by Adam Danner
When Native American elders took me under their wings years ago, I realized quickly that I needed to scrap my preconceived notions of what Native American people and culture were like.
I’ve told many people over the years -- if they truly want to learn about Native Americans, then they have to get rid of the stereotypes they hold. Because almost always, they don’t come from actual Native American culture. They are non-Indian-created myths and misconceptions.
The very reason I started speaking years ago and decided to write my first book, “Honoring in a Good Way,” is because the more I spent time with Native people from many different tribes, and then compared that with some of the things I saw being called “Native American,” it made me really sad. It’s a complete cheapening and misrepresentation of who these people are.
That’s why it is important to know that there are 560-plus Native American tribes on this continent, and each has its own culture and beliefs. Some tribes are in relation to each other, but no two tribes are the same. Native American culture comes from these tribes, passed down from people who are keepers of traditions to those people to whom they choose to pass on their teachings to. Contrary to what some have tried to make it, “being” Native American is not a denomination people can just switch to by reading a book or taking a class or looking at a website, no different than someone could decide they were going to be Chinese American or something. But what people CAN do is learn about these things in a respectful way, and it’s important to know that having respect for Native American culture is not necessarily the same thing as acting respectfully towards it. I’ve met people who will tell you until they are blue in the face how much they respect Native Americans, and yet they recklessly barge into our culture -- without knowledge of or concern for -- the beliefs that actual Native Americans hold about their own culture.
Our elders do not believe that just anyone who wants to can run our sacred ceremonies or teach our traditions -- and our sacred ways are never for sale. If you see that, then you can know immediately that it’s not authentic.
Also realize that people don’t choose to become Native American spiritual leaders like medicine people and pipe carriers.
They are chosen, by people within their Indian communities. And they are taught for extended periods of time. There are Native people who will back them up and say, “Yes, we know this person. They’ve been taught in a good way.” Listening is a big thing in our culture, and goes hand in hand with respect. Our elders are the ones whom we look to most for knowledge and guidance. Why? Because they have walked the farthest and their eyes have seen the most.
Outside of respect, some of the important things my elders have taught me are nothing mystical or romantic, like some might think. They are the simple acts of being giving in a selfless manner, being humble, and living a prayerful life. These are core elements of every tribe I’ve had the privilege of coming in contact with.
Here are some helpful and important tips for respectful interaction with Native American people and culture:
Don’t call traditional Native American clothing “costumes.” It’s commonly referred to as regalia.
If you want to take a picture of a Native American person wearing regalia at a gathering, be sure to ask for permission first. Many people will let you take their picture, but if you don’t ask, it is considered disrespectful.
Don’t take pictures or videotape Native American ceremonies unless you have permission from the people conducting them.
It’s best to refrain from trying to convince Native American people how spiritual you are, or how “Indian” you are in spirit, or things of that nature. Indian people overwhelmingly don’t act like that and wouldn’t feel the need to “prove” themselves in such ways. By doing these kinds of things, essentially what often happens is it shows how “not Indian” the person is, which is obviously the opposite of their goal.
Never touch personal belongings, especially sacred items.
If you want to buy Native American arts, crafts, jewelry, etc., then support Native Americans by buying authentic items that are labeled “Native American-made.”
Don’t assume all Native Americans follow traditional ways.
Don’t assume all Native Americans look alike. Native Americans from different regions and tribes can have very different physical appearances.
I’m going to conclude by paraphrasing the closing part of my book, “Honoring in a Good Way.” I hope I’ve equipped you with a fundamental and foundational knowledge that will help you understand and interact with Native American people and culture in a good way.
Hopefully, you’ll choose the path of respect, because if you do, you’ll not only benefit yourself, but you’ll move us all a little closer to a day when the general public is well-informed enough to know and respect Native American people for who they are, instead of who others have created them to be.
I wish you all many blessings.
Adam Danner (mixed blood, adopted Odawa) is an author and cultural speaker from Chillicothe, IL.
Much of this article contains elements from Adam Danner's book, "Honoring in a Good Way," and cultural presentations of the same title. Both have drawn endorsement from Native American people from around the country. Please do not copy or reproduce without consent of the author.
"Honoring in a Good Way," and Adam's other books, can be ordered at: www.adamdanner.com, or by calling Karen Danner at 309-635-0659.
Also, the Native American charitable and educational organization (501c3), the 4 Directions Healing Foundation, of which Adam is president, offers school curriculum/guidelines that help aid teachers in educating about Native Americans in respectful ways. If interested, send an email to: www.fourdirectionshealingfoundation@yahoo,com, or call Karen Danner at 309-635-0659. For more information about 4 Directions Healing Foundation, go to www.4directionshealingfoundation.org