What one Native woman thinks everyone should know about Native people


The hardest part of trying to do intersectional work for me, as an Anishinaabe woman, is that most people–even most people of color and other oppressed peoples–know so little about Native people. I had a lot of difficulty recently when someone (a respected changemaker) tried to tell me her opinion on why Native people don’t have it that bad, when no part of her opinion was based in truth. It is hard to not feel resentment when people bring huge, common misconceptions to the table: of rich Indians, of free college and casino money.

We have to remember that white supremacy purposefully doesn’t teach us about each other’s history and cultures in order to keep us divided. I’m trying to remember compassion in all my work. I’m trying to give what I can of my time and knowledge so that we have space to build together.

Because of course, people in Minnesota mostly know nothing about Native people. Our graduation standards mandate hardly any education about the Native peoples of this state (two weeks of study in sixth grade). In college, most people don’t take Native history courses. It’s left to Native people to explain who we are, where we come from, what we are fighting for.

It’s so rare for Native people to even be mentioned in mainstream media or in political dialogue. And when we are, it’s almost–maybe certainly–never from a Native perspective. Most non-Native people don’t seek out Native media, and many don’t know any Native people. Most Americans never have access to any sort of indigenous perspective.


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So, it’s left up to Native people to explain why things like mascots matter. They dehumanize us. They act like Native people are cartoons, are relics of the past. They enforce the noble savage trope. These things impact how Native people are treated on a daily basis.

It’s up to Native people to constantly ask people to stop appropriating our cultures. Because there are actual impacts to appropriation. Please, don’t get that dreamcatcher tattoo. Please just stop. Actions like that bring about even more added stress of trying to protect our culture from the vultures.

It’s left up to Native people to explain sovereignty. That we aren’t just fighting for equal rights. That the United States government has never given us rights, but only impeded our sovereign rights as the original occupants of this land.

In organizing circles, there is a commonly accepted idea that you never have to be anyone’s teacher. As an Anishinaabe woman trying to do change making work, I’ve never felt like I have that option. There are so few of us, that if we don’t share our narrative, who will? If only half of us graduate from high school, how do we get our stories out there? If only 13 percent of us graduate from college, how much burden do we have to rely on that 13 percent to always be the ones to tell our story? To always be the ones at the table?

Here’s what I’d like everyone to know:

  1. Minnesota has 11 reservations, and two main tribes, the Dakota (four bands: Upper and Lower Sioux, Prairie Island and Shakopee) and the Anishinaabe (seven bands: Red Lake, Leech Lake, White Earth, Fond du Lac, Bois Forte, Grand Portage and Mille Lacs) We have large urban populations and Natives that live in the city are from these reservations, but also from tribes all across the U.S. and Canada!
  2. Race is not binary! Native people are not dark white people or light black people. Race is not a spectrum. Native people, and other POC, aren’t on there somewhere between black and white.
    1. We are Dakota, Anishinaabe, Diné, American Indian, Indigenous. Ask people what they want to be identified as. Please never correct a Native person if they call themselves something that you learned was not correct. Especially if you learned that in private school somewhere.
  3. Dakota people have lived in Minnesota forever. Time immemorial. That’s all you need to know. When I worked for the historical society, most visitors would guess the Dakota had been here for 400 to 600 years. Seriously. The “Minne”–or Mni–in Mni Sota, Minneapolis, Minnehaha, Minnetonka, means “water” in Dakota. It might be cute to pretend it’s “Mini” but that erases the Dakota history of this place.
  4. Treaties are legal documents. Our tribes have a state-to-state relationship with the US government. It’s a different kind of status than non-Native people. Our tribes have their own governments, institutions, we have our own ID cards if we are enrolled. Which not all of us are, for a whole variety of reasons.
  5. Please don’t bring up how you “have some Native in your blood.” See also, this droplet doesn’t give you freedom to speak as an Indigenous person.
  6. Our ceremonies aren’t for your enjoyment or a way for you to get closer to the earth.
  7. Native people speaking the truth about disparities is different than playing the oppression Olympics. We are telling you because most people don’t know.
  8. Indigenous people are modern. We have existed and continue to exist in the same timeline as you. We live in houses and wear Nikes and we are on Snapchat.
  9. American Indians look all kinds of ways. It’s not up to you to validate someone’s identity.
  10. We disagree on things! If I’m trying to tell you I’m offended about something or find it problematic, don’t say, “Well my other Native friend said it’s fine!”
  11. Genocide of Native peoples did not happen “Like, sooooo long ago,” okay? My grandma was beaten for speaking her language in government boarding school. Her peers were deprived of food when they spoke Ojibwe. Native people still have the highest rates of suicide. We are still the most frequently killed by the police. Our lands are still being destroyed. Our genocide is ongoing.
  12. I know my understanding of your culture is not great either. But I’m trying my best to forget what I learned about magical white men and fill my brain instead with the stories of your people. I hope you can do the same. Let’s also be cautious about our own use/misuse of other people’s cultures. Not only white folks can appropriate. We can speak our truths about this without hurting each other.

Let’s educate each other. Let’s be open to being educated.