Common Stereotypes and Misconceptions about American Indians

Indians are stoic. They are tragic, and have no sense of humor.

Historic photographs were often taken on serious occasions—treaty-signings, etc.—where nobody (Indian or non-Indian) smiled. Some Native people—like people of other races—may be reserved when talking to people they don’t know. However, humor is an essential part of traditional Native culture and stories, and as you know if you spend time among Indian people, they have senses of humor as silly, wicked, sharp, or irreverent as anyone else. The same thing is true about Native literature: Some of it is serious, and some of it is funny.

Indians get a free ride from the government.

Indians don’t get any money just for being Indians! Tribes that have treaty relationships with the United States receive certain benefits—primarily access to IHS—but these vary from tribe to tribe, and are the result of treaties where the tribes ceded some of their land and/or rights to the U.S. government in exchange for these benefits. All Native people also pay federal taxes, and are thus eligible for the same federal programs as everyone else (welfare, unemployment, WIC, etc).

Indians get free tuition in college.

Every Native student I’ve spoken to responds to this stereotype as follows: “Wow, I wish!” The fact is that while some tribes may use their own funds to subsidize their own tribal members’ education, the U.S. government isn’t giving free tuition away to Indian students. (Of course, Native students are eligible for the same financial aid as everyone else.)

Indians are all getting rich off of casinos.

Not every tribe has a casino. (About 40% do, and 60% don’t.) Some tribes have casinos that don’t make a lot of money (especially those in more out-of-the-way places; the Standing Rock Sioux probably don’t make a heck of a lot of money running a casino in Fort Yates, North Dakota). Some tribes do have casinos that bring in a lot of money, but the distribution of that money also varies from tribe to tribe. Some tribes have corporate partners who receive a portion of the profits. Some do not give members any money directly, and instead use casino profits for infrastructure (improving schools, health clinics, founding a tribal college, starting a library) or scholarships; some put the money into educational and arts programs (such as grants for Native filmmakers); some do give tribal members a lump sum payout (though again, the amount varies depending on the tribe and, often, on the band). Generally, people aren’t getting rich; they’re getting by. (Economic opportunities on most reservations are not numerous.) If they are getting rich, they are bands who 1. have casinos in urban areas, 2. have a very small number of tribal members, and 3. give members lump sum payments.

Indians are a vanished race. Indian culture doesn’t really exist anymore.

Native Americans are, according to the U.S. census, one of the fastest growing groups. 2000 census reported 4.1 million American Indians & Alaskan Natives, which is 1.5% of the total population. (The percentages vary a lot from state to state.).
In other countries : Canada, 3.3% of the population. In Guatemala, Indigenous people form 40% of the population (about 354,000). Bolivia and Peru are majority Indigenous.

Many Native people have adopted some Euro-American ways—for example, most will dress casually, in jeans and a t-shirt, unless their jobs require otherwise—but may still maintain tribal traditions and culture. Most are in some way bicultural. Some have little or no relationship to their Indian heritage; others are strongly connected to traditional ways. While some traditions have been lost because of the decimation of the Native population after Columbus’s arrival, many are still around. Some have changed, because it is the nature of traditions to change—Catholics today don’t worship the way they did 100 years ago, Germans don’t dress as they did 100 years ago, but that doesn’t make them any less Catholic or German.

Indians live on reservations, in tipis, have braids, ride horses.

Some Indians do live on reservations, but many—a slight majority—live in non-reservation urban areas like Dallas or Los Angeles. Indians can live wherever they want. Most reservations also have non-Indian residents, and some reservations are actually majority non-Indian. As far as dress, most Native people dress like everyone else – suits, jeans, skirts, whatever. The exception would be that some will wear traditional clothing during ceremonies or if they are dancing at a powwow.

You can tell who’s Indian by looking at them.

While you sometimes can guess who’s Indian and who isn’t, there are plenty of times you cannot tell who’s Indian just by looking at them. Because many Indians are of mixed descent, there is no one “Indian look.” Some Northeastern tribes like the Pequot, who have long histories of intermarriage with free African American communities, tend to “look Black”; other tribes who intermarried with whites may have members who “look white”; in the Southwest, it may be very difficult to visually distinguish between people who are Native and people who are Hispanic (most of whom have some Native ancestry, but don’t identify as Native culturally). Indians can have curly hair, straight hair, red hair, blond hair, brown eyes, blue eyes, dark skin, light skin... et cetera, et cetera. Looks are not what make someone Indian, and it’s important to remind yourself that you cannot tell who is Indian just by looking. 



Some of these are adapted from Devon Mihesuah, American Indians: Stereotypes & Realities (1999)


Updated Sep. 3, 2008