What the Public Knows about Native Americans is a Convoluted Mess

I have spent some time reading through the research recently published by the Reclaiming Native Truth Project.  You can read a version of their report for native peoples in native communities, another version for allies, and a third with analysis and conclusions based on the data its researchers collected.

Five questions guided Native Truth’s research:

 1. What are the dominant stories about Native peoples in North America?

2. Who holds these views?

3. How do these views affect public policy, perceptions, and support for native peoples?

4. What can be done to educate people about Indian Country?

5. What are the best ways to counter negative stereotypes?


While it was widely reported that 40 percent of the survey respondents did not believe that Indian any longer existed,  and though this is a truly stunning figure indeed, the broader results are provocative and troubling in different ways.  As educators teaching and researchers writing about native peoples and the communities in which they live, we should take note.

According to the research, Americans tend to view native peoples as members of homogeneous groups.  They poorly understand concepts connected to Native American tribal sovereignty.  People who live near or work in Native American communities, especially those with widespread poverty, are likely to hold negative views of Indians.  At the same time, the researchers found that many people “comfortably accept and maintain conflicting narratives” about Native Americans.  Support for Indian education is widespread and improved historical and cultural literacy about Indians, the researchers believe, will jhelp spark productive conversation and learning.

When we look at the data closely some suprising results come into view.  78% of the respondents indicated that they wanted to learn more about Native American history and culture.  Sixty-three percent agreed that Native Americans should have full legal authority over their land.  Sixty-seven percent support the Indian Child Welfare Act. And seventy-eight percent believe that it is important to include more stories and more material about Native Americans across all media.

The mascot issue was divisive.  39% of respondents favored a ban on Native American mascots, while 34% oppose any ban.  Still 63% believe that more should be done by the government for native peoples, 71% support the expansion of national monuments to protect native lands and sites deemed sacred by native peoples. Nearly three-quarters of the respondents favored increases in federal funding to fight poverty in Native America and to help improve health conditions.  72% said new school curricula were necessary to create school curricula that accurately presented Native American history and culture. And 59% of the respondents, and 56% of all white respondents, agreed with the statement that the “United States is guilty of committing genocide against Native Americans.”

Yet only 14% of the respondents believed that native peoples face “a great deal of discrimination,” though slightly more than a third believed that they face either a “great deal” or “a lot.”  More than half believed that Native Americans received “free stuff.”  62 percent of the respondents said that they did not know any Native Americans.

The study’s sponsors found reasons for optimism in these results.  They believed that a more inclusive, effective, and accurate narrative could be constructed.  At a certain level, I feel compelled to agree. If we who teach these subjects assume that fixing the narrative is impossible, it might be difficult to get out of bed in the morning.  Faith in education is a prerequisite for job.

At another level, however, it is difficult for me to know where this study leaves us.  Respondents think that Indians face little discrimination.  They feel that more ought to be done for them and that they ought to have control over their lands, or that funding ought to be increased to combat poverty and ill health in Indian country, but each of these assertions raise policy questions involving a complex mix of political, legal, and constitutional complexities.

When a respondent says that they believe Native Americans should have control over the land, what really do they mean?  Can they regulate the entry of non-Indians onto Indian land? What about Indians who are not members of the tribe in question? Can they tax white-owned businesses or regulate white people’s activities? Can tribal governments regulate the activities of non-Indians who reside on reservations? Can they prosecute all crimes committed on reservations, no matter who commits them?

There are Supreme Court cases that have wrestled with all of these questions, and I have my students read excerpts from many of these case.  But the respondents here are not in my class, and I am not sure how deeply they understand the policy positions they endorse.

I was surprised by some of the findings, but like the study’s authorrs, I am optimistic that at the end of the day we can teach our way through these problems.  Read the study yourself and see if you agree.  I think I might have my students in the Native American history course read sections of the report the next time I teach the course.

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