Top 10 Common Misconceptions About Native Americans

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Native Americans have been featured in many different forms of popular culture. Unfortunately, since most people only know of them through said popular culture, the worldwide perception of them includes an incredible amount of errors and misconceptions. This is made more difficult by the fact that there are so few of them left, making it difficult for them to have a voice and dispel the myths surrounding them. Myths such as …

10. They Want To Be Called Native Americans

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While “Native American” is often used in the USA as a politically correct term, it is not accepted by many actual natives. In Canada, they have used terms such as “first nations;” while it is less offensive because it does not refer to them as “Americans”, it has still not been completely accepted by the native people.

If you shouldn’t call them Native Americans, what should you call them then? Unfortunately, as with so many things in life, there is no simple answer to this question. It is unlikely that all of the natives will ever agree on a scholarly term to be used for all of them, because there are hundreds of different tribes and they all have different opinions. Ultimately, any PC word is a catch-all term, used mainly when speaking very generally. In truth, most would prefer you use the name of their tribe, of which there are untold numbers. So get to studying.

9. They Were War-Hungry Savages

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In popular media, the stereotype of a Native American is easily recognizable: tomahawk, bow and arrow, feathers in the hair, and a thirst to scalp you. The thing is, however, that many Native American tribes were very peaceful. And some of the tribes who went to war only did so after the Europeans came to America and upset the balance of things, often trying to take land from the native people who had a much different idea of land ownership. The length and depth of the propaganda to make the natives look savage was incredible, and it worked completely. The Europeans invaded native lands and yet, even today, the most common image of a Native American is a warlike stereotype.

8. They Weren’t Nearly As Advanced As Europeans

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Another common misconception is that Native Americans were primitive people, and many people view their society as similar to that of a third-world country. This view could not be farther from the truth; the Native Americans had a very advanced society with medicine, trading, farming, and many other things that were common in European culture. They just did things differently, and it is important to understand that different does not necessarily mean primitive. The French had a fair amount of respect for the natives, and mainly traded furs with them; they understood that the natives were not lesser people than them. In fact, they understood that there were some things that the natives had a better grasp of than they did.

7. They Were A Bunch Of Drug Abusers

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Another popular myth is the “peace pipe.” Just about every movie, book or TV show that features interactions with Native Americans seems to require that someone smokes a pipe with the natives. Now, they do sometimes smoke a drug called peyote, though it is not something that is generally used for recreational purposes. Peyote is more a ritual drug, used mainly in religious services and other similar applications, for this reason, it is actually legal for Native Americans to use it in the USA, just not anyone else.

6. They All Lived In Teepees

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If you ask most people where Native Americans live, they would probably tell you that they live in a teepee. However, again, this is really not accurate at all. Even before so many of the natives were killed, a good many of them did not live in teepees at all. There were many different forms of dwellings used by different tribes in different regions. Teepees were mainly used by natives who needed to travel regularly, because they were easy to break down and take with them, but many tribes had much more permanent dwellings.

5. Their Medicine Was Primitive

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The first image that comes to mind for many people when they think of Native American healthcare is a medicine man dressed in very strange, colorful garb performing bizarre rituals, mainly because of movies and their knack for making up literally everything and selling it as fact. Due to popular culture, many people think of Native American medicine as primitive, but when the Europeans first came to America, their medicine really wasn’t any more advanced than that of the natives, just different. Also, many of the herbal remedies used by the Native American people have been found with recent study to be very effective, and some drugs were only discovered because scientists decided to test some of the plants the natives had been using for ages.

4. There Is Indian Royalty

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This is a fairly funny one. Many people will claim that they have an ancestor who was an “Indian princess”, usually evoking laughs or other similar reactions if a real native is around to hear it. The reason for this one might be because of Disney movies, or poor translating, or possibly an old derogatory name for light-skinned African-American women. While we don’t know for sure where this misconception came from, it definitely is not true. Chiefs were not ordained from birth; they were generally chosen for their excellence, and their family might have been well-treated but they were not royalty. Such distinctions simply do not exist in Native American culture.

3. They Worship Nature

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Many people are under the impression that Native Americans worship nature. While there is a certain amount of truth to this, it isn’t really accurate. Native Americans have incredible respect for the Earth and all of nature, but they do not worship it specifically. Some Natives would worship a corn god, for instance, but they were worshiping a god who would help with the yield of the crop. They were not worshiping the corn itself.

Also, some natives such as the Iroquois believe in a “Great Spirit,” and also believe in another spirit that is somewhat like the Christian idea of Satan. Native American religious beliefs are extremely in tune with nature, but they clearly do not worship it.

2. They Don’t Have To Pay Taxes

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As proof that many people still have ugly feelings toward Native Americans, even after how marginalized they have become, there are myths that they are living on government handouts, and do not have to pay taxes. Under certain circumstances, in some states, which usually require some combination of living and working on their reservation, some Native Americans are exempt from paying state taxes. However, all Native Americans must pay federal income taxes, and have had to do so as long as they have been citizens of the USA. The truth is that most Native Americans are extremely poor, and are getting little if any help from the federal or state government.

