Continuing to build on the first week of the Alaska Native and American Heritage Month Challenge, this week is a bit more focused on Native/Indigenous history and terminology. Honestly, these are the ones I probably get asked about the most, but end up correcting the most. There was certainly a big tizzy in the news this past week about getting classified as “Something Else,” and it seems like a good thing to focus on terms and whatnot used to describe us, as well as the incredible history of our many peoples.
A focus on what we learn from the past and our ancestors, as well as common terminology.
While last week we learned a bit more about the specific people’s land you occupy, today try and determine how that “group” prefers to be called both specifically and in general terms. I say group with a strong reminder that really, it can change person to person. But in general there’s usually a wider group acceptance of how to refer to that group.
For instance, as a Tlingit person, to most people who are not Tlingit I would say just say I’m Tlingit. It is not my tribe, because we do not traditionally organize as tribes, but if I have to identify my tribe (always for legal/federal purposes) I say the Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indians of Alaska. But I would NEVER say I am Indian, or from a tribe. To people outside of Alaska I would say I am Alaska Native – Tlingit and Dena’ina.
People inside Alaska do not generally describe ourselves as Indian – so don’t do it. SOME Inupiaq, Yup’ik, etc. people do refer to themselves as Eskimo, but it is not a phrase originally from those groups, and if you are not from these groups – don’t do it.
Yet some people outside of Alaska are comfortable being called and referred to as Indian. Still – DON’T do it. Unless they have asked you to, just don’t.
The biggest rule is refer to the people whose land you occupy – and for that matter, and Indigenous group – in the way they most prefer.
If you need to reference a larger group, IN GENERAL (and it’s with about a hundred asterisks because people will disagree with about any list,) Indigenous people in:
ALASKA – Belong to the “Alaska Native” designation. NOT Native Alaskan.
LOWER 48 – Native American, American Indian – but this probably has the most asterisks. Both Alaska Native and American Indian are legal/federal designations – these describe our relationship to the federal government.
HAWAII – Native Hawaiian. Again… I just feel like every one of these you need to remember to ask!
CANADA – First Nations. With larger groups that are also Metis or Inuit.
“Indigenous” is a term that is growing in popularity, but “aboriginal” is not used on this continent.
Here’s something from the Native American Journalists Association on broader terminology.
Sound complicated? It is. We are millions of people spanning a continent, and this still doesn’t describe Indigenous people south of the Lower 48, South America, Pacific Islands, etc. But you can start with the group whose land you are on. Start specifically (I am from the Teeneidi Clan,) then with how they refer to themselves as a larger regional group (I am Tlingit,) and then which term they generally prefer for the largest designation (I am Alaska Native.)
If you are already familiar with how the people whose land you are on, learn the details. Learn how to say it in their language. Learn what the name means. Learn the history of it.
Learn two things about the people whose land you occupy – the earliest record they have of themselves (generally a creation story, sometimes a migration story,) and the earliest record Western science/studies have for them.
The first is the most important. The record that group keeps for how they, or we, got here will tell you the relationship they have with the land, how it began, how they see their responsibility to it, how it has changed.
The second will generally give you an idea just how long this group has been there. This needs a lot of “be carefuls” because this changes a lot as assumptions are changed about how we got here and how long we’ve been here, and because new archeological discoveries are made. For instance, just recently there’s been evidence of people on the North American continent tens of thousands of years earlier than thought.
In Alaska, there’s newer evidence suggesting there were substantial populations in Alaska 25,000 years ago – millennia earlier than scientists were suggesting for decades. What’s most fascinating to me is how often the science of it ends up confirming what Native people had been saying all along, including tracking migrations in and out of areas.
If you’re already familiar with how long your specific group has been on the land, and what their origin story is, read up on more of their traditional stories of the land and people on it. Ask yourself what it says about the land and its people, what it can teach you. For instance, Tlingit people and Yup’ik people have a great value of respecting the land. But in Tlingit stories, disrespecting the land often results in a story of vengeance, violence, or loss. In Yup’ik, it often ends up that the land stops giving to you, taking away its gift.
