Etiquette with Native People
And so we broach what can be a sensitive topic with this blog – etiquette – as it pertains to interacting with American Indian people. Right out of the gate we will address one. You notice I said ‘American Indian’, instead of ‘Native American’? Well my friends, that is on purpose. The term ‘Native American’ is a term that was invented by the U.S. Government, and a majority of First Nations people prefer other identifying terms. Having said that, no First Nations person is going to be upset by the term ‘Native American’! To keep things simple, I will use the term ‘Native people’ for this blog.
So, what does it mean to exercise etiquette toward Native people? Why is it even necessary?
The reason it is necessary is both historical and cultural. Historically, Native people were grossly misunderstood, misrepresented and often characterized in unflattering, inaccurate and even demeaning, insulting ways by the American government, mainstream media and society. A quick peruse through newspaper articles of the past about American Indian issues will plainly illustrate the warped historical view most Americans had of Native people in those times. Those warped views continue today in many ways, some subtle and some more obvious (obvious at least to Native people). The problem with these misconceptions is that they cause injury to Native peoples, injury in the form of racism, teenage suicide (3 times the national average), violence against Native people, alcoholism, epidemic poverty and many other socio-economic issues. This is why it is very necessary to understand and exercise etiquette with Native people.
So, to keep things light and positive, I will focus more on the ‘dos’ than the ‘don’ts’! Here are a few for you:
There are, of course, a lot more ‘dos’ and many ‘don’ts’, but the basic message here boils down to respect. To give someone, anyone, respect, you must see them as an equal. You must see them as human, and not a caricature, a villain, a hero, a mascot or a romanticized fantasy character. To respect a Native person, one must treat them as just that – a person - and not anything more or anything less. We are people. We are human beings; human beings with incredibly diverse human traits, complex cultural traditions and ancient complicated histories. We are not the two dimensional buffalo head nickel, Edward Curtis portrait, sports team mascot cartoon characters much of the mainstream western world has painted us to be. It is necessary to discuss etiquette toward Native people, frankly because it is so often not practiced. So, in summation, etiquette just means to be decent, polite, respectful and gracious. Apply those simple graces to your interactions with Native people as you would any other person, and we may just get to know each other for who we really are!