JENKS-- Much to the surprise of some sixth graders, most Native Americans did not sleep in teepees or wear moccasins, and they never, ever said "How" as a greeting.
Chad Smith, principal chief of the Cherokee Nation, covered the problem of stereotyping in his presentation at noon last week at Jenks West Elementary, 2550 W. K Place.
Smith pointed out some unfair or unrealistic classifications given to Native Americans, including headdresses, loin cloths, tomahawks and rain dances. In fact, he said the majority of Native Americans did not use any of these.
"One of my pet peeves is mascots. Union's (Redskins) is very offensive to me," Smith said.
But government was Smith's first topic. He made a chart for the students comparing the Cherokee Nation government with the U.S. government, noting many similarities.
For instance, the principal chief, like the President of the United States, is elected every four years and must be at least 35 years old. And the founding of the United States and how it shaped its democracy was another surprise for some audience members.
"Where was the only place in the world they found a democratic government in 1776?" Smith asked the students. "In Native American tribes. In all the others they had kings and queens. No other place offered a democracy."
When U.S. government founders discovered Native American democracies, Smith said they developed government practices that look oddly familiar.
"In many ways, the United States got its government from the Indians," Smith said.
"Today, what makes Indians unique is not that they're a (different) race, but that they are a government."
Smoke shops, he explained, which Native American tribes use to sell tobacco products, can be operated without state tax added because they were citizens of their own tribes before the United States was founded.
"We were Cherokee citizens 50 years before the United States existed," he said.
His role as Principal Chief is not only to serve his people but also to protect them, he told the class. He has a staff of attorneys, accountants and business people who help "run this big operation."
He also speaks with Gov. Frank Keating and state and federal representatives in Congress to help achieve goals for the Cherokee people.
Smith's list includes but is not limited to: protecting rights to employment, creating jobs, bringing in business, creating an independent newspaper and working with the state and federal government, so they "won't pass laws to hurt us."
"My job is to run a good government and one of the things I have to know is how to make decisions," he said. And it is a "continuous battle to preserve rights in Congress."
In the question-and-answer portion of the presentation, the students learned more than most expected.
Once again, they learned how not to judge someone based on an existing stereotypes.
As Smith asked the students to say the first thing that came to their minds when he said the word, "Native American," he drew their responses on the board.
Pictures of what most children would say followed, like the aforementioned teepee. Smith said before he ever saw a white person, he was told they were all rich, wore ponytails and tie-dyed T-shirts and took drugs.
"Is that what you think of all white people?" he asked.
"The movie 'Peter Pan', I find extremely offensive. When the lost boy meets the Indians, that is what has been created to make your images in your mind. That hurts you. Stereotypes make you ignorant and it hurts my children," Smith said.
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