Cultural Sensitivity

BE PREPARED (Remember Your Boy Scout Motto)
Cross-Cultural Etiquette When Dealing With Native Americans


Is it Native American or American Indian? I'm so confused!! Answer: It's a personal preference. Simply ask the person what they prefer to be called.


Never start a conversation with an Indian by (1) talking about the latest New Age shaman that you've been to, or (2) telling the Indian that your grandmother was a Cherokee Indian princess or that you're 1/4 Cherokee. Really, really try to avoid starting a conversation with an Indian by asking about his or her spirituality or religion. Native spirituality is a highly personal subject. Indians will talk with you about it when they are ready.


Watch out for stereotypes. For instance, monitor your conversation during a typical day. Find out how many times you refer to Indians in the past tense. You'll be surprised. Try to avoid telling Indians that sports team names and mascots really "honor" them. If someone says they find something to be offensive, the chances are that they're telling the truth.


Indians are generous people. Get in the habit of bringing and exchanging gifts. If you ask an Indian to do something important, it is considered respectful to bring a gift. This especially applies to religious leaders. When an Indian invites a non-Indian to his or her home, it is considered a high compliment. If you wonder why, consider the past and sometimes present relations between Indians and non-Indians.


Elders are respected in Indian communities. One does not publicly contradict them, and if one is chastised by an elder, the appropriate response is silence. At meals, elders are always served first. Whenever any important course of action is being considered, the elders are consulted. Our children are our future. Children are not physically punished. In fact, in many Indian cultures, punishment is enacted by shunning for a period of time. Children are treated with gentleness.


Be prepared to be comfortable with silence in an Indian community. This does not mean Indians are "stoic;" it means that something is said when it is important and needs to be said. "Extroversion" and "introversion" will take different shapes in an Indian community, but it is probable that a high degree of Indians are introverts. It is probable (though it hasn't been demonstrated by testing) that the most common Indian Myers-Briggs profiles are INFP and ISFP.


Indians draw a sharp division between "insiders" and "outsiders." Remember the history of Indians in this country. Indians have had a long history of not being heard. This still exists today. Government and church agencies will implement programs without assessing needs or asking Indians what they think. Therefore, suggestions will often be interpreted as demands and resisted. In general, Indians experience non- Indians (not just Caucasians) as intrusive in nature. Trust must be earned. This situation calls for a great deal of patience on the part of non-Indians.


Indians see a sense of humor as a necessary way of maintaining one's sense of perspective about oneself and the universe. They have a strong sense of humor which non-Indians can view as irreverent or inappropriate. Jokes are told at religious ceremonies which are off-color and which mortify non-Indians. Old animosities still exist between Indian nations. One way Indians deal with this is to insult one another. This helps to defuse hostility and to build inter-tribal relationships.

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This article is copyright ©1998 Adam Seward