How Myths, Stereotypes, and Misperceptions Affect Relationship Building with Tribes

Posted: April 16, 2012

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.

In many people’s views of the American Indian world, these filters are frequently spawned from myths, stereotypes, and misperceptions that, as I said earlier, become locked in our inner core.  Unfortunately these myths, stereotypes, and misperceptions go both ways — Indian people have their own set of filters about non-Indians.  I will cover those in the next newsletter.  In this issue I will focus on those myths, stereotypes, and misperceptions I commonly hear in the non-Indian world about the American Indian community.

1. American Indians receive payments from the Federal government just for being an Indian.

This is one of the most misunderstood myths today. Historically, treaties approved by Congress authorized the Federal government to make payments to American Indian tribes as compensation for lands ceded in those treaties. However, most payments were for a limited period of time, five years for instance, and then the payments were terminated. Today, American Indian people do receive payments from the federal government but, just like everyone else, in the form of tax returns, welfare payments, or unemployment checks. However, no American Indian person receives a check from the federal government just for having American Indian descent or heritage.

2. Gaming (casinos) has made American Indians rich.

Another myth perpetuated by the media today is that American Indian people are getting rich from gaming on tribal lands. If we look at this issue from an objective perspective we find that few tribes are making it big in gaming. Most are break-even business ventures at best, due to the remote location of most tribes and their proximity to large cities. Those near large cities or tourist destinations tend to be the most suc­cessful. In addition, most states have compacts with tribes who have casinos, requiring a portion of the profits to be paid to the state in the form of royalties

3. American Indians do not pay taxes.

Another com­monly held myth is that American Indian people do not pay taxes. American Indian people are subject to the same federal income taxes assessed on earned income regardless of where it is earned, on or off the reservation. However, there are differences with state income taxes. For example, in most states, income earned on the reservation is not subject to state income tax. Income earned off the reservation is subject to state income tax. Property taxes are not assessed on tribal lands on the reser­vation but are assessed for those individuals living off the reservation or on deeded lands within the reservation. Sales tax is paid by American Indian people for purchases off the reservation (where applicable) and may or may not be assessed for purchases on the reservation.  American Indians are subject to the same tax liabilities and shelters as everyone else depending on where and how the income is earned.

4. All American Indian tribes are essentially the same.

First, this is perhaps the most egregiously racist idea of them all. It’s the same as saying all Asians are the same or all Blacks, Latinos, or Whites are the same. In the case of the American Indian, this culturally-perpetuated myth probably comes from a lack of understanding American Indian history. American Indian tribes are as diverse as the states in our country.  Alaskan natives are as culturally distinct as the Seminoles inFlorida. Southern tribes inNew MexicoandArizonahave been historically influenced by the Spanish culture, whereas northern tribes have been historically influenced by the French Canadians. Some tribes are very affluent and others live with high levels of poverty and so forth. Even bands within tribes may be culturally different.  We must recognize that tribes are as distinct and diverse as any other culture.

5. Tribal Sovereignty and treaties do not have any significance in today’s political, social and environmental arena.

Again, this is a false perception based upon a poor understanding of the role of treaties and sovereignty in American Indian history and culture. The treaties negotiated in the 1800s have the same legal standing as those negotiated with other countries in the world. Treaties outline retained rights (hunting, fishing, and gathering), compensation for ceded lands, reservation boundaries, and other factors. Retained rights are those rights tribes had well before the first foreigner set foot in this country.

You need to be aware of the basic premise behind tribal sovereignty. Simply stated, tribal sovereignty is pre-existing and inherent to that of the United Statesand was not given to tribes by the federal government. Treaties were negotiated between two sovereigns—the tribal government and the United Statesgovernment.

What is the end result of all this?  Let’s say you harbor the erroneous stereotype that I talked about earlier, that American Indian people get payments from the federal government just for being Indian. As I mentioned earlier, many people have developed feelings and opinions on a topic based upon how they were raised and their past experiences, so let’s presume that you have this assumption imprinted into your core values based on your upbringing. If you have this perception and are visiting a tribe that asked for your assistance in economic development, this attitude will most likely be reflected in your delivery during discussions. Your inner thoughts might be, “Why do American Indians need more money when they get paid by the government?” or “How can this tribal person talk about poverty when they all get paid by the government?” If you educate yourself more on this topic, you would find where the origin of this idea was and that your thinking and/or information is false.  These filters become subtle in our presentations and are easily read by those we are communicating with.  The situation eventually evolves into a communication breakdown.

Your can read an in-depth discussion about these myths, stereotypes, and misperceptions in “Working In Indian Country: Building Successful Business Relationships with American Indian Tribes.”