pelt trade with Europeans for European goods increased significantly. It became a vital trade network during the early colonial period, from which Native American and European traders developed a transactional relationship and understanding based primarily on economic and social interactions.
This type of contact further extended into modes of intermarriage between European settlers and Native Americans, which produced populations of mixed-blood individuals that shared cultural traditions and practices stemming from both groups. The complexities of mixed-blooded individuals occur even to this today. Many mixed-blood individuals either heavily adapt to Euro-Western thought processes, pursue a traditionalist route that reinforces the importance of ancestral traditions, including religious practices and adherence to the original language, or an intricate combination of both. For example, in Canada and the United States, the Metis peoples, deriving from the French term for “mixed-blood,’ are a symbiotic mixture of Indigenous and European ancestry, showcasing the symbiotic relationships that had arose.
Attempting to genuinely acknowledge and understand the immense intricacies that encompass Native American culture takes tremendous courage and pursuit for challenging one’s prevailing preconceptions. This pedagogical approach can undoubtedly be challenging for many, and it has shown over time that it is still a demanding cognitive undertaking. If one does so, though, one begins to see how ethnic stereotypes of the Indigenous peoples of America do very little to showcase the diversity of America’s Indigenous history, both in the sense of describing a pre-contact and post-contact historical worldview.
Over 2.7 million Native Americans live in the United States today, belonging to over 574 federally recognized tribes and over 200 unrecognized tribes. They live in various environments, either on or off their respective tribal reservation, in urban or rural communities. While intersectionality between these tribal communities does exist, they are equally different, and they are not all the same. To dispel such historical misconceptions on Native American culture reconciles that each tribal community is, in fact, uniquely different, showcasing a diverse range of traditions, religious practices, economic undertakings, and social standings that have sustained them for centuries. This extensive understanding ultimately represents who Native Americans are as incredibly distinctive, beautiful, and culturally bountiful people.
Miguel Douglas is the executive director of American Indian Republic and is an enrolled member of the Puyallup Tribe of Indians. He has written extensively on Indian gaming and its effects on American Indian communities. He has received a Master’s Degree in Interdisciplinary Studies from the University of Washington.