Feature Article: Perceptions Indian People Have About Those in the Non-Indian World

Posted: November 6, 2012

In my last article I wrote about the stereotypes, myths, and misperceptions we in the non-Indian world have about those in the American Indian community.  Now I would like to flip the coin and talk about what Indian people might think about those of us in the non-Indian world.  But, first, a refresher about how we develop these stereotypes, myths, and misperceptions.

Many times we have what I call “hidden” feelings about people or a class of people. Let’s call them filters. These filters can be derived from our experiences, how we were raised, or what someone has shared with us.  These filters can be housed deep in our inner core and influence how we communicate with others.  They can surface when we observe someone’s dress, behavior, the way they communicate, or even their beliefs about an issue (religion, political persuasion, social topics, family values, work ethic, ethnic background, etc.).  Ever get those feelings that someone just doesn’t like you but you can’t quite figure out why?  This is because that person is communicating in a way that subtly reveals his/her filters – which we perceive as a bias against us.  It’s human nature that we harbor these biases and must seek awareness and understanding that others have them too.

As I said before, perceptions are a two-way street. Indian people do have biases, misconceptions, and stereotypes about non-Indian government and business leaders. In my interviews I often ask how tribal leaders perceive government and business leaders. I have found that most perceptions American Indian people have about non-Indians are based on both historical and current experiences—those of their ancestors as well as those experienced by the individual.

Here are some of the comments I have heard:

Comment #1—I find it difficult to work with white people because all my experiences have been bad.

Such a feeling is borne in negative experiences an individual has had with government and business leaders. It might have been the result of broken commitments, a forceful approach, or bureaucratic behavior. The individual’s communication filter becomes skewed as a result of these experiences, so when you first meet with that tribal representative, the first thought entering that person’s mind might be, “What does this person want from us? Is this just another outsider trying to take advantage of our tribe?” You can’t even get past this thought because of the suspicions and perceptions, and even disdain, the person has for anyone working in government and business.

Comment #2—You’re just another white man who has broken treaties and promises made to American Indians.

This perception has historical roots as well as experiences of today. So many of the treaties were never adhered to and the commitments in them never materialized. For example, an Indian agent in the 1800’s may have negotiated payment for ceded lands in a treaty; Congress approved the treaty but never appropriated the funds promised. Or, hunting, fishing, and gathering rights on ancestral lands were retained in a treaty but tribal members were not allowed to continue exercising those rights because of governmental policy prohibiting such uses. Another big issue is, “Our great-grandfathers negotiated with the U.S. Government to retain our ancestral lands but they were taken away when gold was discovered.” On the private business sector side, we might hear, “So-and-so discovered oil on our reservation and destroyed our land and sacred sites, and we never received the payments promised.” The list goes on and on, and because of the way history is preserved in the American Indian community, these experiences are recounted from generation to generation.

Comment #3—You’re just another white man who is going to tell us what’s good for us.

 I have said this before. You wouldn’t like it if someone approached you and said, “This is what you’re going to do because it’s good for you.” No matter how well-intentioned you are, if you approach a tribe in such a manner, you’re simply mimicking the typical approach of many previous government and business leaders towards tribes. They came forward saying, “We have this great program for you and it will accomplish all these wonderful things.” Unfortunately experience has shown that many of these programs did not work and may have flown in the face of traditional or cultural norms of a particular tribe. Your intent might be honorable but the wrong approach can leave you empty-handed based on how you present the information.

Now, you might tell yourself, “This isn’t fair, I don’t fit any of those categories and have never done anything to earn these labels!” And this is probably true for most of us. So why do we have to face these realities? For the same reason American Indians have to face the same realities of the labels placed on them over the last two hundred years.  No matter what filter you’re up against, yours or the person’s sitting across from you, it is up to you to take responsibility to move beyond that filter. Don’t ever get nasty or mean about it. You must certainly never become condescending. It is a simple matter of saying, “I’m sorry, I had a misunderstanding,” and then showing that other person that you aren’t like the stereotype. In becomes incumbent upon you to move forward and prove that you do not fit any of these stereotypes.  I assure you it will take time and it can be done.

Whenever anyone bumps up against filters, it becomes a teachable moment for all of us to get past it and into some real and good communication.  Above all, we can and must do our part in making the first move to change the thinking about how we perceive one another. This is where trust and relationship building begins.  It reminds me of a poster I read once, and I don’t know the author, but it is revealing about where we can begin.  It reads:

Listen to the Voices of Our People

and the Pounding of Their Hearts