American Indians Today/Introduction

Stereotypes and prejudices about the Native Americans in the USA


It's a fact that most people don't know anything about American Indians and their current situation. The reason for this lack of knowledge probably is (besides a general tendency of our modern society to be self-centered) that most people have a fixed romanticized image of what they call “a real Indian” which is popular and attractive and therefore not likely to be corrected:

Movies, comics and novels, e.g. the fiction of Karl May, and the childhood games have formed an idea of proud and brave warriors who live a life of privation and freedom, in deep attachment to Mother earth and nature. Their habits are savage and mysterious. Their wild appearance (tall and dark, with long plaits and dressed up in leather clothes and feathers) and the adventures on horseback are linked with them, fascinate almost everybody– a little boy as much as an adult. However, these are stereotypes, romantic ideas of a heroic figure that has vanished a long time ago or has never existed.

Moreover this picture of a “typical Indian” which we have made up, only refers to one cultural group of the American Indians, that is the Plains Indian who is member of nomadic tribes like the Sioux, the Comanche or the Cheyenne. Also the assumption that American Indians only lived in the "Wild West" is completely wrong. The area in which the North American Indians had spread before the Europeans arrived, amounts to 6.1 Billion acres, an expanse which Germany would fit in more than 68 times and which contains almost any kind of climate zone and landscape. The necessary adaption to these different natural circumstances has created an immense variety of Indian cultures which can be as different in their customs as night and day, so it is impossible to talk about “the Indian” as a specific character, but rather as an individual of an ethnic group with great diversity in language, history and lifestyle.

A common mistake almost every non-Indian makes is to generalize the many different tribes and to call them all together “Indians”. It is said that the Indians prefer terms which underline that they have been the first people in North America (like “First Americans”, “Native Americans”) and that they are no exotic group but simply “people” or individuals referred to with their specific (tribal) names, like any other American.

Another image which has come up in the recent years with conservation becoming a more and more important aspect, is the Native American as holy guard of nature who protects the animals and plants. This is a little bit bent into shape to fit in the authors' arguments.

Furthermore, the media who like to shock their audience to arouse more interest publish shots of the “modern Indians” from time to time: dull alcoholics in front of the TV who scrape a bare living in decaying reservations or guys who all run casinos.

But which image could fit?

Who is an Indian?


According to the Bureau of Indian Affairs (USA) one may call oneself “Indian” and receive the services offered to this ethnic minority, if one is

 (1)  a member of a tribe recognized by the federal government, 
 (2)  of one-half or more Indian blood of tribes indigenous to the United States; or 
 (3)  for some purposes, of one-fourth or more Indian ancestry.

However, the admission rules differ from tribe to tribe and furthermore the American Indians have mixed with people of other ethnic origin during the last centuries, which often makes it difficult to identify an unknown person as American Indian or Non-Indian.

In most of the books and articles about American Indians the author either describes their life only during the time between the arrival of the Europeans and their banishment into reservations; or he gives a one-sided description of their current situation (e.g. romanticized, shocking, etc.).

If we want to get to know the modern life of the American Indians, we should ask:

  • Do the pessimistic pictures convey a realistic impression?
    • What happened to the probably most popular heroes of our childhood after they had been exiled to the reservations?
      • Are they integrated or still exotic outcasts?
        • Who are they?
          • How is their life like, nowadays?