Native Americans

Below are categories for questions that have been answered by community members. Keep in mind that the following responses may represent many members of this group but do not represent all people in a community. Not all people from diverse populations conform to commonly known culture-specific behaviors, beliefs and actions. Each person is an individual, as well as a community member.

What cultural / ethnic / religious traditions or beliefs should law enforcement be aware of?

  • There are more than 500 federally recognized tribes in the country, each with its own distinct culture and religion. They are all covered under the American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978. Learning about these laws provide a better understanding of the Native American culture and their rights.
  • Many Native Americans come to San Diego from other states to have a better life. They tend to experience culture shock as they move from a remote reservation into a big city, so it is important for officers to be trained on inter-generational trauma and culture shock.
  • Some Native Americans carry a sealed medicine bag around their neck, which may contain one of the four sacred herbs: sage, tobacco, cedar or sweetgrass. This bag is used for medical purposes or to represent the individual’s beliefs, religion and culture. Ask to see what is inside when open, but when sealed, it is sacred and is not meant to be reopened. If opened, this is seen as disrespectful and may upset the person.
    In certain instances, indigenous people roll their own tobacco in a paper like the paper used to role marijuana, so it is misconstrued as that.
  • During Summertime, Indigenous communities have a ceremonial dance where some tribes do sacrifices (sacred act) or have piercings above their chest area and on their back. Those piercings can be misidentified as mutilation or self-harm.
  • On the Navajo side, the Southern Indians of America ingest the peyote buds during a special religious ceremony which in certain places is illegal. Some individuals hold a card permitting them to ingest the buds.

What is the appropriate manner to greet you? (demeanor, non-verbal, body space, handshake, bow, male-female interaction etc.)

  • There is always someone who speaks for the family; it could be the niece, the grandchild, or the grandmother. Unlike in many other cultures, it does not have to be a man. Many Native American tribes are matriarchal.
  • It would be best to ask nicely to come in and let the family know why you are there and ask for the person to speak to.
  • Out of respect when entering a home and there is an elder in the room, great them and acknowledge their presence even if they are not the person you will speak with.
  • Some tribes do not shake hands with people they do not know to avoid any ‘negative energy’ a person may have. Out of respect, some Native Americans will not make eye contact, especially with respected people.
  • In most households, a child or any adult at home may open the door slightly to check who it is then close it to inform the person in charge of the household.If grandparents who only speak their native tongue are visiting and the parent is not at home while the children are, the kids will not be able to translate for them.

Who should be addressed or acknowledged first? Who is the head of the household?

  • Native Americans are known to have multi-generations living underneath one roof.
  • Hair is covered under the federal law because it is sacred to the indigenous people, so it would be more respectful to ask to touch it, if needed to.
  • It is important for the dispatcher to inform the officer that when they respond to a Native American call, have an advocate present, especially if the family does not speak English.
  • Some tribal families may be receiving social services through state or tribal programs. Consider asking if they are receiving services or have a case/social worker they can call to mitigate or prevent an issue before there needs to be an intervention.
  • Some tribal individuals and families conduct daily rituals with herbs that can smell like cannabis or other substances. Be aware of the difference.

What is your view / perception of law enforcement? What has been your community's experience with law enforcement?

  • Officers may unknowingly disrespect an individual, which may cause them to shut down or not cooperate. This is a consequence of a long history of mistrust in law enforcement.
    It is common in Native American communities to take a moment to think about an answer. The officers should be patient and not expect immediate answers.
  • Native Americans are afraid of going to jail off the reservation. Furthermore, it is very hard for an indigenous person to see their family member talking with an officer alone. The whole family will congregate around that person to make sure their loved one is being respected and is comfortable with talking to the officer.
  • If a third party, such as Child Welfare Services, needs to be called to an incident, the officer should inform that organization that they are working with a Native American household. There are laws that protect the children of the enrolled tribal members so a knowledgeable person of those laws should be present.
  • Smiling and laughing is common in a traumatic incident such as domestic violence or sexual assault; this is the way Native Americans deal with such situations and it does not mean they are happy. Those individuals understand they have been victimized.
  • Indians have many cultural items at home and sometimes travel with them. The officer should allow the individual to open and move around their belongings themselves. It is considered very demeaning if the officers touch those items.