You Wanted to Know: Where are the “Real” Indians?

Question:  “Where are the ‘real’ Indians?”

Where are the real Frenchmen? There is a castle across the street, and there is nobody living in it. In fact, I don’t see anybody riding up and down the street on horses with shining armor. I don’t even see guys with berets and little pipes. Where are the real Frenchmen?

Now, take a moment to project this question onto whatever group of people you wish.

Where are the real African-Americans? Where are the real Japanese? Where are the real Muslims? And, for our purpose, where are the real Native Americans?

In asking this question, what conclusion, or more importantly what conclusions, would we come to? If we define a “real Indian” as one who lived in the way that Native people did before the dawn of the reservation system or some other significant historical event or contact, then we could assume that all the “real” American Indians are gone. There are some unpleasant realizations that will be illuminated upon reaching this conclusion, the sort of realizations that require a long look in the mirror. These realizations highlight the history of the United States and the people who would claim the land for their own. It may be best that these kinds of questions are left unasked, especially if the answers aren’t welcomed.

Public domain photo by Edward Curtis, pub. at

A similar problem with asking “where are the ‘real’ Indians” is that the person is asking this question based on their definition or perception of what an American Indian or Native American is. The asker supposes that they know what it means to be Native American. (We can assume that his/her definition is shaped by either popular media or a romanticized historical viewpoint.) Imagine the disappointment to the asker when given an answer that is closer to the truth of today. It would be an answer that states the real American Indians are all around you. Thank the Relocation Act. Thank the military. Thank the colleges and universities. Thank the reservations. Because of these voluntary or involuntary movements, real American Indians are everywhere in the United States. For that matter, the “real” American Indians always have been.

It’s kind of ironic to think that Native people were exterminated, relocated, and oppressed, and then someone asks: Where are they? Then again, this is a sad reminder of the lack of education relating to the history between the U.S. and the original people of this land.

Finally, when asking “where are the ‘real’ Indians,” a serious predicament arises. The question implies that it is possible for there to be such a thing as a “fake” Native American. To a certain extent, yes, there are “fake” Indians —we see them in movies, sports, and politics; but, I’m not talking about these. What I’m talking about is something more troublesome. The question suggests that there are Native Americans alive today who are somehow not “real” Native Americans. Again, this idea is wrapped up in assumptions, classifications, categorizations, and definitions. These come internally from within the Indian community and outside from the mainstream. An individual’s experience in life is unique to their own life. A Native person in this country may grow up on or off a reservation, be spiritual or secular, traditional or completely contemporary, and may or may not know their ancestors or speak their Native language. How do these things make a person “real” or “fake”? As Native people, we knowingly or unknowingly carry the blood of our ancestors. We are “real” Indians, Native by birth.

Credits:  Treuer, Anton (2012-05-01). Everything You Wanted to Know about Indians But Were Afraid to Ask, published by Borealis Books.

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