Regarding the original peoples of Turtle Island, film, literature, art and other media, whether fiction or non-fiction, by majority still reflect the common, stereotypical view of natives past and present: little beyond gruff warriors, comedic sidekicks or medicine men, and for women: docile, home-making maidens and grandmothers subservient and usually silent in the presence of men. Each, naturally, have a connection to the environment and all its denizens and forces, and engage in musical or expressive activities such as singing, dancing or handicrafts, of course, with native themes.

Indeed, Natives are creative peoples, adaptive and reflective of their histories despite changing circumstances, through expressions such as leatherworking, basket-weaving, painting, beading, quilling, and all manner of handwork. Native professions some might consider traditional could include stone or metalworking, animal husbandry, farming, or as storytellers or performers. There are many natives who do such work, often incorporating aspects of their beliefs, abilities and unique characteristics, whether it’s considered “stereotypical” or not.

Life choices might include the young person who studies to become a veterinarian, as they feel a special closeness with and need to heal and help animals. It might be the person who chooses to enlist in military service to fulfill or increase their natural abilities, often attributed as inherent skills, as fighters, trackers or marksmen. It might be the youth who studies to become an ethnobotanist, particularly specializing in the flora from their ancestral lands.

These professions may make an understandable sense to both native relatives and non-natives, yet as native children grow up, whether within a native community such as on a reserve/reservation or within a family in an urban setting, now more than ever, they come in contact with other cultures and influences. They learn and study about other countries, societies, and histories just like any other child, and develop their own impressions of the world that can influence their desires.

As they reach adulthood, some have the option of educational and professional pursuits they feel may fulfill their needs, but one of the greatest challenges in decision-making can be from within their community and through perceptions by non-natives, especially teachers or counselors. When a Native American individual chooses a profession considered non-native or non-traditional, this can be discouraged by both. They may feel lack of support or isolation due to their choice, and might even be ostracized. If they follow through on their direction, it can even come to impact if or how much they are considered native anymore.

Is the traditional dancer who regularly participates in the pow-wow circuit more authentic as a native than someone who goes to college and learns dentistry?

 In competition, the dancer’s wins help contribute monetarily to his family’s funds, yet he primarily supports them by his job at a local shop. He has more time to be active in the community. The advancing dentist may have a busier schedule perhaps with a position far from the reservation or native community, so they have less time to dance, sing and drum, though they know how to dance, sing and drum, and prays and gives thanks wherever they are.

When you’re a professional artist, music or art student, your cultural background, thoughts and beliefs may be reflected in your work. Another’s work might solely include or exhibit non-native styles or those not recognizably of the People. Is the latter work less native or should it be labeled non-native because it isn’t “traditional” in style? Does the individual become less native and/or should their connection to their heritage and people be questioned or deemed lesser than someone who exclusively uses “traditional” images or themes? The same could be asked about writers. If they don’t exclusively or primarily write about native peoples or apply native themes, should they deserve lesser attention or recognition from native news media or communities?

We know this isn’t always the case. There are many examples of native artist, musicians and professionals of all kinds and genres, who are accepted by other natives or their communities, but intertribally and elsewhere, however, there continues to be criticism, prejudices and questions that can be negatively affective. Many non-natives try to confine us to stereotypical roles they are comfortable seeing of in and which satisfy their ideas and opinions of what natives are best at. Why restrict ourselves?

Native Americans & “Non-Traditional” Professions

In Chicago at the Jan Cicero Gallery, an exhibit called “Native Streams” once debuted, featuring native artists described as “non-traditional”. Gallery owner Jan Cicero said of the artists and their work, “Most of the artists in this exhibition have MFAs. They have been educated with European art ideas. The combination of their education in Western art and their personal experience of living as a Native American has created a new movement: works that mix influences from current art with imagery and ideas from native cultures,” wrote Fred Camper in an article for the Chicago Reader.

In my opinion, the statement of the artists being “non-traditional” should have been more clearly defined as relating to their work, and not suggestive or open to interpretation that it also applied to their spiritual beliefs, traditions or personal lives. With the inclusion of the university degrees and a distinctly pro-European vibe, even more I felt this gallery owner was not-so-subtly pushing assimilation as the best policy for wider audience attention and achievements. One of the few positive educational and non-subjective comments was from one of the artists. Ted Garner, a native wood sculptor who used Modernist technique, pointed out that most American Indian cultures didn’t have a separate category of people called artists.

