What is an Indian? Each Tribe is Different

I’m back after the holiday picking up with installment four of a series on “What is an Indian?” Part of the answer is understanding that all Native people are not the same. We speak totally different languages, have different forms of governance and government, different stories of origin and we even look different–physically. 

In fact, there are 565 federally recognized indigenous nations occupying the contiguous 48 states and Alaska. There are 336 separate and autonomous Native nations in the Lower 48 states and 229 separate Native nations in Alaska alone, according to Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) statistics. 

Even among the Sioux people there are many different ways of doing things, depending upon which clan or Tiyoshpaye and then depending upon which of the seven nations you happen to come from that make up the so called “Great Sioux Nation.” We speak three dialects of the same language: Lakota, Dakota, and Nakota. Then within the Yankton Band (which is where I am enrolled), there are eight clans that make up the Yanktons – talk about diversity, right?

So what is an Indian? Part of the answer lies within the fact that we are definitely not of one giant tribe. Therefore, it is next to impossible to label all Indian people as one Native Nation. It would be far better to know what tribe each individual Native person is from. For example: is the Native person a Sioux, an Ojibwa (Chippewa), a Blackfeet, a Cree, or some other indigenous nation.

Growing up I was made aware of different tribes because of my travels with AIM (American Indian Movement). And then later in my early adult life, I was a traditional dancer and so going from pow-wow to pow-wow I met many folks from different tribes. We even have what we call northern drums and southern drums, which sing different songs and play a different beat on the drum.   

I don’t expect non-Indians to immediately notice the difference between southern and northern drum beats when they attend our pow-wows and, if you’re attending a pow-wow,  it wouldn’t be a bad idea to ask the nearest Native person what’s being sung. There are many, many different dances that are often show-cased at the larger pow-wows, reflecting immense diversity in the practice of individualism as it relates to each specific Native American nation.

In recognizing the diversity of tribes, Herman J. Viola, Curator emeritus, Smithsonian Institution National Museum of Natural History wrote:

When Christopher Columbus reached the Americas in 1492, he met people unknown to Europeans. Thinking he had reached the Indies, he called them Indians. This is only one of the many mistakes, misunderstandings, and misconceptions that continue to plague America’s Native peoples. A fundamental mistake that persists to this day is to speak about “the American Indians” as though they are one people. Despite their small numbers, the Indian peoples of North America were as dissimilar from each other as were the peoples of Europe. In terms of language, cloths, lifestyles, militancy, and religion, the tribes in different parts of North America differed greatly from each other. These differences are considered cultural.       (To read more online, view this book’s Foreword.) 

I often wonder if we all look alike, in terms of our cultures, to the non-Indian and perhaps we do. But the more they get to know us as persons, like they are, the more they’ll be able to appreciate the cultural diversity among Indian people. If one can appreciate the diversity of indigenous people, I think there will be less of a temptation to generalize and stereotype.

Among ourselves, as Indian people, it has been my experience that we have great respect for each other’s cultural and religious ways. I have never witnessed Indian people trying to “evangelize” another. We have a saying among our people that say’s “respect your brother’s vision.” Each one of human beings carries generations upon generations of cultural information within us and that is a good thing.

And now you know the rez of the story.

Doksha (later). . .

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  1. Posted July 18, 2016 at 4:25 pm | Permalink

    No we dont all look alike, I have ash hair and steel blue eyes.

  2. rose sabine
    Posted September 3, 2016 at 2:18 pm | Permalink

    As one of the Old Ones told me…
    “its in the heart not the skin”.

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