If you’re a person of color, you’ve heard the questions about hair, skin tone, where you lived, and what you ate. Being Native American, I’ve probably heard hundreds of questions about being Indigenous. Some of them have been legitimate “Gee, I didn’t know that” questions, while others have been bordered on rude. But I’m always willing to answer questions and share information in hopes of educating people and shedding stereotypes.
There are a lot of legitimate questions people have regarding Native Americans. This is natural for a variety of reasons, including a rocky relationship (to be polite) between Indigenous peoples and the federal government, stereotypes from non-Natives, and a lack of legitimate history being taught in schools.
I promise not to be preachy as I explore questions people have asked me, relatives, and friends over the years.
Here are some of the most commonly asked Native American questions.
1. Did You Grow Up On A Reservation?
No. Most Native Americans don’t live on a reservation. About 70 percent of Native Americans live in urban areas. However, some of this came about from the Indian Relocation Act, an early 1950s federal program designed to “encourage” people to leave reservations and move to urban environments with the promise of nice homes and good-paying jobs. Neither was true. Once in the city, Native Americans were basically left to take care of themselves.
Deeming Indian relocation problematic, the federal government went a step further in 1953 and passed the Termination Act, essentially dissolving tribes as if they didn’t exist and claiming reservation land from tribes. The policy lasted until 1970 when President Richard Nixon stopped it. In Nebraska, we saw the Ponca tribe terminated. Imagine someone telling you that you’re not who you are — that’s what termination did. People were not recognized as Native Americans because their tribe no longer officially existed.
Fortunately in recent years, of the 113 tribes dissolved under the termination policy, 78 have been restored, including the Ponca. During the late 1980s through the ’90s, Congress acted to right the wrong. For the Ponca, President George H.W. Bush signed the legislation restoring them as a recognized tribe.
While I didn’t grow up on a reservation, my five oldest siblings lived on the Santee Dakota reservation in northeast Nebraska during their youth. Three of them were born there or at Indian Health Service hospitals. By the time the younger five came along, our parents had settled in the Omaha area.
My family visited Santee often when I was a child. Our grandmother lived there. We’d visit on vacation and spend time with her during the summer. I remember during one of my summer visits, I caught a couple of catfish in the Missouri River (I loved fishing as a kid) and brought them back to her place. I cleaned them, and she made them for dinner, for herself and my cousin, who was staying there, too. I loved fishing but hated eating fish, so I was okay with not eating the fish.
We attended annual powwows (wacipi in our native language). An older brother still lives there, so we continue to visit.
2. Why Do We Still Have Reservations?
That’s a question I’ve been asked often. I simply reply, “Why do you have a hometown?” Reservations are communities, possibly tighter knit than non-Native towns. This is because reservation residents share the same story, the same history. We have a lot of cousins on reservations, so family is important.
Reservations have had a mixed history. Several are economically-challenged communities, not unlike a lot of small rural towns, often located far from large urban areas. They are basically the federal government’s last remaining promise to Native Americans from the 1800s when territory was removed from tribes and they were forced to relocate.
Towns grew on some reservations. Others are very much rural in nature, with infrastructure issues such as lack of clean water, electricity, and paved roads; similar to towns you may see on the news in non-Native regions of the United States.
Yet, communities grow and some prosper, just like other towns. In Santee, 50 years ago, you’d walk down the sandy dirt road in front of my grandma’s house to the gravel road a quarter-mile away, on to the only paved road on the reservation and then about a half-mile to Gib’s, the general store, which served as the grocery store, cafe, gas station, and the place for anglers and hunters to get permits. All in one small building. The groceries were on shelves along the walls.
Today, Santee is a small town of about 300 people, with plenty of housing, paved streets, a public school, health clinic, gas station, and a grocery store (still too small). The town has really grown over the past 5 decades. My grandma even moved from her house to an apartment, where she lived near long-time friends.
