The American Heritage Dictionary defines a myth as a
fiction or half truth that appeals to the mind of human beings and
expresses some deep, commonly felt emotions. Many myths have developed
around American Indians that have contributed to the perpetuation of
negative stereotypes. They have also contributed negatively to the
economies of both Native communities and the state or region in which
they are located. Here are some of the most common.
All Indians are alike.
non-Indians view Indians or Native Americans as a single group. This is
certainly not accurate. There are three very distinct ethnic groups
among Native Americans—American Indians, Aleuts and Eskimos. The Aleuts
and Eskimos are in Alaska, along with three Indian tribes. Of the 560
federally-recognized tribes, 333 are in the “lower 48 states” and 227
are in Alaska. While there were over 600 distinct native languages at
the time of Columbus, today only 150 extant native languages are spoken
in tribal communities.
The difference among the tribes is underscored by their ethnocentric
focus. Often the name a tribe gives to itself can be translated as “The
People” or “the Principal People.” This ethnocentricity is probably why
tribes still exist today. Other differences include:
• Type and structure of Government
• Size and nature of land base & natural resources
• Unique history
• Unique political relationship with the U.S. Government
• Art forms and culture
“Our” Indians are unique.
flip side of the "all Indians are alike" myth is the notion that
Indians in a certain state or region are “unique” or “different” from
Native Americans generally. This phrase typically comes from
politicians, bureaucrats and economic interests who prefer not to
accept the tenets of American Indian law, particularly with regard to
the authority of tribal governments. People from states like
California, Oklahoma, and the northern tier states from the Dakotas to
Washington, are most likely to claim this. These states, not
coincidentally, have been litigious against Indians in the past. In
some areas “anti-Indian” groups have promoted the notion that Indians
should be treated the same as all Americans. On one hand, this sounds
right to democratic ears. Most often, however, it really is a disguised
attempt to remove Indians’ property rights and special relationship to
the U.S. government. In areas, such as Oklahoma, people will say, “Our
Indians are different because we don’t have ‘reservations’”. Yet,
because of the allotment policy promoted in the last decades of the
19th century, which divided Indian lands into parcels for adult males
and declared all remaining lands “surplus,” nearly all Indian
reservations have been “allotted.” See discussion article about “Indian
Country.” Like nationalities throughout the world, individual Indian
nations (including Alaska Native communities) are distinct while
sharing many similarities with each other.
Indians are on the “government dole"
myth generates from several sources. First, many people object to the
“special” services and programs the federal government provides to
Indian tribes and their citizens. This relates to myth number 5 above.
As stated above and elsewhere on this web site, these services are due
to the federal government’s trust responsibility to Indian tribes based
on treaties and agreements made with them over the years in exchange
for land and resources granted to the federal government. Payments and
servies provided to Indians are for lands and rights sold to the
federal government by Indian governments. They are not gratuities or
donations. Second, it is not uncommon for individual Indians and tribes
to cash or bank their “government checks.” The sources of these monies
are trust funds that come from one of the following:
• The tribes may have received monetary payments from the federal
government for lands purchased from them. These funds are "trust
property" that is held in the United States treasury with federal law
usually requiring a minimal interest payment to the tribes on such
funds. All of these payments are first made to the federal government
which, in turn, writes a “government check.”
• Tribes may also receive income from renting or leasing the land for
farming and ranching purposes. The tribes may also lease the land for
mineral development and receive bonus payments for signing the lease,
annual rentals and royalty payments if minerals are discovered. The
person renting or leasing the Indian property makes payments to the
federal government as trustee. The trustee then pays the Indian
• Tribes may receive payments from the U.S. government under lawsuits
to settle claims for breach of trust duties and obligations. Between
1944 and 1978 such claims were handled by the Indian Claims Commission.
Now they are handled by the U.S. Claims Court.
• Tribal members may receive income from lease or sale of trust properties that are also considered trust funds.
• If you overpaid your federal income tax and received a government
check to repay your money, you are on the same kind of “government
dole” as Indians.
Indian tribes are rich
myth is a recent one due to the growth of Indian gaming. However, only
a handful of Indian tribes have gaming. Success of gaming relates to
the geographic location of tribes in relationship to population centers
and Interstate highways as well as the legal environment of the states
in which they are located. Less than one-third of the 560 Indian tribes
are involved in gaming and only 10% of these are extremely profitable.
Regardless of how small the scale, gaming has enabled these tribes to
generate revenues to provide essential governmental services. Such
services may include educational programs and scholarships, expanded
health and community services for children and senior citizens,
diversified economic development, improved court systems and the
development of cultural institutions like museums.