The Proper Etiquette of Having a “Native American Friend”

For as long as I can remember people have made jokes about me being Native.

In 6th grade, my classmates would refer to me as “Pocahontas.”
In 8th grade, someone joked about me having “red skin” in front of the entire classroom.
In my senior year of high school, people would say that the only reason I was accepted into college was because I am Native.
In my sophomore year of college, a good friend of mine dubbed me a “savage.”
In my junior year of college, a few of my friends tried to get my attention by making an 
“Indian war call.”
Last week, someone called me a “good little Indian” for picking up a piece of trash I saw on the street.
Yesterday, for the one-millionth time, somebody said, “isn’t college free for you since you’re Native?”

These are just a few specific events that stick out in my mind, but it does not begin to cover the multiple insults I hear on a day-to-day basis. At least once a week, I hear someone talking about my “Indian hair,” my obvious “love for nature” because I am Native, and referring to me as their one “Indian friend.” It seems as though most people I am surrounded by, many of my friends included, think this is the only component of my identity. Little do they know, each one of these remarks are equally painful.

Maybe because I went to a prep school from 6th-12th grade, and maybe because I go to CU Boulder now, but I have always faced the obstacle of being Native American in a white world.

My roots are in Santo Domingo Pueblo, and I do consider that to be my home, but I have spent most of my life growing up in what could be considered typically “white” places. I went to college prep school from 6th-12th grade, attended Columbia University for a short while, and am now attending CU Boulder. In each of these places I have found it equally difficult to get past the “Indian” stereotypes such as the ones mentioned above.

Throughout my life, I could not help but wonder why people felt the need to say such remarks. When I was younger, I typically just alluded it to bullying—everybody was made fun of in middle school and high school. It was not until college and a more academic setting of the study of race and racism that I finally realized exactly what was going on here. I learned about the historical processes of racial formation, utilization of power dynamics, use of stereotypes, and the exercise of microaggressions that perpetuate such foul legacies. Most importantly, I realized that remnants of these historical legacies are exactly what I was facing each and every day.

While I know that most of these encounters occur with strangers and friends who often mean no harm, I also believe it is necessary for me to educate my peers on what these remarks mean to somebody like me—a Native American woman trying to benefit from all the advantages provided in the white world, such as a scholastic education. The truth is that these jokes have foundations in racism, and making them is an extension of the aforementioned legacies of stereotyping that shaped our country. The practice of such jokes and remarks are historically part of the greater, very politically incorrect treatment towards race in modern American society. Everybody is aware that it is not okay to joke about many race issues, such as slavery and the Holocaust, but for some reason, it is okay to retain focus and comedic entertainment on other race issues that are still very real for many American people today. Unfortunately, microaggressions, racist jokes, and uninformed racial remarks have become mainstream in pop-culture and the modern world. From middle school classrooms, college academic environments, and popular TV shows, they are everywhere.

Microaggressions are defined as “everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership” (UCLA Diversity & Faculty Development, 2014).

All of the offenses I mentioned earlier fulfill this definition.

Despite intentions, whether good or bad, the regular comments, remarks, and “jokes” I hear on a day-to-day basis are not funny. Even more than not being funny, they are mean, insensitive, and, to be frank, completely uneducated derogatory assumptions. Most people making such comments do not see the magnitude of their words.

In my eyes, microaggressions are actually macroaggressions. I will be ready to admit, they hurt. Hearing racist comments and insults have made lasting impacts on my life. No matter how infinitesimally small the comment may have been, I remember each and every one. From everything being said to me from sixth grade to remarks made to me last week, they have made noticeable scars in my skin.

Hopefully after reading this, you will understand more personal reasons about why you should not say these things to your “Native American friend.” Being in the white world as a Native American is tough, but it does not need to be that way.

So here are a few easy rules to follow:

No racist Indian jokes. Easy as that. I do not want to hear the words “savage,” “redskin,” or “Pocahontas.” And I definitely do not want to hear uninformed jokes about my heritage or American Indian culture.

No joking about how I, or any other American Indian, got into college because of our racial identity, and do not joke about the preconceived perception that we have free tuition. The truth of the matter is that we have to work just as hard as everybody else, if not harder, because of the limiting obstacles of the white world. Personally, I often find these comments to be the most offensive because they are discrediting the intelligence of Native American students when that is obviously not the case. In fact, some of the best students I know are tribal members and we too cherish our academics. Furthermore, tuition is absolutely not free. As much as I wish this were the case, Native American student populations are not receiving nearly the financial opportunity they deserve in the world of academia.

Do not refer to me as your “Native American” or “Indian” friend. While that is a huge component of my identity, I just don’t think that needs to be said. There are many other parts of me that make me who I am, and I do not want to be marked just for being “Indian.” I don’t refer to people as my “white friend” or my “black friend.” Why create that division? Why should that be a part of friendship?

Do not assume things about my culture and who I am. If you want to know, you can ask. Of course if you are curious, you are more than welcome to spark a conversation about it, but there is a huge difference between starting a conversation and assuming racist falsities about my heritage or where I come from. However, with that being said, I am also not saying that I am one to speak on all things American Indian. Do not expect me to know the “Native American viewpoint.” These are my personal viewpoints from my experiences.

Finally, no racist jokes in general. Please. We can find much better types of comedy than the easy racist punchline.

Personally, it feels incredible to finally get that off my chest. I have stood silent for years, being hurt by friends’ and strangers’ remarks and quietly letting the anger build inside of me. I am finally realizing that by no means should I have to put up with this. Although I am constantly preaching against racist comedy and arguing that offensive jokes and remarks are not right, I have somehow sacrificed my feelings in my own experiences. In the actual moment, when such jokes and remarks are said, it is really hard to defend myself. In that instant, I feel hurt, insulted, degraded, and a whole other plethora of negative emotions. But now, after 21 years of racial sting, this is me telling you to stop, slow down, and be careful with your words. I am not “Pocahantas.” I am not a “savage.” I did not get into college “just because I am Indian.” I do not respond to war calls. I do not pick up trash to be called “a good little Indian.” I do not go to college for free.

It is not that I am not proud to be Native. I am extremely proud. But it is not the generic, racist view of Native American people that I am proud of. I am proud of my true heritage, the heritage that outsiders do not know about, but feel entitled to make jokes about. American Indian people have grown though a history of hurt, and that should not be perpetuated, by anybody, but especially amongst our friends.

Do not treat me like a novelty. Do not use words to abuse my culture. Do not make jokes that are not, were not, and never will be funny.

Mutual respect is all I ask for.

The Proper Etiquette of Having a “Native American Friend”

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