Monday, July 18, 2011

How to Talk to a Native Person

Dear non-Native friends,

We need to talk.  I know many of you consider yourselves progressive, anti-racist, liberal, tolerant, etc-- indeed you are all these things, but unfortunately most of you just have no experience with Native people, and that leads to you stumbling into some embarrassing situations in which you sense that you've perhaps offended a Native person.. or made things awkward.  Never fear, I am here to provide you some guidance!  Here are the top 5 blunders non-Natives make when talking to Native people:

5.  "What is your Native American ancestry?". 

Oh friends, friends.. I know this sounds very polite to the untrained ear.  After all, if you meet a 'white' American majoring in Irish Literature, it would be a polite thing to ask them, "oh, do you have Irish ancestry?".  But there is a fundamental difference between having ancestry and identifying as Native American.  You wouldn't say that your friend who immigrated to the U.S. from Ecuador had "Latino ancestry" would you?  No, you'd say they were Latino/Ecuadorian.  The use of the term ancestry suggests that the person identifying as Native American is not actively and culturally currently Native American, but rather just has some Native roots in the distant past. 

Instead use:  "What nation are you?"

4.  "Wow, it's really cool that you are so in touch with your heritage".
Oh jeez.. ok it's not just heritage, it's contemporary culture and identity.  This is only appropriate if I'm telling you I'm taking a Cherokee basket weaving class, not when I tell you I write a Native American issues blog.

Instead say:  "It's nice to meet someone who is passionate about civil rights issues".

3.  "You're Native American?  That is so cool!"

Ok, this isn't terrible right?  But it is a little on the obnoxious side.  I mean, would you say "You're African American?  That is so cool!"  Or, "You're Asian?  That's sooooooo cool!?"  much less "OMG, you're white!  That's so freakin cool!"  This is just sort of an awkward situation.  Let's say you're a white American and you're living in a foreign country where they used to put white Americans into boarding schools and beat them if they spoke English or practiced Christianity, but now they realize that wasn't very nice and have generally forgotten about white Americans unless there's a special on the white plight of alcoholism on reserves.  And
now you're chillin with some new friends at your college and one of them realizes you're a white American and announces it to the whole room:  "Wow!! That's soooo cool!  I thought you were all dead!  Why aren't you wearing a tri-cornered hat and living in a log cabin?  I didn't know you people came to college!"

Instead use: "Nice to meet you."

2.  "Oh awesome, you're Native American, my great great grandmother might have been Cherokee."

Uh huh... "Oh awesome, you're white, my great great grandmother might have been English".  I really don't care about your possible distant ancestral connection unless of course you would like to donate some money or join my protest march...

Instead use: "I know very little about Native American history or cultures, but I'd really like to learn!"

1.  "What part Indian are you?"

Just the left side.  What part white are you?  I mean really folks?  Do you ask your African American friends what part black they are?  Just because there's a convoluted history of "blood quantum" and even skull measurements being used by the U.S. government to determine "Indian" identity doesn't make it appropriate for you to ask a Native person what 'percentage' Native they are.  Our ties to our community and culture supersede racial categories and our identities are not based in percentages but in spirit and belonging.

Instead Use:  No.. no, just never ask this question.  If a person identifies themselves as a Native person, that's that. 


  1. If it's a hot day outside, what's the polite way to ask for a rain dance?

  2. Nicely put blog post, Adair.

  3. oh this post gave me some good laughs!!!!

    i can relate to each one!!

    number 3 i never thought of that way. next time that happens i'm gunna respond with, "you're _____, thats so cool!"

    one of my favourite moments was a woman at work asking me "what is your background?"
    me knowing exactly what she means play dumb and ask, "what do you mean?"
    she then asks "what else are you other than canadian."
    i was like, "first nations."
    she was like, "oh, i would have guessed spanish."

    i was a little surprised since most people assume i'm part chinese or "asian" as most say.