Stereotype (noun): a widely held but fixed and oversimplified image or idea of a particular type of person or thing.
When one thinks of stereotypes, many different types of people may come to mind. But what if, on top of being commonly thought of as alcoholic, unemployed and lazy slobs, the country you live in was also stolen from your ancestors by rich, white men whose children are now taught as heroes?
This is the life of Native Americans. Some of the most pervasive stereotypes still in American culture today are those aimed at this group. The American Indian Student Union is working to combat these over-generalizations on campus and beyond.
The organization discussed this and other aspects of Native American culture at Native Revival Tuesday in the Benjamin Banneker room of Stamp Tuesday.
The event started with every attendee getting an index card with a word like appropriation, mascoting or stereotype on it and writing what the word meant to them. This set the stage for the conversation, which was led by executive board members of the AISU.
AISU joined the the Office of Multicultural Involvement & Community Advocacy umbrella recently, and has since worked on building up an organization that was once made up of only a few people. Their main focus, according to President Kimberly Whitley, a senior community health major, has been Native American Heritage month.
During the month of November, events were held on campus to highlight and open the eyes of those unaware of Native American culture through outlets like monologues and performances.
Whitley said she believes next year will be the year the organization extends beyond heritage month because it has been growing little by little every year. She also said she understands while the Native American population on campus is less than one percent, this does not make representation any less important.
“We are still here, not just a part of history that’s just ended,” she said. She shared a time when someone told her they thought Native Americans went extinct. This, she said, is why getting a dialogue going is crucial.
Junior anthropology major Delia Dreher pointed out the university should take their respect for Native Americans a step further by acknowledging whose land this used to be and educating students about it.
“Especially with an institution that is so historical like the University of Maryland, we kind of have a lack of education around … the history of slavery and … especially on the East Coast, we definitely have a mindset like, ‘Oh Native American people just weren’t here.’”
She went on to say events like this “foster a lot of education components but … also kind of brings us outside of our regular bubble and makes us be more critical of our everyday culture and the things that we’re reinforcing.”
Freshman Emelia Gold, one of four students who spoke about their alternative break trip to Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, shared a story about how the negative views many have toward Native Americans took a nasty turn.
She said in the high school on the reservation, if a student gets three A’s, they get to go to a hockey game in Rapid City, South Dakota. As they sat down in their seats to watch the game, the people in the balcony above them began pouring their beer on them, yelling racial slurs and saying, “You should be used to this, your parents are all alcoholics anyway.” They endured the harassment for as long as they could, but eventually could not take it anymore and went home.
Although this sparked controversy and protests in Rapid City, the end result was one man getting charged with assault without conviction.
“Kids that really try their best to escape the system still face a lot of problems when they’re off the reservation,” Gold said.
Incidents like this are common. According to FBI data, 4.6 percent of hate crimes in 2014 stemmed from anti-Native American or Alaska Native bias.
Despite this, sophomore multiplatform journalism major Karla Casique stressed the love Native Americans have for their culture.
“I know that there’s a lot of poverty and statistics that say a lot of really horrible things … but I also want people to know that there’s great pride … of indigenous cultures everywhere,” Casique said. “So, yes, that suffering and that genocide is obviously really important to know about, like what’s going on right now … but then I want people to know there are other sides, there’s not just that side of pain.”
AISU thinks education is the best way to change the negative stigma attached to being Native American and is working to get an indigenous studies minor established at this university.
Casique said the university currently offers two classes geared toward specifically learning about Native Americans and creating the minor would allow for more. Casique said the only issue right now is funding and finding professors.
“Our motto for American Indian Student Union is ‘we’re still here’ because it’s sort of like, face-to-face, we have survived,” Casique said.
Featured Photo Credit: Feature photo courtesy of Flickr user zachary o.
Kira Sansone is a sophomore journalism major and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.