Native American and Indigenous Muslim Stories (NAIMS):
Reclaiming the Narrative
TRENDS AND TREASURES
MAHASIN SALIM | Nipmuc | Alexandria, VA
by iDigiMedia + Swish Marketing Agency.
MAHASIN SALIM | Nipmuc | Alexandria, VA
“The word itself, ‘research,’ is probably one of the dirtiest words in the Indigenous world's vocabulary. When mentioned in many Indigenous contexts, it stirs up silence, it conjures up bad memories, it raises a smile that is knowing and distrustful. The ways in which scientific research is implicated in the worst excesses of colonialism remains a powerful remembered history for many of the world’s colonized peoples. Indigenous peoples across the world have other stories to tell which not only question the assumed nature of those ideals and the practices that they generate but also serve to tell an alternative story.” – Dr. Linda Tuhiwai Smith
The history of the U.S. is complex, nuanced, and filled with violence and erasure, especially of Indigenous and Black communities. Turtle Island¹ (United States) is home to various diverse Indigenous communities with rich ways of life, traditions, and cultures which were uprooted, appropriated, and erased with the arrival of colonizers and settlers. This report is not here to solve the issue but rather to add to the growing conversation on Indigenous identity within the United States context.
The American history that is often taught and centered is a diluted version that focuses in and around the “Thanksgiving” narrative of being peaceful, which minimizes the violence of colonization. It is important to revisit and unlearn the stereotyped and sidelined version of American history. It is beyond the scope of this report to do justice to the historical context of Native American history and Native American/Indigenous identity. What we do seek to do is to contribute to understanding of Native American experiences in the present day by focusing on the lived experiences of Native American Muslims and offer insights into similarities and differences between Native cultures and Islam and hopes and needs of the Native American Muslim community.
We acknowledge the need for meaningful conversations, consultation, and engagement with Indigenous communities and literature. The team consisted of both Native and non-Native and Muslim and non-Muslim members who engaged with various scholarship by Indigenous scholars. We drew immediate inspiration from the work of Dr. Linda Tuhiwai Smith (Ngāti Awa and Ngāti Porou-Māori) whose scholarship privileges Indigenous cultures, education, and research methodology. Her critical and acclaimed work, Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples, critiqued and challenged Western research of Indigenous peoples and offered ways to implement Indigenous knowledge in research. Therefore, this report offers a glimpse of an “alternative story” of Native American/Indigenous Muslims while acknowledging the brutal history of colonization which continues to erase and cause harm.
The role of Christianity is a complex issue which has been discussed by scholars and historians. Christianity played a violent role in the colonization and displacement of Indigenous peoples, wherein Native religious practices and cultures were greatly suppressed and erased. To assimilate and oppress the Indigenous communities on Turtle Island, colonizers utilized forced conversion to Christianity to instill their beliefs and values. Some Native peoples incorporated elements of Native beliefs and practices with Christian theology. However, the residual effects of colonization continue to impact the lives of many Indigenous peoples (e.g., desecration of the land and the continued violence against Indigenous women).²
The federal government currently recognizes 574 Native American tribal nations, and 11 different states recognize an additional 63 tribes.³ Despite making up approximately 2% of the United States public,⁴ Native Americans are far too often ignored in public discussions. And, while Native Americans make up 1-2% of the American Muslim population,⁵ they are almost invisible within Muslim communities, which overall make up an estimated 1.1% of the U.S. general population. As a result, there is a profound absence of awareness and lack of representation of Native American and Indigenous Muslims both in the broader U.S. and within the U.S.-based Muslim community.
This project is published in partnership with and made possible by generous support from the Doris Duke Foundation (DDF) and with support from IllumiNative. Through its Building Bridges Program, DDF supports national efforts, working with U.S. Muslims, to increase mutual understanding and well-being among diverse populations for the benefit of building stronger, inclusive communities. IllumiNative is a Native woman-led racial and social justice organization devoted to increasing public awareness of Native Americans on a national scale. In 2016, they published findings from Reclaiming Native Truth (RNT). This two-year, $3.3 million project revealed that the erasure of Native peoples, as well as rampant stereotyping associated with them, have produced considerable biases which permeate across demographics and institutions in and beyond the United States. Indeed, what RNT uncovered is that the broader American public—of which Muslims are a part—severely lacks a thorough understanding of Native American individuals and communities: their histories, their struggles, and, most importantly, their contemporary lived experiences.⁶
ISPU’s Native American and Indigenous Muslim Stories project (NAIMS), the first comprehensive study of its kind, is centered around spreading awareness of the lived experiences of Native American Muslims in the United States. Through a combination of narrative-style interviews, visual storytelling, cutting-edge qualitative research, and community outreach, NAIMS sheds light on a doubly-minoritized group whose voices have largely gone unheard. The study will contribute to a growing body of work highlighting the increasing diversity in the United States population writ large within Native American communities and within Muslim communities in the United States.
