WATCH YOUR LANGUAGE
At this time of year, Native Americans become the focus of news articles, sale ads, magazine features, and radio and TV sound bites. Most preschool and early elementary teachers have a unit of study during November that focuses on Native Americans and their culture. It has been the same at least since I was in grade school. It is only recently that there has been any awareness that perhaps this is not an appropriate thing to do, that maybe we are teaching children prejudice and bigotry instead of history. Good teachers are aghast at this accusation. A stylized TV concept of Indians makes a convenient focus for learning because of its interest to young children. It is fun. It is exciting. Most of it is also untrue or distorted. This Indian stereotype ignores the passage of time for that one segment of the population, leading children to assume that Indians live today in the same way that they did 200 – 500 years ago. Any immigrant who came to America during that time period lived off the land, washed their clothes on a scrub board and lived in log cabins or underground soddies. You don’t expect your children to be taught that this is still the norm. Yet most young children assume that Native Americans still live in teepees and spend their time hunting with bow and arrow.
There were hundreds of different tribes of Native Americans each with different values and ways of life. Yet we lump them all together and teach our children about “Indians!” Making generalizations or assumptions about any group of people and attempting to apply them to everyone of that group without respect to individual differences is, very simply, prejudice. Some would attempt to right this wrong by reversing the prejudice. But, prejudging any culture as totally “good” is as inappropriate as prejudging it as “bad.” The myth of the “Noble Red-man” is as much prejudice as is the “Dirty Savage” image. In reality Native Americans, like any other group, are made up of a few really good people, a few really bad people, and an awful lot of people who just try to do the best they can. Any generalized cultural blame is non-productive. Europeans did kill off many tribes by exposing them to small-pox. But it is also true that Native Americans introduced the rest of the world to tobacco which has probably caused an even larger number of lingering and painful deaths. Neither group did this with malice, it was an unfortunate result of a mingling of two very different cultures.
We have no control over the past and we aren’t always certain that we have much influence into the future. Certainly solving the problems of racism, prejudice, and discrimination is not simple. It requires resources and power that we as individuals do not possess. There is however, one thing each individual can do to make this a better place for all of our children. Language is a powerful force. Many words we use to identify groups of people carry insulting overtones which give children the idea that superiority and anger towards other groups of people are acceptable. While individually you can’t solve the problems on the reservations or in the ghettos, you can become sensitive to, and eliminate from your vocabulary, all terms which are insulting to people of another color, race, religion, or gender. Only then can attitudes begin to change so that all of our children will be able to work together and improve their future