10 Things Most Americans Don’t Know About Native American Culture

You probably spent a few weeks in elementary school covering local Native American tribes. You might have even learned more in-depth information in middle or high school if you were lucky. 

However, if you’re like most Americans, your education about Native American culture centered around pre-1900 living. It was also probably littered with inaccuracies. 

So, perhaps it’s no surprise that many Americans have strange misconceptions about indigenous people. From believing that they all lived in teepees to the idea that you can be 10% Cherokee, many of the things you believe about Native Americans are probably incorrect. 

1: Teepees Are Far From Universal

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In an INSIDER piece, Joey Clift, a member of the Cowlitz Tribe, describes being asked whether he was “born in a teepee” at multiple points in his life. Not only are modern Native Americans unlikely to be born in a teepee, but many of their ancestors also never set foot in the pointed structures. 

Teepees were only common for Great Plains tribes. Native Americans from other areas used different forms of housing. In the Pacific Northwest, longhouses were common. In woodland areas, some tribes used wigwams or birchbark houses. 

2: There’s Huge Diversity 

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When many Americans think of native people, a stereotypical image comes to mind. Often, the image looks like something out of an old Hollywood western. However, not all Native Americans fit that mold. 

Native Americans have various skin tones, hair types, and facial features. And the stereotypical portrayal of indigenous people is far from accurate. Hollywood has a long history of casting non-Natives into Native American roles, creating a mental image in the minds of many that doesn’t reflect reality. 

3: Each Tribe Is Unique 

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Many Americans learn about a handful of Native American tribes. You might be familiar with names like Iroquois, Cherokee, or Algonquin. However, there are far more Native American tribes and cultures in the U.S. than many non-natives realize. 

The federal government recognizes 574 Native American tribes, and there are many unrecognized tribes as well. Each has its own culture, traditions, and history. This means there’s a huge amount of diversity within indigenous groups.

4: No Such Thing as 10% Cherokee

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Many Native Americans are enrolled in a specific tribe. In the same way you have identification as a citizen of a country, tribe members can trace their genealogy, have identification cards, and are listed in the tribe’s record. 

However, they’re either tribe members or not. There’s no in-between. You can’t be a 10% citizen of the United States or 10% Cherokee. 

The percentage idea comes from blood quantum laws. These are controversial ways the government and some tribes use to determine “how Native American” someone is based on how far they are from a full-blooded tribe member. However, many Native Americans disagree with using them.  

5: Not Everyone Likes “Native American” 

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Though Native American is the term non-natives use to describe indigenous people, few natives refer to themselves that way. Some even take offense to the term. 

According to Joey Clift, they may prefer to use “Indian” or “American Indian.” Others use the name of their specific tribe, like Cowlitz or Navajo. 

6: Stop Saying You Have a Spirit Animal

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The idea of having a “spirit animal” has become increasingly popular in recent years. The National Museum of the American Indian recently pointed out that teachers even used “spirit animal” exercises in the classroom. They would have students choose an animal they could relate to and explain why. 

Classroom activities and pop culture fads about spirit animals trivialize the deep relationships many indigenous tribes have with the natural world. Animal imagery in Native American culture often symbolizes deep values and important spiritual beliefs. Claiming you have a spirit animal without fully understanding what that means can be insulting. 

7: Government Benefits Aren’t as Big as You Think

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Many Americans believe being part of a Native American tribe gets you special perks. Claiming to be Native American is the top lie college applicants make. And many think you don’t have to pay taxes if you’re Native American or that the government hands out free healthcare. 

There are government agencies that work with federally recognized tribes to establish programs and services comparable to city and state government programs. However, most of the benefits people think Native Americans get are imaginary. 

Native Americans still pay taxes. And, according to the Muwekma Ohlone tribe, spending on Native American health services adds up to $3,000 per head. The national spending on non-natives is just under $8,000. 

8: Hunting Wasn’t for Everyone

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Many Americans imagine Native Americans as hunters. While many tribes did hunt, many farmed as well. In fact, indigenous people often used advanced farming techniques we’re still learning from today. 

Native American farmers used methods like intercropping, polycultures, and agroforestry to sustain their crops and the surrounding environment. Today, these concepts are central to regenerative farming, a cornerstone of the fight against climate change. 

9: It Wasn’t All Bows and Arrows 

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If you thought every Native American warrior was skilled with a bow and arrow, you’re sorely mistaken. While bows and arrows were common weapons, not every warrior used them. 

Spears, atlatls, hatchets, knives, and lancets were all popular weapons with American Indians. Bows and arrows were really only suited to hunting and long-range targets. 

10: Native Americans Are Accomplishing Big Things 

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Outside of stereotypical images, many Americans don’t encounter Native American people on a regular basis. This leads some to believe that Native Americans aren’t doing much in the world these days. Nothing could be further from the truth. 

The first Native American females were elected to Congress in 2018. There are multiple professional athletes with Native American heritage. And, there are several Native American engineers and scientists working for places like NASA

Why Do Non-Native Americans Get So Much Wrong? 

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Non-natives get a lot wrong about Native Americans. A 2018 research study called Reclaiming Native Truth worked to figure out why. 

The study’s researchers spoke with Americans across socioeconomic, racial, and geographical groups. They used discussion sessions, literature reviews, interviews, and surveys to uncover what Americans think of Native people and cultures. What they found was revealing. 

Poor Education 

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The Reclaiming Native Truth study found that many Americans gain a poor understanding of Native American cultures in school. Almost half of Americans said what they learned about Native Americans in school turned out to be inaccurate. 

The majority of Americans surveyed in the study said school curriculums about Native Americans need to change. Many even noted their anger or disappointment in how sparse or misleading their education was. 

Often Invisible

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Native Americans are often “invisible in everyday life,” according to the Reclaiming Native Truth study. Many Americans don’t know a Native American, and they’re rarely portrayed in the media. 

Because of this, negative stereotypes often take the place of actual Native Americans. Because people aren’t exposed to the truth, they fill the void with inaccuracies gathered from marketing campaigns, old Hollywood movies, and racist sports mascots.   

Non-Natives Control the Narrative  

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The Reclaiming Native Truth study points out that few Native Americans are in a position to provide input on the way Native cultures are portrayed. In the media, schools, tourist spots, and entertainment, non-Natives are usually writing the script. 

This leads to narratives that are created “in broad strokes, portraying a homogeneous culture, with little recognition of the diversity among Native peoples and tribes,” the study notes. Researchers go on to say that many Americans also feel assimilation is a good thing, even though it can further erase distinct cultural practices. 

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