Stereotypes: “Indian Time”

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.


Join the discussion and tell us your opinion.

  1. Mona Sabori

    Indian time or the phrase "Indian time" came about when the U.S. Government enacted treaties with the native americans and forced them to live on reservations so that the U.S. Government could claim ownership to occupy the remaining lands for themselves. During the time the U.S. Government treaties had conditions, one condition is that native americans would never go hungry. So the U.S. Government would send soliders with boxes of food (commodities) to feed the starving natives. The U.S. soliders would take their time delivering the food and most of the natives died of starvation during the long periods upon delivering of the food. Most of the food would be rotten but the starving natives ate it any way and death was the end result. So the U.S. Government mocked the dying natives by saying "The food will be deliverd on Indian time" meaning the food will get there when it get's there! So there is the history of the phrase "Indian Time"!

    • Deb

      It means hunt starts at 9 you better be there 7 to get ready for it. Indians were nothing of lazy. You wanted to eat, you better be ready and prepared for the hunt, that means setting up and getting yourself ready to get food. Indian time is better there early to be ready.

  2. Carroll

    There is certainly a lot to learn about this topic.

    I like all the points you have made.

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  4. Sheila Nagig

    I happen to think that “Indian Time” is a more natural way to live. I have never liked the tyranny that clocks impose on us. Life is too short, after all. Things take as much time as they take. They’re done when they’re done.

  5. Tasha

    A lot of helpful info here. I am sending it to several friends ans also sharing
    in delicious.

  6. Scott Reed

    Mona you never went to a powwow? It is not rude when everyone understands that things will happen when they happen in spite of what a schedule posts.

  7. Kathleen

    I an caucasian detox nurse who spent a few months living with the Dine’ a while back. When talking with a patient recently, who was to be picked up by community Native treatment center personnel the next day, she asked what time she would be picked up. I said, “They are on Indian Time, so they will show up at the right time.” She thought it a slur. I let her know, from my understanding, the right time is always more important than the hands of the clock. I think she understood. It was one of many important lessons I use every day, from that brief time I spent with the Dine’.

  8. SSE

    Thank you for a beautiful explanation of this concept; you are bridging gaps here, and I am grateful.

  9. Myrtle

    You’ve made some decent points there. I checked on the web to learn more about
    the issue and found most people will go along with your views on this site.

  10. J. walker

    I have been at native events where people spoke much longer than the scheduled time. I find it respectful that everyone’s voice is allowed to be heard. I have also witnessed white people display impatience when this happens. I am of German descent and was trained to always be ON TIME and never deviate from a schedule, so this has been an important learning for me

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