We drew inspiration from the Good Relatives Campaign, a recent endeavor led by IllumiNative highlighting the complex and multidimensionality of Native identity to help facilitate new conversations and understandings. The campaign highlights that more than 60% of people identified as Native American in the 2020 U.S. Census also identified as another race and that 7 in 10 Native Americans live in urban areas. In addition to the 574 federally recognized tribal nations (as of the time this report is written), the Good Relatives Campaign makes due mention that there are 400 non-federally recognized tribes in the United States. Following in this spirit, the narrative interviews within the NAIMS Project include participants enrolled in both federally recognized and state-recognized tribes, as well as lineal descendants from such communities.
In collaboration with the Doris Duke Foundation, the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding (ISPU) identified a dearth of reliable information on Native American/Indigenous Muslims. This absence was identified in several areas, ranging from general knowledge, academic literature, art and activism, and public-facing work. Because American Muslims and Native peoples both continue to experience rampant erasure, toxic stereotypes, harmful biases, and overt racism, the need to further understand Native American/Indigenous Muslims—a tiny subset and intersection of both communities—on their own terms has not been greater.
Thus, ISPU embarked on the first research project of its kind highlighting the unique experiences of Native American/Indigenous Muslims and shedding light on their vital stories. The explicit intentions of the project were to raise awareness, to drive strategic philanthropy and allocation of resources, and to facilitate more accurate portrayals in media and education. ISPU brought together a diverse group of researchers, community members, and advisers in order to actualize the project’s success.
The first part of the NAIMS project involved conducting 17 semi-structured, narrative-style interviews with Native American Muslims hailing from both federally recognized and state-recognized tribes as well as descendants from Native communities. Findings within the interviews were organized into four themes described below.
Muslim and Native identity
Participants frequently discussed the complexities of being both Muslim and Native American. Overall, participants did not imagine their identities as fractured or exclusive categories. They blended their Native identities with being Muslim in unique ways that were tailored to their individual and community experiences.
Similarities between Native cultures and Islam
Interview participants frequently noted similarities and harmonies between their diverse Native cultures and Islam. These included both theological and spiritual dimensions as well as material practices including fasting and prayer. While similarities frequently arose in the interviews, several crucial differences and tensions were also discussed. These similarities and differences depended on the participants’ respective tribal cultures and the particular schools of thought (legal, theological, or otherwise) they adhered to within Islam.
Palestinian and Indigenous solidarity
Several participants described solidarity between Palestinians and Native peoples as a site of fruitful cross-community engagement and an inspiration for their activism. The #NoDAPL struggle at Standing Rock drew together American Muslim activists and an unprecedented number of tribal nations together, and several of the interview participants were engaged. According to our participants, the struggle put movements for tribal sovereignty—in this case, of the Standing Rock Sioux Nation—as well as Native-led ecological movements on the radar for many American Muslims.
Hopes and needs
Interview participants expressed their struggles, but perhaps more importantly they expressed their hopes for the future. Every participant expressed their desire for the broader public to acknowledge their existence as Native peoples and Muslims. A unanimous desire for cross-community engagement was expressed as well, with the intent of working toward building solidarity against enduring oppressive structures, namely white supremacy.
Findings from focus groups
The second portion of the NAIMS project included three focus groups with 17 Native peoples enrolled in federally recognized tribes. These focus groups were semi-structured which gave room for a broader, more open, and empathetic discussion. The focus group participants are being kept anonymous and sensitive information revealed is strictly being kept confidential. The following themes were observed.
Encountering Native American Muslims–
The majority of our participants had not encountered Native Muslims in their tribal nations. However, a small number (2) reported having at least one Native Muslim friend belonging to another community. Though most had not encountered Native Muslims, the majority were at least somewhat familiar with Islam as a religion.
Understanding Islam –
Focus group participants reported a general awareness of Islam as a world religion. Several reported their first initial encounters with Islam and Muslims through the media, and this included an exposure to harmful stereotypes. Those stereotypes were largely debunked through our participants’ individual research as well as by interacting with Muslims. In general, our focus group participants demonstrated a desire to learn more about Islam.
Some focus group participants noted commonalities and differences between their nations’ long-standing beliefs and Islamic religious practices. A greater number acknowledged commonality in experiences with Muslims in the United States, such as dealing with pervasive media stereotypes and existing generally as heavily marginalized groups.
Islamophobia is a pervasive problem –
The overwhelming majority of focus group participants acknowledged Islamophobia as a pervasive problem in the United States and expressed deep concern over its lingering effects.
Based on the findings of both the interviews with Native Muslims and the focus groups with citizens of federally recognized tribal nations, ISPU has honed in on a set of recommendations for the months and years to come. These include:
- additional research to be conducted in this area by other individuals and organizations;
- intentional community gatherings to bring Native peoples and Muslims together;
- using the struggle at Standing Rock as a launching point, Muslim communities should intentionally learn about and engage Native American/Indigenous peoples through community dialogue, shared community events, and other opportunities for cross-cultural collaboration that arise;
- creative programs can raise cross-community understanding; and
- education is key for everyone.
