“Naked Indian” and the Constant Battle of Stereotyping
As a Native American woman, defining who I am is a constant battle in view of popular culture and stereotypes. I am of the Navajo tribe and my identity rests upon education, prayer, spirituality, and kinship.
College was a rite of passage in defining who I am as a person. My identity would be incomplete without my academic experience. I say this because it wasn’t until college that I fully understood stereotyping.
My first experience of being stereotyped occurred when I was in first grade attending Walter V. Long Elementary in Las Vegas, Nevada. My father is a journeyman ironworker, which meant my family had to live in the city rather than in our original homeland in Lukachukai, Arizona. When I started school in Las Vegas, my eagerness to learn was high. I always participated and tried my utmost to obtain knowledge. However, this event tainted my efforts.
It was a week before Thanksgiving and our class was celebrating the holiday by story time and by making arts and crafts to take home. Story time was my favorite part of the class. We would all gather in a group on the floor and listen and watch as our teacher would read endless stories from many time periods.
Since it was November and the Thanksgiving holiday was approaching, our teacher, Mrs. Kuhn, read a story about the first Thanksgiving between pilgrims and Indians. I sat in the front and was ready to hear the story when suddenly I saw the first page of the book, which featured a picture of a sailboat, the sea, the land, a pilgrim, and a naked brown figure who was the Indian.
My class started giggling and one boy in the back said loudly, “a naked Indian! Look!” When I turned to face him, he was looking right at me, and he said, “Naked Indian!” I was distraught and clearly torn. I couldn’t move and all I could feel was the hot stream down my face. Was this who I was? Was this my place in the world? Would I be considered a “naked Indian” throughout my life? I didn’t say anything to the teacher. She quieted the class and continued reading, while I sat quietly, not wanting to hear the rest of the story.
I didn’t go to school for a week after that, lying to my mother that I was sick while the real reason was that I didn’t want to face the class as the “naked Indian.” A week passed and my mother came into my room one morning, and asked what was wrong and why I did not want to go to school.
I was quiet for the longest time. I couldn’t explain it to her. I couldn’t stand for her to see me cry my eyes out about the story and me being called “naked Indian,” but I told her anyway. Without hesitation, my mother took me to school and demanded to discuss the matter with the principal. The class was notified and the boy who called me the words apologized.
At that age, I experienced something beyond me and my current thinking. This day will never be forgotten. The term “naked Indian” will always be in the back of my mind, haunting me.
Now, as I look back at that time, I’m not as pained. While facing my identity during a time when Native American stereotypes are still an issue in this country, I’ve finally won this silent battle. Through reading contemporary Native American authors who’ve written countless stories of their childhood and the mockery they witnessed, I’ve come to the conclusion that it all makes us stronger to educate the people who have no idea what we Natives are facing in this day and age.
In 2010, while attending Diné College, I participated in a cultural exchange program that collaborated with Northampton Community College in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. The program was a part of a sociology class called “Racial and Ethnic Relations,” which was taught by Dr. Miranda Haskie.
My class and I spent a week in Pennsylvania as guests of the Northampton students who volunteered their homes as our welcome mat. I truly embraced this trip and saw what life on the East Coast was like. What initially drew me in was the lack of knowledge my roommate and her friends had about Native Americans.
I was not infuriated with their lack of knowledge, but simply shocked that they did not have proper understanding of any Native communities. It was a culture shock. I say this since they believed Natives were like the Amish. My time there will never be forgotten. I felt fulfilled to have given my hosts the knowledge of my people and where I’m from. What I hope is that they will not forget either. This experience made me want to become more involved with my people and neighboring Native communities.
I have put the term “naked Indian” behind me by sharing this story in an essay contest hosted by the Native American Center of Fort Lewis College in the fall of 2013. I placed first. This story was meant to be heard and to shed light on a continuous issue that I hope one day will end for good. Keep in mind Native college students, that we are the change and we are the movement to bring awareness and a positive outlook for our rightful place in this society.