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Perpetuating Native American Stereotypes -- An Essay

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Some Thoughts -- and a True Story

    Stereotypes of any type are difficult to erase and stereotypes about Native Americans are no different.  Many still think that ALL Native Americans live in tipis, wear feathered war bonnets, and lived only in the past -- and raise their hand and say "How" in greeting friends and fellow Native Americans.  There are no Indian princesses, nor did the elders sit around smoking "peace pipes."   Joseph Riverwind (Taino) writes authoratatively about "The Basic Indian Stereotypes" on his website: Blue Corn Comics: The Basic Indian Stereotypes.

One stereotype that persists is the idea that Native Americans greet one another by putting a palm up and saying, "How."  As far as I know there are no books that use that image but Cecil Adams (of Chicago Reader, Inc.) on his “straight dope” website attempts to answer the question “Did Indians Really Say ‘How’ as a Greeting?”. I don’t know about the accuracy of Adams’s assertions any more than I actually know about the origin of the stereotype.

I can only guess that perhaps the idea actually originated with Tonto on the old Lone Ranger series -- first on radio and later the hand up on the television series. Now of course primary students are far too young to remember that but "legends" die hard.   However, I remember the image -- from somewhere, long before  I began to read children's books.

I don't know of any books -- but there are certainly cartoons I've seen over the years - -Bugs Bunny I believe to be one that have had caricature characters who have used the phrase and hand signal.  But  perhaps that is a figment of my imagination.  Where did the images came from?  I'm not sure but ...

What I do know for sure though is that these stereotypes are being perpetuated even today-- and you might be surprised once you find out who is doing the perpetuating.

This story is a true one that occurred in November 2004.

A couple of years ago I was visiting my then 4-year-old grandson's pre-school in a small town near Reno, Nevada. The school was the only one available in this fast growing city and run by a small Christian church.

While visiting my son’s family I asked to visit my grandson’s preschool. After a couple of craft activities, I listened as the teacher read a totally inappropriate (in terms of age and historical context) book about Thanksgiving -- and the arrival of the Pilgrims. Immediately after finishing the story to the dazed and un-attentive preschoolers (it was not a well-thought out choice as I mentioned), the teacher said, and I quote "Now, I am going to teach you how Indians talk." She then proceeded to put her hand over her mouth and made the obligatory "wah wah" sound as she moved her hand off and on her mouth. Indeed – my grandson has Native American cousins and he just looked at me as if to say, “What is that?” Of course, his “Indian cousins” had never talked like that. Immediately after that I was to read a book to the group. I read Turkey Pox by Laurie Halse Anderson and then proceeded to discuss with the preschoolers the fact that E.J.'s cousins were real "Indians" -  they were Native Americans, part Arikara and part Sioux -- and they not only love turkey like many of them (the preschoolers), but they have had chicken pox too (like the girl in Anderson's book)-- and that when they talked, they talked just like EJ and each of them did. His cousins loved stories just like the one I read and that they enjoyed telling some of the stories they knew too. I had (just by chance) a picture of all the cousins together so I showed the the picture of EJ AND his real-life "Indian " cousins. They did pick out the Native cousins -- as the rest were EJ's siblings and another  very blond cousin.
We talked a bit about the favorite stories they all liked to hear and then they went out to play.

I'm not sure if I had any impact or if they walked away thinking "Indians" talk by saying "wah-wah-wah." So perhaps many of the second grade children had preschool teachers who greeted them at Thanksgiving time with a hand up and a "HOW." Wouldn't surprise me.

As long as we have adults who  deal in such foolishness, we will have young readers believing that it is true -- as after all, they learned "it" in school or in some cases are told these same "facts" by parents or other adults whom the child trusts.

— Sharron L. McElmeel

For more information about stereotypes read Stereotypes of Native Americans on Karen M. Strom's "A Line in the Sand" site -- a cooperative production of:

This site is a cooperative production of:
David E. Cole of NativeWeb
Jordan Dill of First Nations
Tara Prindle of NativeTech
Karen Strom of Index of Native American Resources on the Internet

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