Taking cue from Indigenous scholars such as Dr. Linda Tuhiwai Smith, who encourages that research on and about Indigenous peoples should not only be led by Native scholars but should serve the needs of Native communities,⁷ the research team consisted of both Native and non-Native Muslim and non-Muslim members. The team supported each other and remained mindful and reflective about each other’s different positionalities and utilized this diversity as a positive resource toward achieving and sharing knowledge throughout this project. Similar interview approaches were incorporated in regard to creating an environment which welcomed tangential conversations and were cognizant of the verbal and physical cues and other needs of the participants. Sensitive information that was divulged by participants will remain confidential in order to protect the privacy of individuals and communities which constitute the broader report.
The study began in the winter of 2021 and consisted of two parts: semi-structured interviews and focus groups. Both portions of the project took place online. The semi-structured interviews with Native American/Indigenous Muslims were conducted between May 2022 through August 2022, and the focus group interviews with Native Americans (non-Muslims) occurred between November 2022 and February 2023. Simultaneously, the research team collaborated with storytellers and photographers to capture short vignettes in order to highlight the diverse stories of the participants, culminating in the creation of Native American and Indigenous Muslims: Visions and Voices, which was launched in October 2022.
The team applied targeted and snowball sampling to recruit participants. The call for participants was also shared on social media platforms (Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and TikTok).
The methodology involved the following:
1. Semi-structured interviews: The research team conducted 17 in-depth, semi-structured online interviews with Native American Muslims (aged 21–65 years old) from an array of federally and state-recognized tribal nations. While many were converts to Islam, some were born into it. The one-on-one interviews explored insights into Native American Muslims struggles, hopes, and dreams. By centering their voices and images, this form of storytelling opened up the possibilities of new ways of understanding, while disrupting dominant narratives about Native American and Indigenous people as well as Muslims.
2. Online focus groups: The research team also conducted three virtual focus group interviews with 17 Native Americans enrolled in several federally recognized tribes⁸ who are not Muslim. These provided the team with an understanding of different views of Islam and Muslims from within Native communities.
While the findings will not be representative of the Native American Muslim community in its entirety (an impossible feat), these findings will be the only data of its kind (that we know of) to highlight this marginalized population within two marginalized populations.
The research team was composed of a principal researcher, two research associates, the ISPU research and communications team, two storytellers, and a team of photographers who were brought in for the first component of the project, the one-on-one interviews. As academics, researchers, activists, and community leaders, it was important to the team to explore ways of building trust and reciprocal connection during online interactions with the participants. Cognizant of “Zoom fatigue” and national and global crises, we wanted to create a caring digital environment. Therefore, we prioritized participants’ experiences, welcomed tangential conversations, and carefully followed verbal and physical cues to ensure a safe and welcoming environment. The participants were given honoraria as an act of acknowledgment of their time, expertise, and willingness to share their stories and deep meaningful conversations that resulted in a variety of themes.
A range of themes emerged from both the semi-structured interviews and focus groups. The four main themes from the semi-structured interviews were as follows: Muslim and Native identity, similarities between Native cultures and Islam, Palestinian and Indigenous solidarity, and Hopes and Needs. The focus group interviews revealed the following four themes: understanding Islam, encountering Native American Muslims, commonalities and differences, and Islamophobia is a pervasive problem. The themes will be discussed in depth in the sections below.
In this section, we highlight the various Native American Muslim identities represented in the NAIMS project. Our interview participants included both converts to Islam as well as those born into the faith. For those who converted to Islam, the circumstances that drew them to the religion are consistent with American converts to Islam overall.
Consistent with existing research on American converts to Islam,⁹ more than one participant was drawn to Islam by living in proximity to Muslim communities which provided them with regular exposure to Islamic ideas and practices. Diana Itawi (Monacan Indian Nation), for example, was exposed to Islam in Dearborn, Michigan, where she eventually converted, married, and raised a family in the faith. The current age of information technology also facilitated some of our participants in converting to Islam. Megan Kalk (Ojibwe) mentioned that her curiosity surrounding Islam was nourished by discussions, lectures, and knowledge-sharing via YouTube. And Dr. Maryam Blackeagle (Miami Tribe and Wea Tribe of Indiana) discussed how an attempt to “prove Islam incorrect” led her to a close reading of the Qur’an.
Several research participants spoke about navigating their Native, Muslim, and other identities in diverse ways. They found ways to pull from their Native identity to help negotiate their different identities based on the situations they encountered. Some of the participants emphasized certain parts of their identities over others (i.e., Native over Muslim or vice versa).
For example, Alyssa Crain (Oglala Lakota and African American) is a convert to Islam and spoke about trying to find balance and understanding about her identity, which she did by revisiting her Indigenous background. She stated, “I felt that getting to know my heritage, where I came from—that would maybe help me along that journey of finding my identity and my purpose there in life.” Alyssa drew upon traditional teachings and values of the Oglala Lakota to have a deeper understanding of herself and also find a sense of belonging and connection to the various communities she is part of (Indigenous, Muslim, and African American). The need for belonging is a theme that has appeared in other research conducted by ISPU such as the Reimagining Muslim Spaces project.