3. Can I Visit A Reservation?
Of course you can. While reservations are designated areas for tribes, non-Natives are welcome. Stop in for a meal at a cafe and visit tribal attractions. Just be respectful to locals, as you would in any town. Some tribes have developed tourist attractions that help them share their history, culture, and tradition. The Diné (Navajo) have an outstanding tribute to the World War II code talkers. The Winnebago (Ho Chunk) in Nebraska has a sculpture garden that showcases the tribe’s 12 clans. The Ponca in Nebraska have an education path at its Niobrara grounds, including an earth lodge and a statue of Chief Standing Bear, who won the first civil rights trial in Native American history, proving in 1879 that Native Americans were legal people.
4. Can I Attend A Powwow?
No. Just kidding. The public is always welcomed and encouraged to attend powwows. This is an opportunity to share culture and traditions with others. The dance’s emcee often shares fun facts and trivia about Native American life and history, so powwows are great events to visit. While there, enjoy an Indian taco, browse vendor booths, but, if interested in buying something, don’t try to haggle with the merchant. The work people put into creating beadwork and other art isn’t open for negotiation.
Be respectful during your visit, level learning about powwows before attending one. That way, you won’t misstep and violate a circle or other cultural significance. Don’t join a dance until asked. And, you will be encouraged to join a few.
I recommend checking the Facebook page, website, or searching the internet (powwows.com is excellent) for celebrations in your area.
5. What Do Native Americans Eat?
We honor Mother Earth by only taking that which will sustain us. Nah. Again, only joking. Though, community gardens are treated with respect due to Mother Earth. We’re humans, so we’re probably eating the same things you are — veggies, proteins, and fruit. Of course, as with almost everyone, we can do a better job of eating healthier. Among my favorite dishes are lasagna, grilled chicken, and spaghetti. I enjoy a good steak once in a while. Greek, Thai, and Mexican are among my favorite restaurants. So, Native Americans are no different than their fellow Americans.
However, I have been working to include more traditional Indigenous dishes into our family’s dining repertoire. A family friend (jokingly referred to as an illegally adopted daughter because she’s basically one of our kids) gifted me the Sioux Chef’s Indigenous Kitchen cookbook, which has recipes used by our ancestors during their days on the Plains. So, I’ve gotten good at roasting vegetables, making corn cakes, and adding a bison steak to meals. During the winter, I’m stealing a friend’s recipe for bison chili.
6. Do Native Americans Get A Monthly Check For Being Native?
This can be a dicey question to answer, because some Native Americans may, indeed, receive a monthly check. Or quarterly. Or even annually. However, it’s not for being Native American. Some tribes have successful casinos and other businesses and share that success with their citizens through stipends. Others receive random dividend payments because of settled lawsuits with the federal government over treaty violations. But, no one gets a check just for being a Native American. Because if we do, I need to talk to someone in customer service about my decades of missing checks.
7. Do Native Americans Get Free College?
Based on the years it took to pay off my student loans, I’ll go with “no.” If a person qualifies financially, they can often get enough funding to go to college. Or, if you’re smart enough and get plenty of scholarships. But, generally, Native Americans don’t get free college just for being Native Americans.
8. What’s Wrong With The “R” Word?
If you don’t know what the “R” word is, Google “offensive Native American words that begin with the letter R.” It’s the Native American version of the “N” word for African Americans. When it was used by a certain professional football team in the nation’s capital, it always bugged me how people would defend it by saying it honored Native Americans. I feel comfortable speaking for 99.9 percent of us out there who agree that it doesn’t honor us. It’s like me coming into your home and using the vilest words to insult you, and then say that I was actually honoring you.
9. What Do You Like To Be Called?
This is probably the most common question I’ve been asked. In recent years, I, along with a lot more people, have started using my tribal name when people ask. So I use iSanti Dakota or Santee Dakota more than in the past. However, I often have to explain the tribe’s history, which is fine with me — it’s another opportunity to create awareness of the Indigenous story. Besides tribal names, people interchangeably use Native American, Native, Indigenous, and even Indian. Personally, I rarely use the word Indian, but I’m not offended if someone uses it with me. I don’t like to use Sioux, as in Santee Sioux, because that’s a derogatory term given by an enemy centuries ago. But, the safest — and most respectful — thing to do is ask the person with whom you’re visiting.
For additional information about indigenous people, read these articles: