Tackling the Common Misconceptions about Indigenous People in the U.S. and Canada

U.S. and Canada (TFC) – As there are many heartbeats, so are there different opinions, preconceived notions, and prejudices for any group you can think of. As Natives make up for a little less than 2% of the population in the United States, and a little less than 4% in Canada; they have been a target of a large number of stereotypes. Natives have been the targets of questions based on terrible misinformation, such as gathering ideas about Natives from movies and television shows, and believing that information to be factual. Here is a list of some of the major misconceptions being circulated today:

NATIVES ARE PAID MONTHLY CHECKS BY THE GOVERNMENT JUST FOR BEING NATIVE – There is no federal government program or initiative in either the U.S. or Canada that simply gives money to people just for having Native heritage, yet this is a widely popular notion even among the most well-meaning of people. One possible origin of this belief is from the Per Capita payouts that some tribes *do* give to their enrolled members from the profits of casinos that do well, which brings us to:

ALL NATIVES GET PAYCHECKS FROM THEIR TRIBE’S CASINO PROFITS – Not all tribes have a casino, believe it or not. Depending upon where you look for information, the percentage of federally recognized tribes in the U.S. that have casinos varies from 44%-57%, with the number being much less in Canada, which comes in at a tiny 2.4%. Many tribes use revenue from casinos to support their own infrastructure, like paying for police and fire, hospitals, and maintenance of roads. Some tribal casinos do make enough profit to take care of these things and have enough left over to pay enrolled members. Some only make enough to take care of infrastructure. Some don’t even get that far, whether it’s because of not drawing in enough people to sustain profitable operations or even a corrupt tribal council skimming any foam off of the top for themselves. While there are Natives out there who wouldn’t mind a little extra money coming in, especially since Natives are highly affected by poverty, getting a paycheck from their tribe’s casino is not always a reality.

Photo Credit- Bryanne Bathory

Photo Credit- Bryanne Bathory

ALL NATIVES USE PEYOTE/ALL NATIVES CAN ACQUIRE PEYOTE – Some tribes, mostly in the southern U.S., as well as the Native American Church, use peyote as an integral part of their spiritual journey. Many Natives have never even seen peyote in person, and it is not a part of their traditional ways. While the sacrament has been used in Canada and the U.S., it is not something everybody has done or has a desire to do, whether that is due to it not being traditional or for other reasons. In Canada, peyote itself is not illegal, but its derivative, mescaline, is considered to be a controlled substance. In the U.S., peyote and mescaline are illegal unless you are a member of the Native American Church, and you can only get peyote through licensed distributors who are registered with the DEA. Some states have various exemptions in place regarding the usage of peyote, ranging from where you can take the sacrament to the circumstances in which it is taken.

NATIVES DON’T PAY TAXES – Natives pay taxes. While some places have exemptions from some taxes (check your local tax guru for more information), Natives still pay taxes. This includes federal, state/provincial, and any other applicable taxes.

NATIVES HAVE ROYALTY A.K.A. “MY GREAT GREAT GRANDMOTHER WAS A CHEROKEE PRINCESS” – Outside of the Hawai’i, the Aztecs, and tribes farther south, no tribes in the U.S. and Canada had kings or queens. They definitely did not have princesses. Pocahontas was only a “princess” in the Disney universe. Sorry to burst your bubble, your highness.

ALL NATIVES LIVE IN TIPIS – The odd obsession with Native housing begins with the thought that all Natives live in tipis. Not all tribes even *historically* lived in tipis. Some lived in longhouses, some in adobe houses, some tribes even lived in houses on stilts. Nowadays, Natives mostly live in apartments, regular houses, or pretty much every type of dwelling that anyone else does.

ALL NATIVES SPEAK THE SAME LANGUAGE – Put two people in a room, one who speaks Navajo, and one who speaks Tlingit, and they won’t understand each other, as they are from different nations. Native languages are as varied as the people who speak them. Sadly, many of the languages that existed before the arrival of conquerors have gone extinct, and most of the languages still in existence are endangered.

ALL NATIVES ARE DRUNKS – While the prevalence of alcoholism is a widespread health issue among many tribes, not all Natives choose to drink, nor do all that choose to drink become addicted to alcohol. “The Drunk Indian” is a popular stereotype used in television and movies, as well as by people whose thought processes are motivated by the negative they see. Alcoholism is a serious health issue, both for the addict and those who care about them, and can be interpreted as a part of the cultural “depression” that happened after the arrival of the colonists, which is still happening today. Alcoholism can happen in any sample of the population, Native or not.

NATIVES GET FREE HOUSING/UTILITIES – Natives don’t live in the an-com utopian world that people think they do. Housing and its associated expenses are not just given to Natives. If this were to be true, there would be no homeless population among Natives. There would not be Natives who are struggling to get water, or wondering whether to eat or keep their electricity on so they won’t freeze during the winter.

ALL NATIVES GET FREE COLLEGE – This is one that is often asked in some form not just to Natives, but to college administrators as well. As a whole, the answer to this is definitely “no”. Natives in the U.S. and Canada are not just automatically afforded post-secondary education because of their heritage, unless it’s an agreement by treaty or the tribe has a college to which an enrolled member can go for free. There are scholarships geared specifically towards Natives, but getting enough to cover everything requires multiple applications across multiple scholarships, and does not necessarily mean that they will be granted solely on the recipient being Native. Some scholarships depend on total blood quantum, which can be difficult to prove if one is of more than one nation, but is only enrolled in one tribe. That blood quantum can also be difficult to prove if one has been adopted, and the original birth certificate is lost or has been altered to show the adoptive parents as the birth parents. In short, some can get free college, some have to wade through multiple scholarship applications, and some have to pile on student loan debt like many non-Natives.

(Author’s Note: Many thanks to the people in the Facebook group 1 MILLION INDIGENOUS FACEBOOK USERS….RED POWER!!! for their assistance in assembling this list.)