A few research participants spoke about the struggles between their Native and Muslim identity. They expressed their concerns in balancing both identities and commented on how each identity informed the other. Take, for example, Hussain Itawi (Monacan Indian Nation and Lebanese), who was born into Islam. Hussain “always felt like Islam provided a guide to life [and] Islam just taught you how to go about your day by day.” However, there were elements of Islam that he found “extreme” and chose to “focus on the good parts,” the positive aspects of Islam that bring him joy. As for his Native side, “it’s pretty much all positivity. I don’t really have to sift through things. I can just take in as I learn and just absorb it all, [whereas] with Islam, I have to sift through it and be like, ‘I want this. I don’t want this part.’” This approach allowed Hussain to pull from his multicultural background and identities to find balance. Similar sentiments were echoed by other participants in this study.
Those who converted to Islam spoke about what they had to leave behind to be fully accepted into the greater Muslim community. They spoke of the difficulties of the give-and-take process that comes with conversion. They also highlighted the openness of certain communities while citing the pushback they faced on certain issues. Megan Kalk (Ojibwe), who converted to Islam when she was 15 years old, spoke about the difficulties of potentially losing aspects of her Native culture. As she stated, “Anybody who converts to Islam, a lot of us feel like we’re forced to leave our culture behind. So if you’re in a group, whatever cultural group is tied to Islam in your community, you feel very pressured to assimilate and it doesn’t feel like there’s a lot of acceptance.” An example Megan discussed was food, specifically that her traditional Ojibwe food is never incorporated to any Islamic holidays (i.e., Eid) or other festivities: “There’s not really room for us to bring a dish from our culture. I feel like people would question it, wouldn’t be as open to eating it. Yet, we have to be open to doing everything such as eating these new foods and completely assimilating to this new way. A lot of it is usually cultural. So yeah, we’re leaving a lot of our cultures behind and it’s detrimental and it’s emotional.”
Food is an important aspect of culture, community, and traditions. The preparation, consumption, and sharing of food are often integral to religious, social, and familial customs and provide a sense of belonging, community, and understanding. For Megan, Ojibwe traditions around food¹⁰ brought family together and, importantly, allowed her non-Muslim family members to “have exposure to Muslim cultures through food” and gain a better understanding of her Muslim identity.
Navigating one’s identity is complex and nuanced and is shaped by numerous factors such as individual background, cultural traditions, and societal attitudes. Several research participants spoke about navigating their Native and Muslim identities to forge a strong sense of identity and community while also preserving and embracing aspects of their multiple cultural traditions and values.
Research participants discussed at length the harmony between their Native culture and Islam. Overwhelmingly, they found that Islam and their Native cultures were not only compatible but had similar principles and values. Participants spoke about the guiding principles of Native cultures and Islam, noting, for example, that they encourage stewardship of the land as well as respect and intentionality in relationships with humans and non-humans alike.
Participants also spoke about the mutual respect that existed in both their Native and Muslim communities. Many found that after converting they realized how many similarities existed between Native culture and Islam. Alyssa Crain (Oglala Lakota) reflected on the harmony between her two identities, saying, “In general, the beliefs and morals of Native Americans are in alignment with Islam. Ultimately, they do believe in one higher power. Although they attribute it as if there’s something that controls the wind, there’s something that controls the rain. Ultimately, they do give respect to a higher being. But as well as family values, their overall respect for life like animals and being in harmony with the animals living as one, how they used the buffalo, their herd, their skin, etc. I think their overall belief system is in line with the beliefs of Islam.” Many participants reflected this sentiment. Those who had converted to Islam found ways to merge a Native way of being and Islam.
Participants expressed a deep connection to their Indigenous traditions along with Islam. They noted that the ethics of both were aligned. Intentionality plays a big role in how both Indigenous people and Muslims interact with each other and the environment. One of our participants, LaTanya Barlow (Diné/Chiricahua Apache), a convert to Islam reflects on these connections: “Our water prayer is almost the same. Our prayer for the winged and the four-legged creatures is pretty much the same. When we take the life of the animal, it’s pretty much the same. When we give thanks, we give thanks to the Creator, and that’s all the same. Then we say, ‘In beauty, it’s finished. It’s pretty much the same. We’re grateful for the earth and the sky, and we're not impressed by these capitalistic ventures and these man-made things.’” Participants not only noted the similarity in prayers but also in practices of fasting and dressing as well. Islam encourages its followers to dress modestly, wearing long loose clothing for prayer and rituals. Although Native American tribes are each uniquely diverse in their traditions and practices surrounding clothing and adornment, there are tribes that encourage wearing modest and loose clothing.
