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The Face of the Modern-Day Indian Country

The Face of the Modern-Day Indian Country

The history of the American Indians had started long before the continent was discovered and named America, and the first British settlers came ashore. The tragedy of the Native Americans is in the loss of their old world under the pressures of the New World. The first decades on the new millennium mark the new era in the history of the Native Americans. Modern days will determine whether the Indian tradition will manage to rise from the ashes or fall into decay. The twenty-first-century Indians still struggle against the assimilation and for their indigenous national and cultural identity attempting to be in unity both with their roots and new geopolitical formations on the territories of both Americas.

The present and future of any nation are inevitably built on the premise of its past. The history of the Native Americans is the story of loss and struggle, blood and pain (Kuiper 236). “Native American history includes many unhappy episodes beginning with the European settlers” (“Native American History”). Before the Americas were settled by the colonists, the Indians had constituted 100 percent of the territories’ population. Nowadays, they represent only one percent of the total population. The numbers are drastic and eloquent. They demonstrate the result of the centuries-long destructive effects of the foreign diseases, wars, expansion, re-settlement, and segregation on the quality of indigenous culture and number of its bearers (“Native Americans – Past”). To the greatest regret, an immense part of the Indian culture has been lost to the aforementioned factors. Being both a minority and marginal group, the Native Americans struggle to withstand the pressure of other nationalities and cultures in an attempt to preserve the remains of their heritage and revitalize their traditions and worldview. “American Indians today face old problems armed with newfound strengths, and new obstacles braced by deep traditions” (The Harvard Project 13). A question arises, “What is the current face of the Native Americans as a nation?”

General Characteristics

Currently, the American Indian nation is represented by the scattered and diverse tribes. Each tribe and its nation use different and in many ways unique languages as well as belief systems. On the one hand, they account for the cultural variety; on the other hand, they signify the dispersed nature of the Indian culture. The fragmentation of nations and tribes occurred as a result of the Indian Removal initiative of the U.S. government in the previous decades and centuries. The elimination and assimilation are the two major forces that threatened the Indians in those times. Unfortunately, the latter one – assimilation – is a permanent and still present threat. When the American Indians mix with the so-called mainstream population by speaking English, entering mixed marriages, and moving from the rural to urban areas, they lose ties with their roots and tradition (“Native Americans – Past”). In the twenty-first century, nearly two-thirds of all Indians live in the urban areas, losing contact with their reservations, with family and land, which are crucial for the preservation and reinforcement of the native culture (“Revitalizing Native Cultures”). When deprived of the tribal environment and natural living conditions, the tradition fades. Since the assimilated Indians are rarely the bearers of the cultural heritage, there is an imminent danger for the indigenous Native American legacy to be lost forever. “The future of Native Americans is precarious. With much of their cultural heritage destroyed forever, many have completely abandoned their historical roots and have assimilated completely into American society” (“Native Americans – Past”). In this respect, it would be important to assess and address the Indians through the lens of each of the present pressures.

Population and Identity

One of the biggest issues for the contemporary Indians is their quantity. People are the transmitters of the national heritage and keepers of the national tradition. When population fades, it de-facto threatens with the cultural losses and the fade of the culture per se. Moreover, most of the Indian heritage is oral which presupposes the vital importance of humans as the carriers of knowledge through generations, from the ancestors to descendants. Unfortunately, there is scarce written legacy of the Indian culture, and the oral record was lost during the implementation of the aggressive anti-Indian policies of the previous centuries (“Native Americans – Past”). The censuses of the last half a century show a disturbing trend for the Indian population decline. In 2000, Canada’s dominion government officially recognized six hundred indigenous tribes, and the U.S. government counted about 560 more on its territory. Sporadic attempts of other groups to testify their identity and win official recognition enlarged the list with adding few more, but not many, tribes to the total number (Luebering 218). The 2000 Census listed 4.1 million people who identified themselves as the American Indians and/or Alaska Native. This number comprises both unmixed and mixed-race individuals (The Harvard Project 13). Evidently, the human resources of the Native Americans are scarce, although, they manage to preserve whatever legacy they can in the national consciousness, memory, practices, and rituals.

Self-Administration vs. Mainstream Governmental Policies

Another issue is the necessity for the Indians to balance on the edge of self-administration and mainstream government’s policies. The tribes have recently begun asserting the political sovereignty. The period in the newest Native American history is referred to as the self-determination era. It has begun about four decades ago and lasted up until nowadays. The tribes are in a constant search for effective strategies and models for their tribal governments, courts, and other administrative bodies. They continuously reform their governance bodies and constitutions in order to meet the current tribal needs, interests, and goals in socioeconomic, political, cultural, and environmental realms. The relative freedom granted to the Native Americans by self-governance allows them to maintain sovereignty, efficiently distribute and use resources, and carry on their cultural traditions (The Harvard Project). However, the determinant word in such self-governance is relative.