“Ownership and decoration were the same,” Garner said, in the same article. “You decorated everything you owned because you wanted it to be beautiful”.

 So, though painting, artwork or handcraft may be considered a stereotypical native profession, in actuality it could be considered simply part of daily life and living for a Native American of the past and present, and not necessarily a separate profession in and of itself so as to be considered “traditional” in the first place. In turn, it could be challenged that since the creation of artwork wasn’t considered a traditional profession in the first place, why would a native be considered more real or authentic if they did artwork as a profession, and which showed or was limited to native people and themes? Should or would that go further into the assumption that a native professional creating non-native themed work automatically equates to their personal lives, and that respect for traditions, beliefs and cultures is reduced or absent?

Another such “non-traditional” profession would be pro athletes or sports persons. Tim Welch, Assiniboine Sioux, is a mixed martial artist fighting on the U.S. pro circuit. Yovani Gallardo is Purepecha, and a pitcher and former all-star performer for the Milwaukee Brewers. Lonnie Kauk is one of the few  professional snowboarders today who can credibly cite Native American ancestry. LaRita Laktonen-Ward, Alutiiq, is an artist and champion female professional figure competitor at PNBA, NCCPT Certified Personal Trainer and Online Health Coach at Tru Life Fitness. Solely being an athlete, in actual performances or training was not a traditional profession in native life, yet it can be argued that there were not exclusive professions of any kind among natives.

Was Billy Mills only a runner, Jim Thorpe only a footballer or Fred Sasakamoose only a hockey player? There were always the regular activities of life one must complete, such as hunting, harvesting, cooking food, making or enhancing clothing with beadwork or quillwork, designing and creating more functional tools or educating children or others with tribal and worldview knowledge. In our various histories, whatever nation or people, the average native was a well-rounded, skilled individual in many tasks and “professions”. Most could not afford themselves the luxury of only doing one thing for sustenance or in support of their community or family.

John Herrington, a Chickasaw astronaut, in an interview at Indian Country Media Network written by Theresa Braine, when asked about what his indigenous perspective brought to space exploration, he replied, “Long before there was western science, our ancestors were doing remarkable things in observing the world around us and making structures that captured the solar cycle. Chaco Canyon is a great example of that. They were very talented observers. Long before western science, western mathematics, came along, they were building these remarkably detailed structures. Our ancestors were doing it. Native people have been very talented engineers and scientists for millennia. They did it for survival. You have to be very observant to the world around you in order to survive”.

I’d written about this topic a few years ago for an assignment, then revisited the discussion more recently as my nineteen-year-old son decided on the focus of a Bachelor’s degree, eventually choosing Fire Science. Required courses included emergency medical training, firefighting techniques and preventive measures, as a means to learn arson investigation. More interestingly for him has been to study fire behavior, expanding on traditional knowledge and the importance and respect for fire he’d received growing up, being taught by me and others.

There is the continuing opportunity to educate the educators further than they realize: for example, that natives had for thousands of years strategically, effectively and beneficially used selective burning to benefit crop production and have utilized flames to create safety buffers for their living places. In whatever profession, there is also a way to gain even deeper appreciation for one’s ancestors. They may not have known chemical tables in the way western society has now recorded, but they had for generations shared oral history and knowledge so as not to build or occupy a structure so that it was a death trap because of noxious gas production.

The definitions of “real Indian” as opposed to “not authentic” Indian, based on ancestry or blood quantum level, or additionally on physical appearance, dress, behavior and attitude, can be compared to deciding what is a traditional or non-traditional profession as a means to judge dedication or connection to heritage and culture. (This all being distinctly aside and separate from non-natives claiming to be natives, or those with distinctly questionable native heritage appropriating and then benefiting from being “Native” in non-native circles, mind you.)

In whatever indigenous tribe, people or group, for the majority the reality and understanding is maybe that there isn’t (or shouldn’t be) division between anything done, spoken, achieved or studied so as to be considered non-traditional or traditional. It is all connected. There is no compartmentalization of belief, activity or work. In everything you do, whether recognizable to others as “native”, it is Native because you as a Native did it, accomplished it, and added to it from who and what you are.