Participants also spoke about the nature of marginalized identities. Participants had many overlapping marginalized identities, some identifying as African American as well as Native and Muslim. A number of participants found these identities empowering because of the wealth and depth of knowledge that each identity carried. Xade Wharton-Ali noted the power of his identities: “I think because these things are feared by the state and because these parts of my identity have been attacked by people I’ve been surrounded by, I think there’s just so much power within it. So I’d say what I would want, especially to someone who’s younger and growing up within one of these identities, for them to understand the empowerment of it. And to be validated by both of these experiences and both of these knowledge bases. I think just empowerment and confidence is something that can be gained or understood through both these identities.” Participants largely found that combining their identities still meant that they could draw from both Native culture and Islam to make decisions. As Alethea Redclay, Mescalero Apache and convert to Islam, put it, “A lot of people have a really big issue with conversion and converting from one religion to another. But, I think that all you really do is you just open your heart to more. I didn’t lose my Native side. I gained Islam and the beauty of it as well. And, I have to say that I kind of make it my own. I really do take the positives of all of it and go from there.”
The shared orientation toward nature, family, and ritual was something that participants highlighted during their interviews. They found that balance is key to existing within multiple identities and finding the harmony between them.
Another important theme that emerged was around the solidarity between Palestinians, 93% of whom are Muslims, and Native peoples.¹¹ As Dr. Maryam Blackeagle (Miami Tribe and Wea Tribe of Indiana) mentioned, “there is such a [mutual] relationship between Palestine and Native Americans.” Dr. Blackeagle is speaking to the shared experiences of displacement, colonization, and oppression in which both groups (and other Indigenous peoples around the world) have faced historical injustices at the hands of colonial powers, which have led to the loss of their lands, resources, and cultural traditions.
Furthermore, there have been instances where Native Americans have expressed solidarity with the Palestinian struggle and vice versa. For example, in 2016 at Standing Rock, many Palestinians and global Indigenous communities issued a statement of solidarity calling attention to the shared experiences and the violation of basic human rights. Additionally, American Muslims activists have expressed solidarity with Native American communities in their struggle against the Dakota Access Pipeline, which threatened sacred sites and water resources.
Ashley Wofford (Choctaw) spoke at length about such solidarity: “Traditional elders are calling for a day where all faiths come together, no matter what your practice. I think what kind of happened at Standing Rock, a call for all groups of faiths to come together to fulfill the prophecy of Seventh Generation, when all walks of life come together to obviously fight what's going on in terms of destruction of our resources through these oil companies and things like that. So I feel like people that are real traditional understand, and some of them even came together with folks from the Nation of Islam and they worked together. So I feel maybe those who really practice the traditions truly, that aren’t being infiltrated by Christianity or anything, know that we can come together.”
The conversations with the research participants revealed that Standing Rock was a pivotal moment when an unprecedented number of tribal nations came together to speak up against environmental destruction. Moreover, the movement was specifically about recognizing the inherent sovereignty of the Standing Rock Sioux Nation and honoring the treaties between the Standing Rock Sioux tribe and the United States government. It was one such moment which resonated heavily within the American Muslim community. Furthermore, participants indicated that it had an impact on the younger American Muslim population in which they started to understand the struggles of Native peoples in the U.S. However, a common sentiment echoed by participants was that American Muslims—indeed, Americans as a whole—still need to re-learn and understand the true history of colonization and its impact on Native peoples, as well as the continued violence and erasure of Indigenous communities in the U.S.
In this final section, we discuss the struggles and hopes that Native/Indigenous Muslim participants expressed to us. Many participants wished Native peoples and the broader Muslim community understood their complexities—that “Native” and “Muslim” are not mutually oppositional categories—and that Native Muslims exist. They expressed a desire for both communities to learn more about each other to challenge common stereotypes.
Participants stressed that they wanted to be seen as normal and not stand out because of their identity as an Indigenous Muslim. To achieve that, they wanted their communities as well as broader Native and Muslim communities to be more open, to hold relevant events which helped create awareness about the respective communities. A reccuring theme was for Muslim communities to be more aware of whose land they were on and to understand the brutal history of colonization, theft, and genocide of Native people.
Kayla Cyrus (Tuscarora/Waccamaw Siouan), a convert to Islam, stated, “I really wish more Muslims knew the land that they’re on. I bet you, if I walk into the masjid right now, here in North Carolina, and I ask the congregation what are the eight or nine tribes here? I don’t think anyone would be able to answer me. I think they would be able to say Cherokee and that’s about it. And that’s really, really disappointing to me. I think that there should be acknowledgment there. And I think that there should be acknowledgment on the Native side as well. And we should be getting to know each other because this is what Allah has commanded us to do.” Participants like Kayla were frustrated by the lack of awareness that exists in Muslim communities about Native people. However, they were hopeful of a connection that could be made with some effort and learning from both sides.
