How We Know

Native communities have integrated new technologies, wage work, literacy, Christianity, and other aspects of majority culture into their way of life. At the same time, cultural continuities have persisted for generations. Recent scholarship concentrates on explaining the survival of culturally distinct Indian communities, despite very severe federal assimilation policies directed at American Indians. Anthropologists especially have focused on understanding identity dynamics. Anthropological research shows that in accepting innovations, Indians have transformed them to make them culturally appropriate, and they have continued old behaviors and ideas by adapting them to modern circumstances. This is, in fact, how all peoples manage to perpetuate ethnic identity in a changing world. Anthropologists gained insight into these practices by doing “ethnography” (that is, participating in community life) in Indian communities in an effort to understand “the insider’s” viewpoint. Historians have built on these understandings to interpret cultural continuities and changes as revealed in documentary accounts.

For example, Christianity has been integrated into Native religious belief without bringing about rejection of Native understandings of spirituality. And, literacy has worked to support tribal sovereignty and to build a sense of nationhood.

LISTEN TO ETHNOHISTORIAN RAYMOND DEMALLIE EXPLAIN HOW SCHOLARS CAME TO UNDERSTAND DAKOTA CHRISTIANITY Help

–how Christianity helped reinforce a sense of community and how literacy allowed the expression of Dakota political ideas and shaped public attitudes.
8:34 mi.

Video Transcript

Symbols of identity in recent times often have reference to historical times but take on new meaning in a modern context. As Larry Nesper’s work has shown, hunting and fishing came to symbolize ethnic identity. Political activism was expressed through the use of feathered staffs and clothing with Indian designs. Place names or names of historical villages are important aspects of contemporary identity.

For example, LISTEN TO RAYMOND DEMALLIE EXPLAIN HOW ETHNOHISTORIANS DOCUMENT THE LINK DAKOTA PEOPLE RECOGNIZE BETWEEN THEIR RESERVATION COMMUNITIES TODAY AND HISTORICAL VILLAGES. Help

8:35 mi.

Video Transcript

Kinship relations in Native communities differed from those in majority American communities, and they still do. Even though some American ideas about kinship and about inheritance, for example, have been accepted, Indian values about family obligations have persisted. For example, tribal employees often can take bereavement or terminal illness leave for relatives most Americans would consider “distant.”

LISTEN TO RAYMOND DEMALLIE’S SUMMARY OF ETHNOGRAPHERS’ WORK ON THE MEANING OF KINSHIP AND THE IMPORTANCE OF KINSHIP OBLIGATIONS PAST AND PRESENT Help

8:15 mi.

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Clans no longer have the exact same roles as in the past, but their members have taken on new roles appropriate in contemporary life.

LISTEN TO ANTHROPOLOGIST LARRY NESPER EXPLAIN HOW HIS FIELDWORK HELPED HIM UNDERSTAND HOW THE MEANING OF CLAN OBLIGATIONS CHANGED IN MODERN TIMES, YET REMAINED CENTRAL TO OJIBWA IDENTITY. Help

8:53 mi.

Video Transcript

Scholars also write about the federal recognition process to encourage the American public to think critically on the assumptions they make about how Indians should look and act. Recent research focuses on how misunderstandings about Indian history and identity shape public opinion and on how the federal government’s recognition process has been biased.

Research has shown that the federal government began to impose definitions of Indian identity in the late 19th century as a means to acquire Indian land and reduce the costs of services owed to Indians. In 1887 Congress adopted a “degree of Indian blood” standard as part of the Allotment Act; that is, to get an allotment of land, an individual had to be ½ or more “Indian blood.” By reducing the number of qualified recipients, more reservation land could be sold to settlers or corporate interests. By the early 1900s, eligibility for services (based on treaties in which Indians gave land for services) was tied to blood quantum. In 1934, Congress passed the Johnson-O’Malley Act, which provided funds to help Indian students at public schools, but students had to be ¼ Indian blood to qualify.

In 1978 the BAR rejected the 19th century belief that blood was a carrier of genetic material and cultural traits, but persisted in relying on federal or other outside assessments of Indian identity. Petitioning tribes that could document formal relations with the U. S. and that could document visible ethnicity (ceremonies, language, chiefs or political authorities) had a far easier time making their case. Scholars point out that federal assimilation policy punished Indian communities that maintained visible evidence of ethnicity and it refused to recognize Indian leaders. “Non-observable” indications of ethnicity (ideas and values) were difficult to document from the written record and the BAR would not consider oral history. Scholars argue that an unfair recognition process has in effect worked to perpetuate a power differential between federal officials and tribes and reduce costs to the federal government.

LISTEN TO HISTORIAN DAVE EDMUNDS DISCUSS HIS VIEW THAT THE MIAMI TRIBE OF INDIANA WAS UNFAIRLY DENIED RECOGNITION Help

9:08 mi.

Video Transcript

What misunderstandings do many Americans have about Indian identity? Americans have become accustomed to viewing Indians as poor and backward, on the one hand, and simple, close-to-nature folk, on the other. Competency and increased economic success (as recently manifested in the operation of casinos and other businesses) is used by the media and viewed by the public as evidence that “Indianness” is suspect. From this perspective, “real” Indians are not successful at business and, thus it follows, not “greedy” for casino profits. Often, the accusation is raised that the motive for recognition is to acquire a casino—despite the fact that most of the petitioners sought recognition many years before Indian casinos became possible, and nationally most of the tribes recognized have not sought to establish casinos.

Indians also are expected to “look Indian.” Those who appear to have ancestors that include non-Indians have their Indian identity questioned, and such persons wearing business suits are especially apt to be viewed as not “real” Indians.

Research has shown that the federal recognition process, designed to be objective, has instead become politicized, in part by public misunderstandings about Indian culture and history. Scholars argue that when Indian gaming and other recent evidence of the exercise of tribal sovereignty appeared, relations of power were altered and the resultant insecurities of the majority population affected attitudes toward unrecognized tribes in negative ways.

Do you want to do your own research on Indian identity issues?

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