I have been a presenter on Native history for the past 15 years in all manner of settings. I have spoken with students of all ages, teachers, professionals, federal and state employees and elderly folks. I estimate I have conducted about 250 presentations during this time, sometimes three or four a week. In my experience, most people are still romanticizing Native peoples. People still believe that Indians only live on reservations, that we all hunted bison, and the tipi is our only housing, that we cannot handle our alcohol, that we are stoic, that we speak in stilted speaking patterns, and that we all know each other. To many, we are the people of the forest and commune with nature on a daily basis.
It is not an isolated situation. Nearly everyone does it. In every group there are perhaps one or two who are already well informed, but the numbers of other people who are not informed, is staggering. There is a number of common issues that arise. I have learned to accept the fact that I will have to address these questions on nearly every occasion.
Do Indians live in tipis? This question arises quite frequently, and yes many of the plains Indians and their neighbors did use tipis and live in them, But tipis depend on having large animal skins, and bison were that for the tribes. Other tribes lived in plankhouses, mat houses, longhouses, or pit houses, or even adobe type houses depending on the region.
Do Indians only live on reservations? No, more than half the tribal peoples of the US live in urban cities. Many people do live on or near reservations, but most reservations are tough places to find work and housing for everyone in the tribe. These are a scattering of problems on reservations, poverty being the most prominent. Some reservation has problems with political corruption, some have casino cultures, some have drug problems. This is not unlike most cities or neighborhoods in some cities. Federal neglect of and control of reservation resources for more than 150 years for many reservations have to lead to many problems.
Do we call all Indians, “Indians” or what do we call you? Most Tribal peoples are fine with being called Indians in my experience. It is so much better to address people by their names and their specific tribe if known. Its also better to use words like Native peoples, First Nations, Indigenous peoples, Native Americans, and American Indians in the right situations.
Doesn’t “Redskins” honor Native peoples? No, not at all. It is a term that was born in the 1900s around the bounties given to settlers, ranchers, volunteer militia and gold miners for a Redskin or scalp of the people they killed. Various states allowed for repayment of the expenses of these White Americans for the scalps they turned into the state government for the bounty. It is very interesting that the name is now used in conjunction with a football team, a game of sport, who reside in the nation’s capital. What better symbol of the oppression and dispossession and wars of extermination of the native population of the Americans than the word Redskins associated with the nation’s capital? So for the majority of Native peoples, this word does not honor us. There is another use of a version of the word on reservations by some Native peoples. Natives use the word “Skins” at times to refer to one another and many wear Redskin attire, hats, coats, etc. I think the way this has come about is native people chose to take ownership of the word, modify it slightly and use it as a tongue-in-cheek expression to ironically represent our solidarity of our situation and status. This then reverses the meaning. This has occurred with similar words in history “bad” equaling good etc.
Did all native people grow corn? No. this is a fallacy. A recent book, an “Indigenous People’s history of the United States”, suggests that all native peoples, from the Arctic to the tip of South America grew corn. This is not at all correct. Native peoples in the Northwest and Plateau did not grow crops or corn at all. I know it was grown in the Southwest of the United States, in central and even South America. I have not heard of Amazonian peoples growing corn. nor people of the Plains. Yes for eastern Woodlands, and perhaps yes for much of the southeast, although I have doubts about the Native peoples of what is now Louisiana, and Florida. Historically yes for many of these people because corn was introduced nearly everywhere except the Arctic. The First Corn in the Northwest Coast was brought here by The Hudson’s Bay Company in the 1820s. They set up large agricultural fields on the Columbia River near Fort Vancouver. All corn weaving products from the Native peoples of the Northwest Coast region are after settlements when corn was introduced and the dried husks were noted as being strong enough to weave with to make bags and dolls and such.
Did Oregon natives have bison? Yes and No. There were no bison in recorded memory in Oregon. There is fossil evidence of bison being in Oregon thousands of years previously. As well, tribes like the Nez Perce (Niimipu) would travel into the Plains, from their Wallowa homelands, each year to hunt Bison. Then the skins and horns would enter into the native trade networks in the region that followed the Columbia River. So Bison products would be known and highly valued, but no actual living bison.
Do native peoples speak their languages? Many do, most do not. The United States spent a lot of effort to eradicate Native languages through boarding schools. There native children were not allowed to speak their native language. Then generations of our ancestors chose not to teach it to their kids so that they would not be labeled as Indians or less than the White people. Today many tribes are working to save and restore their languages. It is very expensive and time-consuming, and many people do not have time to devote to learning their language. English operates as a colonizing language and the worldwide spread of English is literally causing hundreds of languages to go extinct each year. There are lots of complicated issues here, but the most successful programs are those who close themselves off from much of the world and immerse their students and peoples in restoration work. The most advanced are the programs in New Zealand and in Hawaii.
