Indians today live within the larger American culture — a culture that can dominate not only Native American tribal cultures but cultures around the world!
Culture is a set of beliefs and behavior patterns that are generally shared by the members of a group. These values can be expressed and reinforced through art, stories, songs or rituals, and language is crucial to the preservation of a culture.
Culture is a powerful tool, so it is no coincidence that colonial officials and the U.S. government created policies that suppressed Native tribal cultures from first contact to well into the 20th century. Indians were to be assimilated into the dominate European “civilization.”
Every tribe lost some of their culture in the 500 years since contact with Europeans. But most tribes did retain their most important cultural expressions. Today, many tribes are seeing a rebirth in interest of their arts, stories and rituals. In fact, some tribes are tired of non-Indian “wannabes” trying to adopt parts of Native American culture without any real ancestry and without being willing to take on the responsibilities that tribal membership brings with it.
For instance, the Hopi Indians were able to stay somewhat isolated from the early Spanish conquerors and, later, the larger U.S. culture because of their remote desert location and their insular social customs. Their rituals and dances continue, including the spectacular kachina and snake dances. Then the anthropologists and photographers discovered them. Publicity has been a double-edged sword. On the one hand tourism brings in income. On the other, the tribe has to guard the privacy of their most sacred ceremonies.
Other tribes have lost large parts of their culture. Many tribal religious practices were tied to specific locations that had strong spiritual and sacred meaning. The removal of most tribes from traditional lands to reservations in the semi-arid West cut them off from the source of many of their rituals.
Even on present day reservations — where tribal members are still in close contact with one another — it’s hard to resist the infusion of the larger culture. The Eastern Band of the Cherokee Nation still play their traditional stick ball game, but only once a year at their Indian Fair. As coach Scooter McCoy says in Spiral of Fire, American football “is our modern stickball” and the high school team “represents a nation of people.
In the 21st century, almost two-thirds of Native Americans live in urban areas, losing contact with their reservations and other members of their tribe. This makes it harder for these urban Indians to express and reinforce their cultures. Sometimes the closest they come is at the big city pow wows where dances and costumes are reduced to pan-Indian stereotypes.
As pow wow announcer Randy Edmonds puts it, “Many tribes have lost their own traditions. They have lost their own dances, and pretty much lost their language. So in order to retain your ‘Indianness’ you have to borrow from another tribe to keep that Indianness going.”