This desire extends beyond the formal borders of the United States. As Amor Crey (Nahua, Otomi, Huichol, Wixaritari, Tarahumara, Purépecha) stated, “Come to Latin America. Learn more about our Indigenous community here too. Obviously, this land [Turtle Island], it matters. These are our brothers and sisters, of course, but please learn which land you’re on, whose land you’re in and who is the owner of this land. I want to say that for us Muslims—it’s a duty to know and to give respect to the people whose land was taken in this area you and I, we live in. I live in the Kumeyaay area here in the Kumeyaay land and [want] to recognize these people and to give them recognition. There [are] some Muslims that do this here and in this country. They recognize whose land it is, find the tribes, the people, and approach them with mercy and respect.”
According to the participants, the importance of mutual knowledge and recognition would have far-reaching positive effects. As Mahasin Salim, (Nipmuc), stated: “I think we all just need to start helping each other. If Indigenous people [are] going through something, I want Muslims to come to help. Everybody that’s a minority, we need to help each other. If you are a minority, let us work together instead of feeling like everything is so separate. The allyship and solidarity between different communities can have a powerful outcome. Through collaboration, communities can stand up to hate crimes and discrimination, raise awareness and support a range of initiatives (i.e., anti-racist) and importantly find ways to dismantle the structures of white supremacy.”
An important element of this project was to provide a space for non-Muslim Native peoples’ voices to be heard.
Focus group conversations with non-Muslim Native peoples revealed a range of themes mainly focused on their interactions and understanding of Islam and American Muslims and similarities and differences between Islam and Indigenous religions/spirituality.
Christianity remains the largest faith group on Turtle Island (U.S.); however, there are a range of religions represented, such as Islam, which was embraced by the participants in the first section of the project.
A question we asked all the focus group participants was “have you ever met or interacted with Native American Muslims?” The majority of participants stated they had not met Native Americans Muslims. As one stated, “I’ve spent almost 30 years in the military and I never ran across a Native American that was a practicing Muslim. Wow. If I run across one, that’ll be interesting.” The team had heard similar statements of interest on Native American Muslims, not just in the focus group but from individuals the team interacted with when speaking about the NAIMS project.
Another participant elaborated on their response: “I will be honest; I have never heard of Native American Muslims, but I got asked to sit in on this meeting. I felt bad because I had some sort of ignorance to it. ‘I was like, no way… I thought if you’re Native American, then why would you also want to be a part of another culture that isn’t part of your land?’ But I also understand that there are Native American Christians, Native American Mormons—because I used to be one. Internally, I really sat back and listened.”
A few participants had met Native American Muslims. As one of the focus group participants stated, “I have a friend who is Afro-Indigenous, and a member of a tribe located on the East Coast, and her father had joined the Muslim movement during Malcolm X’s era. She is the only Native Muslim descendant that I know.” In our conversations with focus group participants, the majority may not have met or interacted with Native American Muslims; however, most were at least somewhat familiar with Islam.
Focus group participants shared with us their understanding of Islam. Some recurring statements were around media and the media’s portrayal of Muslims and Islam linked to the “Middle East” and “Gulf War,” in particular. As one participant stated, “My family made a lot of comments [which were] based on the perception by media outlets who were sharing information of things happening in the Middle East.” As another participant echoed, “You get negative [information] … but it’s fed to you through [the] media. It’s not necessarily through actual interactions or knowing anybody.” Despite media driving the ‘negative’ and ‘stereotypical’ conversation about Muslims and Islam, the majority of participants shared similar sentiments of [the] media’s role in such portrayals and the importance of not really basing understanding on that information alone but through interacting with people from different backgrounds. As one focus group participant stated, “I’ve grown up in an urban center which definitely introduced me to a lot of different cultures.” For some, relocating to a different area impacted their understanding: “I definitely felt like my eyes were a little more open once I moved out East and had friends [from different backgrounds], and it definitely changed my perception.” Importantly, many expressed interest in interacting and learning more about Islam and Muslims despite some having limited and/or skewed exposure about Muslims and Islam.
There is a vast richness in the diverse tribal nations present in Turtle Island (U.S.). Shared experiences and cultural practices bring people together, and differences provide deeper understanding into the lived experiences of individuals and their cultural and religious norms. Commonalities and differences between Islam and Indigenous religions/spirituality were discussed in detail by focus group participants.
Many of the participants acknowledged the common struggle of being part of oppressed groups fighting for their rights to practice their religions freely. As one participant stated, “I do believe that Native Americans and Muslims have very common struggles.… [b]eing able to practice this religion (Islam) in a way that doesn’t come off as acts of terrorism or acts of war, because it wasn’t very long ago that we couldn’t practice our Native ceremonies. When we got caught in practicing our ceremonies, we were also deemed as war criminals or terrorists. That’s how I connect Muslims and Indigenous cultures as far as commonality and the struggles.”
The impact and harm of colonization was also referenced by several of the participants: “I think we face the struggle of ongoing colonization and the exertion of white supremacy, which prioritizes Christianity over all other religions to the extent that it creates bodily harm for our people. So it is a shared struggle, visibility, representation, safety, freedom of expression, all those things.” It is important to acknowledge that white supremacy is not only a national issue but a global issue which is impacting different communities in various ways, either through erasure, surveillance, or violence.