Find some Native-authored/spoken histories of this continent. That might mean articles, that might mean books, that might mean podcasts. In this case, I’d actually suggest you start pretty broadly. The specific history of your area’s Native people may make a lot more sense if you know the broader history of Native people on the continent. This doesn’t mean a hard facts-and-dates idea of the term either – a history of the land and its people can mean many, many things.
Tribes, Treaties, and Constitutional Tribulations by Vine Deloria, Jr. and David. E. Wilkins
Dwellings: A Spiritual History of the Living World by Linda Hogan
Here’s a list of other books (note: these are not all Native-written, so do some research on the authors!)
FirstNations.org – Books list
WANT TO WATCH SOMETHING INSTEAD?
Maybe try “American Experience: We Shall Remain” which includes director Chris Eyre. As of this posting, it was available on Amazon video.
If you’re fairly familiar with historical works written by Native people in a broader sense, seek them out specifically for your group. Sometimes this means published, sometimes this means individual papers. One of the most informative pieces of history I got about Tlingit people from an unpublished paper I was given.
Identify three myths/stereotypes/misunderstood things about Native people/communities – and learn what’s real. Dig in. Don’t just correct the assumption quickly, but dig into why it is a stereotype/myth and really learn about why it’s not true.
Some places to seek out myths/stereotypes:
Myths and Realities from National Council on Urban Indian Health
I is for Ignoble: Stereotyping Native Americans essay by Arlene Hirschfelder and Paulette F. Molin
Some myths I can add to that from personal experience:
- Alaska Native people (or other Native groups) get free health care (pre-paid health care is different)
- Alaska Native people all get huge corporation checks
- Alaska Native (and other Native) people are more genetically inclined to alcoholism
- Native people had no sense of property or wealth
- So… sooooo many more.
If you don’t see anything above you have believed or need to dispel especially, START TO DISPEL THEM YOURSELF. This is a useful advocacy for Native people so that we do not always need to perform the labor. It’s constant. Let people know not to say “my spirit animal is” and the real story of Thanksgiving and that Native people aren’t just getting huge checks and not paying taxes. For that matter, the biggest myth is that we literally don’t exist anymore, and certainly not in their community. Please – we’d love if you’d do that work for us so we don’t constantly have to.
The story of Native people and White people is much more than Thanksgiving, but this is many people’s first experience of Native people. Hearing about it at school, maybe talked about it at the Thanksgiving table, the story of the Thanksgiving holiday is invariably a complete myth that harms Native people today. The holiday is coming up fast, so become familiar with the real story beforehand, and if you celebrate Thanksgiving, maybe make sure you share the history as you celebrate.
Some articles from Native sources:
Learn about the CURRENT affairs of the Wampanoag people. They are still on the land. We seem to understand that the pilgrims are the country’s ancestors, but not the Wampanoag. Learn a little about the tribe, and about their current struggles. Including…their struggle to retain soveriegn tribal status.
Find some historical art specifically from the people whose land you occupy. There’s a lot available online, so there’s a good start. If you can, see if it can be sourced from Native people. But also remember there were hundreds of years of our history that artwork was being stolen and then laws made so we couldn’t create it, or had to destroy it to become U.S. citizens. So many historical pieces are now in museums versus the group they belong to. But start to become familiar with the specific groups versus a stereotyped understanding of Native art. This can also mean music, stories, and early-colonization written works.
Find a work of art from a Native perspective about their past. Look at the artistic perspective of history through a Native lens.
Find one historical Native person you didn’t previously know about. Learn their name, the tribe, clan, nation or group they came from. Here’s the challenge – make sure it’s not a Native person that is “famous” for providing assistance to white people, or waging battles against them. Too often this is the only barometer our society has to gauge whether a Native person is worth knowing about. These Native people are worth knowing about – but they aren’t the only Native people worth knowing about. Find the historical artists, clan leaders, advocates, nurses, teachers, authors, actors, inventors.
Share it! This person people don’t know about, but should, post it! Make a few paragraphs about how awesome they are and add in a photo or painting, and let the world know. Help us to humanize Native history in a way that is not what most people are taught.
I’ll be posting the additional weeks here as they happen!
Image on header is of Elizabeth Peratrovich from KTOO site.