Native Americans Say New Yorkers Don’t Know Enough About Them

By Sabirah Abdus-Sabur

The Thunderbird American Indian Dancers perform traditional dances of many tribes.
The Thunderbird American Indian Dancers perform traditional dances of many tribes.

Wearing colorful costumes and performing Native American dances, participants at a recent event at the National Museum of the American Indian in Lower Manhattan displayed the diversity of the city’s Native American population. Meanwhile, a block away, at the American Indian Community House, the talk was more of social issues.

“I think Native people experience a lot of, ‘Oh, I didn’t know you were here still, I didn’t know you existed anymore’ or ‘I didn’t know there were Indians in New York,’” says Carrese Gullo, an Eastern Cherokee, the communications and information director of the community house, which hosted a Q&A session with college and high school students in April.

Stereotyping of Native Americans is a common occurrence, Gullo says, adding: “You know, things of that nature where it’s like, ‘Do you live in teepees?’ ‘I expected you to you to look a certain way.’ We’re very cosmopolitan like everyone else, but we walk kind of a dual road, where one side is our cultural life and the other side is the life we live in working and taking care of bills.”

The community house, a nonprofit founded in 1969, provides a social and cultural setting for Native American New Yorkers, as well as health programs, job training and scholarships, its employees say. Its members are drawn from 72 tribes.

More than 30,000 Native Americans live in New York City and more than 64,000 in New York State, according to Census data from 2009. Together, they represent the most diverse group of Native Americans in the country, says Louis Mofsie, who hosted the dance and singing social at the museum in April. Mofsie, of the Hopi and Winnebago tribes, is a Brooklynite and director of the Thunderbird American Indian Dancers.

Tara Redflower Beckman, a fancy shawl-dance instructor and Pilates instructor, teaches at the American Indian Community House and also at Lotus Music and Dance on West 27th Street. She grew up on the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation in Montana. In New York City, she says, there is no particular area where Native Americans reside; they can be found in all corners of the city.

Even when Native Americans receive coverage in the news media, much of it tends to be about alcoholism, diabetes and casinos.

Yvonne Wakim Dennis
Yvonne Wakim Dennis, education director of the Nitchen Children’s Museum of Native America, author of several books about contemporary Native Americans, including as a guide for educators, says stereotyping and ignorance remain widespread.

Mari Hulbutta, a Seminole/Creek originally from Oklahoma who is double-majoring in political science and psychology at Columbia University says, “It’s not just the stereotypes but a wider image towards all Natives, especially in a city in an urban setting, people kind of look at Natives as being obsolete, historic. They see our people and are like ‘Oh, are their Indians around still?’ And that’s just really upsetting to me, especially being a Native trying to get a higher education and trying to move forward.” Hulbutta, recently applied to law school.

Yvonne Wakim Dennis, education director of the Nitchen Children’s Museum of Native America, on West 155th Street inside the Church of the Intercession, is an author and has written and co-authored several books about contemporary Native Americans, including as a guide for educators.

Dennis says the stereotypes perpetuated of Native Americans have roots in colonialism.

“That’s a way to oppress people.” she says, “Put out stereotypes that we don’t exist anymore. One of the biggest stereotypes out there is that we don’t exist anymore. Most of the books about Native people say the Lenape people used to, the Lenape did. Not do, not are, but did. And there are still Lenape people living here. There are still Lakota people; there are still all of these people.”

Dennis says it’s important for Native Americans to be in positions where they can address the prevailing stereotypes and images from Hollywood, for example the warrior or the Indian princess. “Most film depictions of Native people are set in a 50-year period in the mid-19th century,” the Media Awareness Network web site says.

“Very often, we as Native people, if we are in a movie, we are not behind the camera, we’re in front of the camera,” Dennis says. “So, instead of just being the writer and it’s really hard to get published, be the editor, be the publisher, be the director of the film, be the writer of the film. We are often not in a position to confront the stereotypes and that’s hard.”

She adds, “We have to have people in every community talking to their own, and then we have to have some liaisons some groups working together from different backgrounds.”

Shundiin Jakub, Navajo, is a Brooklyn College grad student studying international relations while working at the center. “When I see people in New York, they don’t know what I am, they think I’m whatever they are,” she says. “My issue is I don’t like people to know what I am, because I’m sick of hearing the stuff that comes out of people’s mouths, just stupid, stupid things – and that’s one of the things that’s really difficult to deal with, is I simply don’t want to identify myself to people who I feel are probably going to be ignorant.”

Tara Redflower Beckman
Tara Redflower Beckman, who grew up on the Northern Cheyenne reservation in Montana, teaches the traditional shawl dance at the American Indian Community House (and also Pilates at a Manhattan studio).

Jakub and the other students at the center say that even in educational institutions, comments about Native Americans can be derogatory and antiquated.

Danielle Soames, who grew up in Georgia and is originally from the Mohawk territory of Kahnawake, Quebec, came to New York in 1995. She works at the National Museum of the American Indian as a cultural interpreter and is co-founder and co-artistic director of Mixed Phoenix Theater Group, she currently attends New York University as a grad student in theater education. She says she was offended when the term “going native” was used derogatorily to mean going crazy.

“I talked to my teacher about it, and she got very defensive because she said that’s an anthropological term that was used and it’s still used today,” she says. “But just because it’s used doesn’t make it right.”

There is a need for more Native Studies courses, Dennis says, mentioning that there is a good one at Cornell University. If there were greater demand for it, it’s more likely to be achieved, she adds.

“Most multicultural curriculum is curriculum for the tourists,” says Dennis, “ ‘Today we’re going to study those people over there, and tomorrow we’re going to study those people.’ It doesn’t have an impact. I think it raises awareness but it doesn’t have an impact.”

Many Native Americans say people tend to think of Native Americans as a collective, rather than understanding and making distinctions of the various tribes and their distinct cultures.

“We’re just as multicultural as any other New Yorker,” Jakub says.