Perpetuating Native American Stereotypes -- An Essay
For more ideas about NA literature go to the
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
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 ...
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
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:
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