Despite the common struggles both Muslims and Indigenous communities are encountering, several participants also stated the importance of understanding and acknowledging each other’s different experiences. “There are things that are happening in our metro and rural communities that are downright hatred toward Muslims. Their mosques are being damaged or vandalized. A lot of that stuff happens to our Native American communities; our buildings, beliefs, and rights are all attacked. But it doesn’t make the press. It doesn’t get the same acknowledgment from the general community. I don’t know why that is, but that’s just my thoughts.” Some felt that media coverage of both Muslim and Indigenous communities is often skewed and, in certain cases, ignored. As one participant stated, “We still need to recognize our differences and our history.” By recognizing the differences, “we (Muslims and Indigenous peoples) can connect, unify, and try to decolonize together.” The call for decolonization and unifying as a community while respecting each other’s different experiences was echoed across the three focus groups, especially as issues of discrimination, hate, and violence continue to impact individuals across Turtle Island.
Islamophobia is religious-based discrimination and prejudice toward Muslims. It manifests in a myriad of ways, both interpersonal and institutionalized. Bias and discrimination in the workplace, in healthcare, when interacting with law enforcement, in school, in the media, in public places, in banking: these are just a few areas where Muslims experience Islamophobia. Anti-Muslim religious discrimination, as measured by ISPU’s American Muslim Poll since 2016, has remained remarkably steady throughout recent turbulent years, with 60% of Muslims experiencing religious-based discrimination each year. Despite this, there has been some progress. A recent report by the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) found “a small dip in Islamophobia” in 2022. And, ISPU’s Islamophobia Index has shown that “Islamophobia is on the decline among some non-Muslim groups.” Furthermore, there have been movements within the U.S. government and the global community to combat Islamophobia. For example in 2021, Congresswoman Ilhan Omar (Democrat–Minnesota) introduced a bill, H.R. 5665 - Combating International Islamophobia Act, to monitor and address the issue. In 2023, Congresswoman Omar, introduced a new resolution to condemn Islamophobia due to the continued violence and threats toward Muslims in the U.S. With the parallel reality of hate crimes and violence towards Black, Indigenous and people of color, many of the focus group participants acknowledged and addressed the issue of Islamophobia in the U.S.
As one of the participants stated, “What I have come to understand about Muslims, it really makes me feel that there’s a certain power dynamic at play. They [oppressors] are trying to displace people and keep certain resources and information. So, it’s a huge problem and I feel like it’s something that has been ongoing even prior to the establishment of American society.” Many of the participants agreed that Islamophobia is a serious problem, and one participant in particular spoke about what causes such issues, such as the media.
Participants recognized what various studies have shown, that media has a history of portraying Muslims in stereotypical ways.¹² ¹³ “The media ... It’s like us against them (Muslims) type mentality, which I think is really harmful. As you get to know and understand and learn more, you have more of an appreciation for different cultures and religions. I’m always surprised when Native people are prejudiced or have negative feelings toward it because I’m like, ‘we’re fighting the same fight.’ I don’t understand it, but I know that it’s about exposure, it’s about knowledge, it’s about understanding, and it's hard to do that when we don't have any access to it.” The respondent also addressed other issues of lack of understanding on a topic and not having access to accurate information.
Another participant also noted social media’s contributions to Islamophobia. “Our society, it’s gone. It’s just scary. Social media and politicians with their platforms not speaking against it, not doing community things that I was used to seeing growing up. Yes, Islamophobia is a big deal.” Social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram have their positives of bringing people together, but such platforms have also allowed for hate speech and misinformation to spread.¹⁴
Participants shared that Islamophobia is “a problem and harmful in so many ways.” Hatred, violence, and ignorance “aid white supremacy and colonialism, and those things inherently harm everyone and everything, including the land and all of its creatures. I think that this lack of information or the misinformation that’s present, especially here in the U.S., is concerning because of the radicalism that we’re seeing more recently.” Indeed, over the last few years, the U.S. has seen a rise of hate crimes and continued violence against minority groups, police brutality, mass surveillance, and spread of misinformation.
In the words of Dr. Angela Davis, “It is in the collectivities that we find reservoirs of hope and optimism.”¹⁶ But harnessing this power requires support of community-led efforts, disciplinary actions, education, and cross-collaboration. This research provides some evidence-based clues for how we can do just that.
Additional research is needed to build out a fuller picture
NAIMS is intended as a virtual, awareness-building study which hopes to prompt further qualitative and quantitative research into Native American Muslims in and beyond the United States. Future research should necessarily include collaborations between Muslim, Native American, and Native American Muslim individuals and communities to ensure best practices and that such work is done in good faith. It is important to note, too, that NAIMS was based in the United States, whereas Indigenous Muslims have been present all across the Americas for a very long time.