What was the population of native peoples in this area? Each area is unique. For the Willamette Valley estimates vary widely from 10,000 to 25,000 pre-contact. There was likely 20,000 people at the time of Lewis and Clark Expedition. Yet the expedition noted people with pock-marked faces. So they had already been through smallpox. Smallpox, malaria, influenza, and herpes were the most common killers of the tribes. They were not dependent on the actual contact between native people and non-natives to be effective, and they likely crossed the continent or an unrecorded trading ship contacted native peoples in the northwest and passed the diseases. So the population was likely much larger, perhaps 50% larger than what Lewis and Clark recorded. By 1856, there were about 600 Kalapuya people remaining, and in 1900 there were about 300 remaining. This population rebounded and today there are several thousand Kalapuya descendants at two reservations.
Why can’t Natives handle their alcohol? This is complex. There are many people who truly believe we have some sort of gene which disallows native people from processing alcohol. This is a very common understanding. Yes it is true that many Native people drink and have problems with all manner of drugs. But the same is the case for every type of ethnic culture. There are folks in every city of all ethnicities that have drinking problems. Native people for whatever reason get the lions share of attention. Perhaps it is a misplaced romanticized view of Native, because drinking goes against their “nature”. Drinking and other drug abuses are really one way of handling stress in peoples’ lives, addiction, yes, but also a stress reliever. Native peoples have now centuries of stress built up from so much loss, so much abuse, so much dysfunction in many communities. It is very understandable. But no not all natives have this problem and no we do not have a genetic problem with alcohol.
Do all native people know each other? Face it native people live all around you. A few choose to self-identify as native. There are some 500+ nations of natives, and we generally do not know everyone in the larger native community. Although I do know a few elders who do appear to know everyone!
Why do Natives use a stilted speech pattern? Some do and some do not. I have no idea why. I think its a regional accent from some reservations. Then I think some others choose to emulate that same speech pattern. The same with the stoic attitude. There is much emulation of these “Indian” characteristics throughout the communities. Many of these characteristics relate to what society expects from us. Society wants to see that speech pattern, and that stoic attitude, its sort of entertainment for non-natives. Its an interesting phenomenon, but we don’t all do that.
Can anyone go to a Pow wow? This is a common question. Yes anyone can normally attend. Don’t expect everyone to greet you with open arms, or allow you to get on a drum and play a song. There are some dances for everyone, that there are some activities for everyone. But we do not appreciate you bringing your own hand drum and joining the song when you have not been trained. Don’t take photos of people in regalia without asking first, obey the rules of the dance floor as laid out by the MC and the other officials, and be respectful always. Don’t come to the pow wow in your own handmade regalia and be critical of everyone else.
Can I help you get your native name? no, just no! Find out who you are, where your own people came from and work that direction. Don’t try to appropriate native culture.
Can my native philosophy help save the world? Maybe. They might be some relevancy in a philosophy that tries to live with the world and not destroy it for the benefit of humanity. Unfortunately this normally turns into an attempt to steal the philosophy from native people, a form of cultural theft. Native people created the philosophy, its a part of those who grew up within it, and who better to be a part of the discussion than native people. Some people feel we have a genetic relationship with that culture and philosophy. I am not sure about that, but I am aware that over 14,000 years of my people are buried in this Willamette Valley (about 50,000 generations), and every particle of soil in the valley has a relationship so some ancestor I am related to. That understanding means I have a very close relationship to this land. I care about how we treat this place. We know where we come from and honor the earth for the life it allows us to live.
I hope some of this is helpful. Remember, native people are just people like everyone else, not better or worse that anyone else.
Ethnohistory Research, LLC | David G. Lewis, PhD
PhD Anthropology (UO 2009) and Native history researcher. Member of the Grand Ronde Tribe, Takelma, Chinook, Molalla, and Santiam Kalapuya ancestry. Owner of Ethnohistory Research LCC, professional consultant and project researcher.
I teach at local universities and colleges and take contracts with tribes, local governments and nonprofits. I have experience in archival organization, museum development, exhibit curation, traditional cultural property nomination, tribal ethnohistoric research, tribal maps, traditional ecological knowledge, and presentations to large and small gatherings. Contact me for consultation about any of these projects.