Debunking Myths About Native Americans In the U.S.

Crystal Echo Hawk on celebrating indigenous peoples in the present — and why what you learned in history class was wrong

More than 130 cities, and a number of states, have ditched celebrating Columbus Day — which is still recognized by the federal government as a national holiday every October — over the explorer’s horrific treatment of Native peoples. Instead, they’ve turned to honoring Indigenous Peoples’ Day — a celebration of all those that originally graced the land that’s now America.

Crystal Echo Hawk, a Native American activist and founder of IllumiNative, an org that dispels negative stereotypes about indigenous peoples, debunks some misconceptions Americans might have about Native populations in the U.S. and explains what’s at stake for these communities as we approach the presidential election.

Wake-Up Call: What is the importance of celebrating Indigenous Peoples’ Day instead of Columbus Day? Could you clear up any misconceptions people might have just about the history behind this day?

Crystal Echo Hawk: We celebrate Columbus Day as a federal holiday in the United States. And we all grew up learning about how Columbus discovered America. But it is one of the greatest false narratives. First and foremost, so many Americans don’t really even understand that he never even made it to North America. He landed on a number of different Caribbean islands. Two, he was absolutely brutal and really vicious, particularly in his treatment of the Taíno people. He terrorized them, sent many of them back to be slaves in Spain, and raped and brutalized their women.

This is really counter to the warm and fuzzy story we grew up learning as kids. As we’re in this moment in 2020, where I think we’re having an incredible reckoning, not only with systemic racism but also with the truth, I think it’s so important that we really deconstruct these myths.

We look at days like Indigenous Peoples’ Day as a great day to reeducate the American public and recognize and celebrate the true original peoples of this land. We’re a thriving population here in the United States today, and our folks make incredible contributions to all sectors of society. For example, we have two remarkable Native women that were elected to Congress for the first time in history in 2018.

Bringing us into the present, beyond this misconception about history, there are just a lot of stereotypes and misconceptions about Native Americans in the U.S. in general. I know your org, IllumiNative, aims to get rid of these negative stereotypes. What type of stereotypes exist and how are you trying to change them?

We really went out and did unprecedented research to really understand what most Americans know or think they know about Native Americans. We found that nearly 80% of Americans know little to nothing about us; 72% of Americans rarely or never encounter any information about us. And even if you were to google “Native Americans,” about 95% of the images that come up are from years pre-1900. Also, almost 90 percent of schools in the country don’t teach about Native Americans past 1900.

Contemporary Native peoples have literally been erased out of the contemporary American consciousness. What little things that sort of penetrate through that invisibility and erasure, are really toxic stereotypes. A huge example of this is racist sports mascots, which are literally the only point of contact most Americans have when they think about Native Americans. That’s why the victory over the Washington Football Team was so important. And now, we’re only a few weeks from Halloween, where we typically see cultural appropriation and some very harmful stereotypes play out, with people dawning turkey feather headdresses and painting their faces red. Redface is black face. Or we see these kinds of over-sexualized depictions of Native women that are very harmful. What our research shows, is that invisibility, countered with these sorts of toxic stereotypes that exist about Native Americans, fuels bias, discrimination, and racism in this country against our people, in everything from the courts and Congress, to schools.

And speaking of the present, COVID-19 has hit native communities especially hard. What are the systemic reasons to blame for this?

I think most Americans don’t understand that tribes share a government-to-government relationship with the federal government. Native peoples surrendered land in exchange for treaty-based promises like promised healthcare and education. And many of these promises were broken.

A lot of reservations, particularly the Navajo Nation, where you had a large outbreak, you have issues where there’s not even running water in certain parts of the reservation. Or you have multigenerational families sharing one home, making social distancing really difficult. I think we were a few months in, before a lot of native people actually had adequate access to testing or PPE, because the federal government was so slow in its response and its federal obligations. And I think for Native people living in the cities much like, when we think about Black and Latinx communities who also have been disproportionately impacted, there are issues around poverty and access to quality healthcare and housing.

I think so many times Americans associate Native Americans with a sad, depressing story, so on a lighter note, because of the difficult history that we faced, we’re so resilient. Despite the disproportionate impact of COVID-19, I think one of the untold stories is how tribes actually have been really successful than other places in really mitigating the risk. Sometimes they’ve actually had low case counts because they were really proactive early on in the pandemic about shutting down their borders and really looking at ways they protected their communities and mandating masks and other things.

Going into 2020 with this election, what should people, in general, know about what’s at stake here for the Native American community?

We just completed a project called the Indigenous Features Survey, which was the largest survey ever conducted with Native Americans, where we looked at the impact of everything from Covid-19 to the urgent priorities of the election. We had over 6,400 respondents from tribes across all 50 states who responded.

Covid-19 is taking a toll on all Americans’ mental health, and we certainly heard about Native peoples’ concern about health and access to mental health care. Also top of mind was really caring for our elders. I think there’s been this disposable attitude toward the elderly population in the U.S. Since they’re the ones that only get really sick from Covid-19, some people just want to carry on.

But for Native peoples, our elders are so invaluable to us for so many reasons. They are our cultural keepers. They’re our knowledge keepers. They are so important to our identity, our wellbeing, and our cultural lifeways. That was one of the top primary concerns for Native peoples, as well as access to quality healthcare, and protecting native women and girls from violence. We have an epidemic of missing and murdered indigenous women in this country. That’s very present in the minds of Native American voters as we come into the election.

This originally appeared on Medium.