It is human nature to try to organize the world. Faced with a great deal of information most people want to group some of it together to help create order and simplify how they understand the world. This works well when grouping, for example,food groups or types of animals; we can use this shorthand to communicate without having to describe individual characteristics of the food or animals in the group. However, when it comes to grouping people, there are much larger and potentially dangerous implications.
Vince wrote on some common stereotypes of Indian people. I’d like to share another. When I was growing up in the Plains, I sometimes heard the phrase “Indian time.” Example: “I have been waiting for this doctor for hours. She must be running on Indian time.” The phrase was used to convey that something was happening behind schedule or someone was late. When I was young, hearing this phrase being used led me to think that Indian people must frequently be late or not care about things happening on time. Since being late is considered rude… it then made me wonder… if many Indian people are rude… And so you see how the stereotype can lead to prejudice.
When I began living and working in Indian country, I learned the origin of the phrase “Indian time.” I came to understand that traditionally Indian people were very good students of nature. They studied the seasons and the animals to learn how to live well in their environments. Given this, they learned that it’s important to be patient and to act when circumstances were “ripe” rather than to try and force things to happen when circumstances did not support them. I have come to understand it’s a Western idea that we can control most circumstances and that we should run our lives by the clock and the calendar.
The control we think we have over circumstances is frequently an illusion and can lead to a lot of wasted energy. Much can be gained by watching, listening, waiting and then acting when the time is right. “Indian time” is really about respecting the “timeliness” of an action. It makes more sense to plant crops when the weather is right than when the calendar says it is time. What a mistake it would be to take this traditional concept of timeliness and develop a misperception that contemporary Indian people are frequently late. I am one of the few non-Indian people working in my office and if someone is running late for a meeting, it’s usually me.
We develop stereotypes when we are unable or unwilling to obtain all of the information we need to make fair judgments about people or situations. The best way to challenge stereotypes is to become informed. It is important to not blindly buy into generalizations we read about in books and magazines, see in movies or television, or hear from friends and family. Negative beliefs and attitudes about a group of people, left unchecked, will shape our treatment of the members of the group. Many studies bear out how easily stereotypes affect important aspects of people’s lives, from hiring to housing to educational expectations. For this reason, it is important to get informed and to look at people as individuals, each with personal, unique values and characteristics.