1. They All Still Live On Reservations

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Many people are under the impression that all Native Americans live on “Indian reservations.” As you might have already guessed, that is not the case. As of 2008, around 40% of Native Americans were living on reservations, which of course is not even half of the population. In addition, there are currently 334 reservations, and about half of all the Native Americans who live on them are concentrated in the ten largest ones. The conditions in these reservations are not particularly good much of the time, so it is not surprising that many do not wish to live there.


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16 Comments

  1. Not to be too critical, but I don’t think a majority have thought of “native americans” (or whatever they are called…see #10) as “war-hungry savages” (#9) since at least 1990 (Dances with Wolves). While I am sure a few still do, as many races have negative veiws of each other, I don’t think this is a commonly held belief anymore, certainly not in most modern entertainment. Wow….1990….I can’t believe how old I have gotten…….remember when Kevin Costner could act? Neither can I.

  2. It’s reading articles like this that makes me glad I went to school in New York State. The NYS middle school curriculum mandates a year of NYS history that covers more than just the European settlers. In fact it goes into the history of the Iroquois Nation in great depth. IIRC, 6th or 7th grade covers it and the class dispelled many of these myths in this very article. I don’t know about other states but I do know that the one year taught me an awful lot about what was going on here well before Europeans showed up..

  3. Like all generalities this article gets some concepts right and others wrong. if this article kindled an interest definitely pursue it. the pre-colombian peoples where amazing and many things would surprise you.

  4. On number 9 its pretty laughable not to call NA savages as I since my childhood have gone to pow wows and we know even before the European settlers were here, NA were considered savage as most of the tribes were at war before the European settlers arrived! Scalping happened before Eu settlers as well as blood thirsty feuds. The majority of people think that the NA were not savages by now that should be on your list as wrong; your interpretation is somewhat based on how people are supposed to feel bad for what happened to the NA culture but they were savages as history shows this! I have no idea why people try to make NA not savages just because of the massacres that happened to them. Having tribes at war (which again is true history) and then all of a sudden Europeans show up with guns and new technology, you dont think that the first indians to see them wouldnt want to make an alliance with them during uncertain war times, which could be anytime? Our history is always changing due to what people now are taught to think about NA culture, we understand the horrors that happened but do not want history changed because other minorities,whites,blacks feel bad for us. we accept our history, so should you

  5. “This is made more difficult by the fact that there are so few of them left”
    You should add that misconception to the list too, we are still here and growing in numbers everyday. Not to mention all of our brothers south of the border made by the white man who are int the millions. They make up the majority in countries like Bolivia and Peru, and huge minorities in countries like Mexico and El Salvador

  6. Funny enough, but you sound like an angry bigot. The PC culture has also made it PC for so-called natives to be outright racists. Case in point.

  7. When so called ,”Native Indians “, are original inhabitants of the present occupant nation of USA , why must they be subservient to them. They have as original owners every right not to pay any kind of taxes etc…

  8. 10- You’re generalizing a vast amount of people, Every Native American I’ve ever met was perfectly fine with being called that.
    9- Again with the generalizations. The pre-Colombian Americas were just as war-torn as the rest of the world at this time. Sure, most NA’s fought wars differently (with raids, some prisoners, and some exchange in territory), but that doesn’t mean they were peaceful.
    8- Sigh. I know you want to think of NA’s as being technologically equal to the Europeans, but that doesn’t make it true. The Europeans had guns, cannons, huge sailing ships, arches, glorious cathedrals, and advanced roads. The largest permanent structure built by NA’s in the modern US are the mounds at Cahokia. They’re impressive, but nothing compared to the marvels built by Europeans. The Mississippians, the largest civilization north of mesoamerica, were on the level of the people from Jericho from 9,000 years ago.
    7- You’re partially right. But just because a drug was used in rituals doesn’t mean it wasn’t used recreationally. However, there’s not enough evidence to go either way, so I’ll give you a pass.
    6- This one is accurate.
    5- Also accurate. In fact, NA’s were much cleaner and less disease ridden than the Europeans. Ironically, this is the biggest factor that led to their near extermination.
    4- This may be the biggest generalization you’ve made. Yes, many tribes appointed leaders. Yes, someone who claims to be Indian royalty is full of bs. BUT, we have clear evidence of hereditary governments, mainly on the East coast and Mississippi River valley.
    The last 3 are all accurate.

  9. Thank you to the commentators for clearing up a few things that even I, a European-descended woman, knew were wrong. Just an FYI, somebody calling Native Americans savages (though I’d argue over generalizing) does not mean you are labeling Europeans as the direct opposite.
    One of the things that always gets my blood boiling is the romantization of Indian/captive white woman stories. Surely there are enough wonderful NA historical stories to tell without resorting to watering down true events so much that they’re fiction. Adding a romantic aspect between captor and captive when in reality that woman had been brutally raped over and over again by many NA men and may have just married a chief to be treated better or having a captor return an escaped captive’s children when it didn’t really happen is just mind-boggling to me. Can we just tell the truth on both sides and realize that all people can do very evil and very good things?

  10. Steve Burstein on

    There must be many, many Indians/Native Americans living a Euro/American style existence in the city or suburbs who we never hear about(and not just the ones from oil-rich tribes)

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