15 Things You Can Do To Be More Respectful of Native Americans

Many of us are guilty of being disrespectful towards Native Americans without even realizing it. We use thoughtless phrases, recite flawed history, and make assumptions we shouldn’t. 

It may not be our fault that U.S. schools often fail to teach Native American history correctly or that our parents taught us common phrases that are particularly insulting. However, if we don’t attempt to remedy our mistakes, we’re just as guilty as our predecessors. 

Luckily, with a little awareness and self-education, we can be more respectful of Native American culture. By doing so, we can also help future generations to do better. 

1: Stop the Thoughtless Phrases

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There are certain phrases that permeate American culture but are offensive to Native Americans. Removing them from your lexicon is one of the first things you should do if you want to show respect. 

A “pow wow” isn’t another word for meeting. “Spirit animal” isn’t a term you should use without deep understanding, and the new guy at work isn’t the “low man on the totem pole.”  

2: Understand the Complexity of the Term 

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The term “Native American” is controversial because it groups many unique cultures into one category. Using it when you’re addressing an individual or community isn’t the best approach. 

Most Native American people prefer you to use their tribal name. Some Native Americans prefer “American Indian” or “Indigenous American” instead. Finding out what community members collectively want to be called is a good way to show respect. 

3: Find Out Whose Land You’re On, Then Honor It

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The U.S. Department of Arts and Culture suggests that speakers at public gatherings and events honor the traditional and indigenous inhabitants of the land they’re standing on. While this practice is gaining ground in some areas of the country, it’s still relatively rare. However, it’s one of the easiest ways to show respect. 

Honoring Native lands with acknowledgment is also a step towards correcting the practices that have attempted to erase Native American culture. One small statement at the beginning of an event can expose hundreds or thousands of people to the names of Indigenous tribes, sparking greater awareness and interest in their culture and traditions.  

4: Not a Racial Minority

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Indigenous people are often classified as minorities, but being classified as American Indian or Native American isn’t a matter of race. According to UCLA‘s Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion department, tribes are sovereign nations which means being Native American is a political designation. 

Each tribe has its own membership criteria. In many cases, someone could identify as multi-racial while also being a member of a specific tribe. 

5: Don’t Claim Native American Heritage Lightly

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Many people claim Native American heritage. Stories like that of Elizabeth Warren, who famously claimed she was 1/32 Cherokee because of family stories, are common in the U.S. In 2010, U.S. Census Data showed 819,105 Americans claimed at least one Cherokee ancestor.  

However, claiming Native American ancestry is a big deal, and you shouldn’t do it unless you’re absolutely sure. A simple DNA test can’t tell you if your ancestors were tribe members, and family stories aren’t always a reliable source of information. Claiming tribe membership is a process that often includes in-depth genealogical research. 

6: Never “Play Indian” 

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Though games of “cowboys and Indians” have mostly fallen out of fashion with young children, it’s worth noting that “playing Indian” is never okay. It’s a disrespectful practice that pushes harmful stereotypes. 

When people “play Indian,” they typically pretend to be stoic warriors even as they meet dreadful deaths. As one article from The Globe and Mail put it, “Play Indian is an overblown, Hollywood-esque idea of Indigenous knowledge.” It promulgates a false history of Native peoples and passes down the wrong stories to the next generation.  

7: Go Learn About the Culture 

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Learning about Native culture is a great way to show more respect to indigenous people. One of the best ways to do this is to interact with tribe members. 

Research local tribes and visit their cultural centers or museums. Gaining knowledge straight from the source is the best way to learn about their unique stories and traditions. 

8: Buy Native 

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If you’re interested in Native American artwork, jewelry, or clothing, it’s important to buy it from tribe members. This supports Native American culture and ensures you’re not purchasing something you shouldn’t have. 

Items like feathers and certain ceremonial pieces are sacred to some Native American cultures. Purchasing one could be offensive to the tribe. 

Beware of scams targeting non-tribe members. Many non-Natives sell tribal items by claiming the proceeds benefit the tribe. However, these are often illegal scams that you should report.

9: Casino Money Misconceptions

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There are over 560 federally recognized tribes in the U.S., and only 250 of them operate gaming facilities. Assuming that every Native American you meet is profiting off casinos is incorrect and insulting. 

Even if a tribe is profiting from a gaming facility, most of the money is typically reinvested into the tribal community at large. Only a minority of tribes distribute direct payments to members. 

10: Don’t Expect Them To Explain Every Custom

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If you’re invited to attend a cultural event, be aware that you’re not watching a demonstration or viewing a museum exhibit. Traditional ceremonies are important, and asking constant questions might be off-putting. 

Imagine if you brought a friend to a community or religious event, like a wedding or baptism. If they constantly asked you questions about what was happening, it could detract you from an important experience. 

11: It’s Not a Costume

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The National Museum of the American Indian notes that non-Natives dressing up as Native Americans is always inappropriate. Though this used to be a common classroom activity in American schools, the practice has all but disappeared for good reasons.

Putting on an “Indian costume” magnifies insulting stereotypes and suggests that Native American culture is nothing more than a historical artifact. It also suggests a singular view of Native Americans when, in reality, each tribe had its own way of dressing.  

12: Don’t Assume Negative Stereotypes Are True

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There are many negative stereotypes that persist about modern Native American cultures. For example, many people assume Native Americans are commonly alcoholics. 

The “firewater” myth, as the idea is sometimes called, is false. Native Americans are not more susceptible to alcoholism or addiction than any other group. If there are higher rates of alcoholism or addiction within a tribe, it’s likely due to inflicted trauma, not a genetic inferiority. 

13: Understand the Land Bridge Theory Is Controversial 

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You might have learned the land bridge theory in school. The idea is that the Bering Strait connected North America to the European continent, allowing early humans to cross over. 

Many Native American cultures vehemently disagree with this idea. They believe their tribes originated in their homelands, which is one of the reasons why their land is sacred to them. 

14: Use the Present Tense

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You might not realize it, but many people speak about Native Americans as if they were artifacts of the past. The National Museum of the American Indian reminds us that using the present tense is important when discussing Native American culture. 

Indigenous people are alive and well. They continue to practice traditional customs and honor their culture. But, when people refer to Indigenous culture in the past tense, it erases their modern existence. 

15: Respect Their Wisdom 

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Modern science has a tendency to disregard traditional Native American wisdom in favor of more Western views. However, respecting Indigenous wisdom has many benefits. 

For example, in Alaska, the Southcentral Foundation (SCF) launched a medical campus to serve Native tribal members. Within, medical providers use a combination of Western medicine and Native healing practices to serve the community. 

The results are revolutionary. SCF has been able to better control healthcare costs while dramatically improving health outcomes. 

19 Things Many People Don’t Know About Native Americans

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Too many people have a monolithic view of Native Americans, but they’re hardly a single-minded group. Tribes vary in language, tradition, and culture. As these facts reveal, there’s a lot more to Native Americans than what you learned in school. 

19 Things Many People Don’t Know About Native Americans

19 Historical U.S. Myths That Annoy History Buffs to the Core

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If your teacher taught it in history class, it’s normal to assume it’s true. Ask any historian, though, and you might be surprised to learn the stuff of school history lessons is often riddled with inaccuracies. 

19 Historical U.S. Myths That Annoy History Buffs to the Core

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