HELENA, Mont. – A new report explores how Native Americans are perceived in the United States, and according to one of its project leaders, it’s the largest public-opinion research project about Native Americans ever conducted.
Crystal Echo Hawk said the goal of the report “Reclaiming Native Truth” was to find out about the dominant narratives and perceptions of native people from a diverse group of Americans. It included focus groups spanning 11 states and every race. She said toxic and contradictory stereotypes about Native Americans persist, such as ideas that they’re dependent on the government, but also flush with casino money.
“What we actually found is (that) the biggest barrier that Native Americans face is invisibility and erasure, in the fact that you don’t see native peoples in the media; you don’t see them on TV and film,” she said. “And in fact, almost 50 percent of K-through-12 schools in the United States don’t teach about Native Americans past 1890.”
Nearly three-quarters of respondents said schools need to make curriculum changes on Native American culture and history. Echo Hawk praised Montana’s work on this front. She said she hopes the report also acts as a road map to create more positive perceptions of Native Americans.
Echo Hawk Consulting partnered with First Nations Development Institute on the project.
So many negative stereotypes have a direct effect on native people’s well-being, Echo Hawk said. That’s especially important in Montana; not only does the state have the country’s highest suicide rate, but it is highest among Native Americans. Echo Hawk said suicide is one of the biggest issues Native American communities face, and it’s an especially big problem among youths.
“When we first started this project, we actually were challenged by a number of Native American youths who came and spoke to leaders of the project and said, ‘We need you to do this for us. We’re counting on you,’ ” Echo Hawk said. “So, it’s really that sense of a responsibility to our children that was a big driver.”
Echo Hawk said she hopes the report can begin a healing process for communities.
“This is really about how do we see one another, first and foremost, as human beings and not stereotypes and caricatures,” she said. “And that applies to all different types of people in society, and I think there’s a longing right now for people wanting to get out of this sort of toxicity.”
The “Reclaiming Native Truth” report is online at reclaimingnativetruth.com.