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Cultural Clues and Cues
Native Americans

Cultures - The Native American groups in our communities and neighborhoods represent a variety of tribal groups. Each of these tribes has a distinct culture. There is a great deal of cultural diversity between these tribal groups, so it is incorrect to identify one "Native American" culture.

Languages - Most Native American and Native Alaskan people speak English and the home language is English. However, some may speak a form of Indian English at home. Some say the term Indian English refers, to the broad category of English dialects used by American Indians that do not conform in certain ways to what Is commonly considered to be standard English.

There is little homogeneity among native tribes. There tend be some social and cultural similarities among native tribes, but each group is characterized by a specific history and culture that is unique. Any large American city probably includes members of a variety of tribes in its population, representing a geographic area that includes the entire United States.

These Native people may be affiliated with a tribe that is recognized by the federal government; or a tribe that lacks federal recognition; or they may not associate with any tribe. In addition, Native American and Native Alaskan people vary in the degree to which they are acculturated into the mainstream society. It is very important that we do not expect them to look a certain way, to know everything about their tribe or heritage (who does?) or to participate in activities assumed to be for native people such as Pow Wows.

Trina came to Columbus on a plane with her four year old son. It was the first time she had left the reservation she grew up on in California. She had never lived away from her mother and grandmother, but had a master’s degree in engineering earned entirely on the reservation, and sponsored by a large U.S. communications company. It was a daunting task to help get Trina settled in the community. She had never searched for housing or a school. It was a challenge for her son to become a part of a preschool class, for Trina to shop and drive and to be independent, and not helpless or dependent on others.

Social Scenarios:
Mrs. Dadick knows that her intern, Theresa, Is a member of a particular Native American tribe. Her staff is studying Native Americans in order to write a community program, and she asks Theresa to tell them something about her tribe. Theresa blushes and does not answer.

Explanation: A native intern, student or worker may not know any more about her tribe's culture and history than any person knows about family history. It may be impossible for a Native American to share information about her culture or historic events that her ancestors participated in. Some Native families teach their children the history and culture of their tribe, others know very little about their heritage. Native persons may share this information if they feel comfortable with the situation. A teacher or boss might ask the person in private if she has information about her tribe she would like to share and if she would feel comfortable sharing it.

David has red hair and blue eyes. He is an enrolled member of Haida tribe. He is invited to participate in a Native American Kids Day and his classmates say, "You are an Indian? You don't look like one." David is embarrassed and ashamed.
Explanation: Native American and Alaskan Native children can come from one of more than 50 different tribes. These students may not always "look Native American". That is they may not have dark hair, dark eyes, long hair, or have facial features that are stereotypical. You cannot determine a person’s Native heritage simply by looking at him or her.

Never assume. Ask if it is acceptable to inquire about a person’s heritage in neighborhood or workplace. A boss or teacher may wish to check office records and ask to know the heritage of their workers or students. We all need to be sensitive to a Native person’s background and help others understand about stereotypes and how these affect Native Americans.

Robert is in first grade and comes home from school very upset about the way his teacher is planning to celebrate Thanksgiving in his class. She wants to have a feast and have some of the boys and girls dress up as pilgrims and others wear paper headdresses and "be the Indians". He does not want to go to school that day and his parents agree to keep him home.
Explanation: For many Native people Thanksgiving, as celebrated In the United States, perpetuates a myth that has almost nothing to do with reality. It is a reminder of much of the history of this country in which the Europeans often exploited Native Americans. It is also a time where images of "cute Indians" appear on greeting cards and children in schools dress up like "Indians". This may be degrading to Native American and Alaskan native children and upsetting to their parents.

Silence/Eye Contact:
Bosses or teachers may notice that Native American and Alaskan Native workers or students are quiet, and talk little in a group. This may start as early as age 10, is common in middle and high school, and can even go into adulthood. Such silence may result from discomfort with attitudes in classroom or in the workplace that are different from their homes of when appropriate to speak; from student resistance to school and the teacher; from the isolation of being the only Native American person in the class or the workplace; or from feeling the person in charge does not care. To address issues around silence, bosses or teachers can provide increased individual attention and foster warm personal relationships. Bosses and teachers who are successful with Native students tend to relate to them in a personal way rather than keeping a "teacher persona" or a professional distance.

Some Native American and Native Alaskan people tend to speak more softly and may look down to express politeness. Bosses and teachers should respect this and not repeatedly ask the individual to speak up or look up. When silence comes in response to question or during a classroom conversation, it may be a result of inadequate "waiting time". Research shows that "wait time" is substantially longer in Native American culture that in Euro-American culture. Native American students will perform better when given extended "waiting time" as Native students tend to wait until they know the answer before they respond.

Research shows that Native students tend to participate more actively and verbally when they’re able to participate voluntarily and are less apt to perform on demand when put on the spot and expected to answer questions in front of others. To increase the participation of Native students in class discussions, reduce the amount of questioning and instead word questions as comments to respond to and allowing dialogue and group problem solving.

In many Native American and Alaskan Native cultures, looking down is considered a sign of respect, and looking another person directly in the eye is considered impolite or aggressive. This is particularly true in the relationship between children and adults. When adults are speaking to a child it is considered disrespectful for the child to look down. They are labeled as "not paying attention" or stubborn and defiant. Leaders, bosses and teachers need to be aware of cultural issues that affect eye contact.
Explain that value eye to eye contact in the school and workplace is valued, but be patient about changing cultural habits.

Distrust of Institutions
The parents of many Native American and Alaskan students have often had negative experiences themselves. The history of Native American and Native Alaskan education in the United States included removing Native students from their homes and putting them in boarding schools where they were not allowed to practice their culture. This is a recent history and many of the parents and grandparents of Native students were affected by this system. As a result they have a fear and distrust of schools. This makes it uncomfortable for these adults as parents to visit schools and classrooms or to trust the business or organization in which they work. To make these people feel more trust, a boss or teacher participate in the local native cultural events such as culture nights, sporting events, or Pow Wows.

A teacher or principal might casually suggest that parents visit the class to observe or volunteer, offering an open window to visit instead of setting an appointed day and time. Such an open invitation is non-threatening, and will help the parent feel welcome.


  • Brownfield, Sally Motivating: Native American Students: Strategies that Work. US Department of Education, Washington State University
  • Office of Superintendent/Public Instruction, Washington State. Reading and the Native American Learner: Research