Native Americans Say New Yorkers Don’t Know Enough About Natives
By Sabirah Abdus-Sabur
Wearing colorful costumes and performing Native American dances, participants at a recent event at the National Museum of the American Indian in Lower Manhattan displayed the diversity of the city’s Native American population.
At the American Indian Community House, just a few blocks from the Staten Island Ferry Terminal and a block from the museum, activities at the community house, cover more than just culture.
The social issues that concern Native Americans were discussed at a Q & A session with college and high school students in April at the community house.
“I think Native people experience a lot of, ‘Oh, I didn’t know you were here still, I didn’t know you existed anymore’ or ‘I didn’t know there were Indians in New York,’ ” says Carrese Gullo, the communications and information director of the community house.
Stereotyping of Native Americans is widespread, she says, adding, “you know, things of that nature where it’s like, ‘Do you live in teepees?’ I expected you to you to look a certain way,’ ”
“We’re very cosmopolitan like everyone else, but we walk kind of a dual road, where one side is our cultural life and the other side is the life we live in working and taking care of bills.”
The community house, a nonprofit founded in 1969, provides a social and cultural setting for Native American New Yorkers, as well as health and job training programs and scholarships, its employees say. Its members are drawn from 72 tribes.
More than 30,000 Native Americans live in New York City and over than 64,000 in New York State, according to census data from 2009. Together, they represent the most diverse group of Native Americans in the country, says Louis Mofsie, who hosted the dance and singing social at the museum in April. Mofsie, of the Hopi and Winnebago tribes, is a Brooklynite and director of the Thunderbird American Indian Dancers.
Tara Beckman, a fancy shawl dance instructor and Pilates instructor, teaches fancy shawl dance classes at the community house and Lotus Music and Dance which is located in Manhattan, 109 West 27th Street, she also works as a receptionist at an accounting firm. Beckman grew up on the Northern Cheyenne reservation in Montana. Regarding New York City, she says, that while there is no particular specific area where most Native Americans reside in New York, they can be found in all corners of the city.
The diversity of the Native Americans was represented at the student Q & A which had a panel of 6 college students who live in the city. They ranged from undergrads to graduate students, with various interests from psychology, law, political science, education, theater, physical therapy, and Middle-Eastern and African studies. They all came from different tribes and backgrounds.
Even when Native Americans receive coverage from the media, it tends to be on the issues of alcoholism, diabetes and casinos. which can in itself create stereotypes.
Mari Hulbutta, Seminole/Creek student double-majoring in political science and psychology at Columbia University says, “It’s not just the stereotypes but a wider image towards all Natives especially in a city in an urban setting people kind of look at Natives as being obsolete, historic . “ They see our people and are like ‘Oh, are there Indians around still?’ And that’s just really upsetting to me, especially being a Native trying to get a higher education and trying to move forward.” Hulbutta, recently applied to law school.
Yvonne Wakim Dennis, is outreach director of the Nitchen Children’s Museum of Native America, located on West 155th Street, inside the Church of the Intercession. Dennis is also an author and has written and co-authored several books about contemporary Native Americans with an emphasis as a guide for educators. Her most recent work is A Kids Guide to Native American History.
Dennis spoke while on her way to the Bank Street Writers Lab at Bank Street College, a workshop made up of prestigious authors who have all won an award for their work. Dennis says the stereotypes perpetuated of Native Americans have roots in colonialism.
“That’s a way to oppress people.” she saysid, “Put out stereotypes that we don’t exist anymore. One of the biggest stereotypes out there is that we don’t exist anymore. Most of the books about Native people say the Lenape people used to, the Lenape did. Not do, not are, but did. And there are still Lenape people living here. There are still Lakota people; there are still all of these people.”
Dennis says it’s important for Natives to be in positions where they can address the prevailing stereotypes –about Native people. Such images as the Holly wood portrayal of the warrior or romanticizing Native culture as with the Indian princess. The majority of movies Americans may see with Native actors tend to have them portrayed in the past and frequently of the same Native American group, such as the plains Indians despite the fact that there are many different Native American groups.
“Very often, we as Native people, if we are in a movie, we are not behind the camera, we’re in front of the camera,.” Dennis says. she said, “So, instead of just being the writer, and it’s really hard to get published, be the editor, be the director of the film, be the writer of the film. We are not often in a position to confront the stereotypes and that’s hard.”
Dennis further adds, “- I think we have to have people in every community talking to their own and then we have to have some liaisons some groups working together from different backgrounds.”
Shundiin Jakub, Navajo, Brooklyn College grad student studying international relations while also working at the community house, said, “When I see people in New York, they don’t know what I am, they think I’m whatever they are,” she says. “My issue is I don’t like people to know what I am, because I’m sick of hearing the stuff that comes out of people’s mouths, just stupid, stupid things – – and that’s one of the things that’s really difficult to deal with is I simply don’t want to identify myself to people who I feel are probably going to be ignorant.”
Jakub and the other college students at the community house who touched on the issue believe that even in educational institutions the comments could be derogatory and antiquated.
Danielle Soames, who is originally from Georgia and whose family is from the Mohawk territory Kahnawake (pronounced [gahna’wa ge] Quebec, Canada came to New York in 1995. She works at the National Museum of the American Indian as a cultural interpreter and is co-founder and co-artistic director of Mixed Phoenix Theater Group, while attending New York University as a grad student in theater education. She says she was offended when the term “going native” was used derogatorily to mean going crazy.
“I talked to my teacher about it, and she got very defensive because she said that’s an anthropological term that was used and it’s still used today,” she says. “But just because it’s used doesn’t make it right.”
Several Native Americans say there is a need for more courses about contemporary Native Americans. If there is greater demand for it, it’s more likely to be achieved, says Dennis.
“Most multicultural curriculum is curriculum for the tourists,” says Dennis. “‘Today we’re going to study those people over there, and tomorrow we’re going to study those people.’ It doesn’t have an impact.”
Another common issue Native Americans say they experience is that people tend to view them as a collective, rather than understanding and making distinctions of the various tribes and cultures.
“We’re just as multicultural as any other New Yorker,” Jakub says.