Create community gatherings to bring people together
Our focus group participants unilaterally expressed interest in learning more about Islam
and Muslims in general, and our Muslims participants expressed interest in meeting fellow Native Muslims. Building connections among Native Muslim and between Native and Muslim communities in the United States could allow for a great deal of productive cross-cultural exchange. Indeed, as we learned from this project, there is a great desire for mutual collaboration across differences, and building solidarity between marginalized communities is more important than ever. Furthermore, Native American Muslims expressed interest in speaking about Islam in their tribal communities and also sharing the history of Native peoples with their American Muslim counterparts.
Muslims should intentionally engage and learn about Native Americans
There are many steps American Muslims can take to learn about Native Americans and their ongoing struggles. One first step might be to ask: whose land is your mosque on? Native Land is a website and app which allows users to easily determine whose traditional territory they are currently residing in, the language(s) historically spoken there, and relevant treaty agreements. Native peoples are not simply a racial minority within the United States but rather citizens and descendants of sovereign nations whose existence predates the founding of this country.
Creative programs can help build understanding
Utilize the arts and cultural expression as a means to educate the wider public about the stories of Native American/Indigenous Muslims.
Education is key for everyone
Everyone can learn more not only about Muslims but about Islam as a diverse religious practice. As an integral part of America’s faith landscape, it is important for the broad American public to have some understanding of Islam and the people who practice it. ISPU’s American Muslim bibliography and the work of ISPU’s scholars are great places to start.
The NAIMS project is the first of its kind to shed light on the experiences of a largely unknown sector of American Muslim and Native communities. Native American Muslims are a diverse group hailing from multiple federally and state-recognized tribes across the United States. They are a multi-generational group, consisting of both converts to Islam and those born into the faith. Our project highlighted their wide array of life experiences and struggles, but, more importantly, NAIMS showcased their hopes, dreams, and wide-reaching accomplishments.
1 Turtle Island is an Indigenous name for North America.
2 Missing and murdered Indigenous women
3 “Search Federally Recognized Tribes | Indian Affairs.” n.d. www.bia.gov. https://www.bia.gov/service/tribal-leaders-directory/federally-recognized-tribes. “State Recognition of American Indian Tribes.” n.d. Www.ncsl.org. https://www.ncsl.org/quad-caucus/state-recognition-of-american-indian-tribes#:~:text=State%20Action.
4 “American Indians and Alaska Natives - by the Numbers.” 2012. Www.acf.hhs.gov. 2012. https://www.acf.hhs.gov/ana/fact-sheet/american-indians-and-alaska-natives-numbers#:~:text=There%20are%205.2%20million%20American.
5 American Muslim Poll, 2019. ISPU.org: https://www.ispu.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/AMP-2019-Muslim-race_Logo-1024x858.png?x46312.
6 For the detailed findings of the Reclaiming Native Truth report, see: https://illuminative.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/06/FullFindingsReport-screen-spreads.pdf
7 Smith, L. T. (2021). Decolonizing methodologies: Research and indigenous peoples. Bloomsbury Publishing.
8 The tribal affiliations of the focus group participants were Ojibwe, Lakota, Northern Cheyenne, Southern Cheyenne, Apsálooke, Hoopa, Tanaina Athabaskan, Hopi, Laguna Pueblo, San Felipe Pueblo.
9 “Islam: Conversion.” n.d. Crestresearch.ac.uk. https://crestresearch.ac.uk/resources/islam-conversion/
10 “Tribes Revive Indigenous Crops, and the Food Traditions That Go with Them.” n.d. NPR.org. https://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2016/11/18/502025877/tribes-revive-indigenous-crops-and-the-food-traditions-that-go-with-them.
11 IMEU. n.d. “Are All Palestinians Muslim? | IMEU.” Imeu.org. https://imeu.org/article/are-all-palestinians-muslim.
12 Veen, A. Maurits van der, and Erik Bleich. 2022. “Yes, Muslims Are Portrayed Negatively in American Media — 2 Political Scientists Reviewed over 250,000 Articles to Find Conclusive Evidence.” The Conversation. May 27, 2022. https://theconversation.com/yes-muslims-are-portrayed-negatively-in-american-media-2-political-scientists-reviewed-over-250-000-articles-to-find-conclusive-evidence-183327.
13 Tsioulcas, Anastasia. 2022. “There Are Barely Any Muslims on Popular TV Series, a New Study Says.” NPR, September 7, 2022, sec. Culture. https://www.npr.org/2022/09/07/1121511404/muslims-tv-series-study.
14 “Online Hate and Harassment: The American Experience 2021.” 2022. Www.adl.org. May 3, 2022. https://www.adl.org/resources/report/online-hate-and-harassment-american-experience-2021.
15 “FBI Releases 2020 Hate Crime Statistics.” n.d. Federal Bureau of Investigation. https://www.fbi.gov/news/press-releases/fbi-releases-2020-hate-crime-statistics.
16 Davis, Angela Y. (2016). Freedom is a constant struggle: Ferguson, Palestine, and the foundations of a movement. Haymarket Books.