Indians: We’re All the Same

Kokopelli is used relentlessly as a synecdoche of Native American-ness

Kokopelli is used relentlessly as a synecdoche of Native American-ness

The thing about stereotypes is they corral our thinking into one cluster.


All Indians get lumped together.

For example, I was scouting the internet for an image for my blog and found this quotation:

Certain things catch your eye,
But only pursue those that
Capture the heart
~ Ancient Indian Proverb

While it’s a lovely sentiment—follow your heart—there is no such thing as an “ancient Indian proverb.”


Because indigenous North Americans do not share the same culture and ontology.

While you will find commonalities among Indian peoples, tribes vary greatly.

Our languages, our diets, our dress, our religions, our stories—they differ: some a little and some a lot.

We can blame the media and we can blame colonization, but we also have to examine the human tendency to take mental short-cuts.

Stereotypical thinking is part of our coping mechanism: if we get chased by one panther we’re likely to assume that all panthers will find us fair game.

While we are subject to stereotypical thinking, knowing this is a human tendency can help us confront our own foibles.

Besides, it gives us a compelling reason to use the word Synecdoche.

Synecdoche is pronounced much like the word Schenectady, with the emphasis on the second syllable.

Schenectady, a New York town north of Albany, was home to the Iroquois and their kin, who called this part of North America home.

They were pushed northward as settlers burned their villages and claimed the land for themselves.

The Iroquois term Schenectady is sometimes confused with Synecdoche, from the Greek, meaning “understanding one thing with another.”

Synecdoche ties in nicely with our discussion about stereotypes in Indian Country because it means in today’s parlance “when part of an item stands for the entire item.”

So, the claim that a proverb stands for all Indian culture is an example of a Synecdoche.

But such proverbs also foster stereotypes—and a proverb, a teepee, a feathered head-dress and buffalo stew hardly represent all Indians.

So next time you see an image of a teepee or drawing of kokopelli, remember they are often chosen to represent all Indians.

But they don’t.

Blog #16 for Native American Heritage Month


About Cynthia Coleman Emery

Professor and researcher at Portland State University who studies science communication, particularly issues that impact American Indians. Dr. Coleman is an enrolled citizen of the Osage Nation.
This entry was posted in american indian, authenticity, framing, Indian, journalism, Native Science, writing and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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