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Anton Treuer is an Ojibwe professor who has taken the time to answer all the questions that non-Native people have often wondered about Native life and culture.
I found this absolutely fascinating. It’s written in a simple question and answer format with an index and extensive bibliography. It’s easy to dip in and out of but I mostly read it straight through. He begins with my first question after reading the title, “What general terms are most appropriate for talking about North America’s first people?” He answers hundreds of questions divided into topics such as terminology; history; religion, culture, and identity; politics; social activism; and more. I read this with a set of post-it flags in hand and my book is colorful with everything I marked.
Dr. Treuer makes it clear and consistently reinforces that he is writing from his own perspective and answers to questions are are going to vary from individual to individual and from tribe to tribe. He grew up in Minnesota so most of his answers relate to nations in that region, with some mentions of tribes in the southwest.
I learned so much as I read this book. I learned answers to questions I didn’t even know enough to ask. One section that I particularly wish more people would read surrounds the controversy around Native American mascots. Dr. Treuer writes,
“And even if a home team truly believes it is honoring Indians through its mascot, opposing teams caricature and abuse each other’s mascots in the name of team spirit. Other teams in a conference with a team that has a Native mascot will most definitely not be honoring Native Americans. Many high school sporting events have seen opposing fans bring signs saying things like ‘Hey, Indians, Get Ready to Leave in a Trail of Tears, Round Two.’ These kinds of statements are really painful for a lot of Native Americans.”
He includes a photo of one of those blinking roadside signs that reads, “‘KC Chiefs’ will scalp the Redskins Feed them whiskey Send 2 Reservation” Ouch. Talk about insensitive. But it’s true. My high school played against a team with a Warrior mascot and I know there were signs about scalping them at our games.
One of his comments particularly spoke to me. Xenophobes who never want anything to change in our country and who think that being politically correct is a bad thing often accuse those who want change of being unpatriotic. The author writes this,
“Still, I love my country. In fact, it is because I love my country that I want to make sure the mistakes of our past do not get repeated. We cannot afford to cover over the dark chapters of our history, as we have for decades upon decades. It is time for that to stop.”
There is nothing wrong with teaching truer, more inclusive history. There’s nothing wrong with relegating offensive statues and paintings to museums where they can be explained in context or removing the most egregious ones altogether instead of leaving them in places of honor. We’ve made mistakes in our past. Acknowledging them helps us move on, learn from them, and build a future that’s closer to our written ideals.
Pick this up for a thoughtful, eye-opening look at Native American life, history, and identity. Challenge any mistaken beliefs you may hold. Then go out, share what you know, and be better.
If you liked Everything You Wanted to Know About Indians But Were Afraid to Ask: Young Readers Edition, you might also like my reviews of
- The Black Friend: On Being a Better White Person by Frederick Joseph
- Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants by Robin Wall Kimmerer
Buy Everything You Wanted to Know About Indians But Were Afraid to Ask: Young Readers Edition from Malaprop’s Bookstore in beautiful Asheville, NC or