In spite of the positive shifts, the Native Americans of the twenty-first century experience the ongoing crisis of both ethnic and political identity. On the one hand, they need and pursue cultural, economic, and political sovereignty as the means of preserving their uniqueness. Indeed, a certain degree of intended isolation, community self-governance, and ethnocentrism is a justified and effective tool for preserving the national heritage and functioning within the national identity. On the other hand, the Indians need to comply with the U.S. and/or Canadian administration and its geopolitics. As a result, the question of who or what bears the ultimate authority over the tribes has no clear answer. The contemporary Native Americans live in duality: they are naturalized citizens with the U.S. constitutional rights, as well as they are individuals within their marginal, enclosed, and self-centered groups trying to preserve their original identity. Therefore, the Indians live under the pressure of the political uncertainty that makes their contemporary life problematic to a great extent (Luebering; “Native Americans – Past”).

Intertribal Cooperation

A positive trend in self-governance exists at the level of the tribe-to-tribe relations. Currently, the separate tribes actively establish the inter-tribal links and unite in the interests of the whole Native American nation. In other words, once scattered tribes now build the net of interrelationships, thus, unifying the effort in the preservation of the national legacy and building a better future. They create the intertribal organizations and organize meetings in order to ensure collective participation and two-sided communication in solving mundane, as well as global issues pertaining to the nation’s well-being.

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The brightest example of the inter-tribal cooperation is the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), the largest and oldest organization encompassing the effort of its 250 member governments. Another example of an administrative body has a cultural edge to it. In 1993, the San Carlos Apache Tribal Council organized the San Carlos Elders Cultural Advisory Council (ECAC) consisting of the elders from the nation’s four districts. The Tribal Council empowered ECAC to give advice on the cultural issues, consult with the off-reservation entities, such as the state and federal agencies, on the culture-related subjects, and implement the projects pertaining to the cultural preservation. Being the bearers of the tribal knowledge, the elders are ideal candidates for the aforementioned activities. Being empowered by the formal administrative body, they obtain a factual right and opportunity to do so. “The ECAC gave traditional Apache perspectives an institutionalized and formal voice that politicians could not ignore” (The Harvard Project 43). Therefore, the Apache culture received both its voice and administrative power. Sadly, such inter-tribal unions are not always multi-membered or impossible at all.

Apart from the territorial diversity, there is one more crucial factor that complicates the tribal interaction – divergence of interests. In theory, the Native Americans are open to dialogue and coordination of efforts, but in practice, separate tribes are the enclosed entities that have their own view on the course of the further development. Sometimes, consensus is impossible because of the insurmountable differences in the perspectives, priorities, goals, and suggested means of reaching them. Fortunately, when it comes to common agendas, such as the issue of the national identity or expansion of the sphere of influence, the tribes cooperate and achieve the better results when united (The Harvard Project).

Native Lands

In the twenty-first century, the Native Americans face one more challenge that has to do with the native lands. “For Native American cultures, land is a hallmark of identity, a barometer of community integrity, and a resource for ongoing cultural and socioeconomic recovery” (The Harvard Project 97). Just as many of the current problems of the Indian Country, the land issue is rooted in the past centuries of discriminative practices and policies. Most territories that were once populated and controlled by the Indians were later confiscated by the settlers and are now inhabited by the descendants of the colonists and other nations that immigrated to the territories of Americas during the course of the last centuries. The geographical areas traditionally populated and used by the Native Americans have been dramatically reduced by the non-Indian settlers and federal policy. The territorial loss resulted in the severe economic and spiritual damage to the Natives, from which they are still recovering. Spiritually, a land is a cradle of each tribe containing its historical artifacts and wisdom. Economically, the problem is twofold. In addition to the tribes and nations’ fragmentation caused by the newcomers and subsequent land redistribution, the Indians suffered from moving to the lands with scarce natural resources and low agricultural value.

The process of acclimatization and accustoming appeared to be extremely exhausting and devastating both physically and morally. Nowadays, the Native American areas with high population density lie within the borders of the federally designated reservations. Hawaii and Alaska are the only two American states that have not implemented a policy restricting the habitation areas to the confines of reservations (“Native Americans – Past”; The Harvard Project). The federal government of the US has provided about 56 million acres of land in trust to the Native Americans. Additionally, the Alaska Native corporations have 44 million acres in control. Today, the tribes are reclaiming the lands that originally were theirs. However, even the land use and acquisition is burdensome and problematic due to the existing federal policies and jurisdictional peculiarities. To address these issues, the Native Americans have established the intertribal organizations, such as the Indian Land Working Group and the Indian Land Tenure Foundation, and apply innovative land-use planning and purchase strategies (The Harvard Project 106). This way, the economic and spiritual sustenance is gradually returning to the Native American peoples.

Natural Resources as an Asset

For the Native Americans, the natural resources are the means of both economic and cultural survival, an asset treasured and passed through generations. The natural resources are tied to the territories. Respectively, the issue of natural resources availability to the Indians is an issue tied with the territorial problem. The available territories provide Indians with the water, timber and non-timber forest products, grazing lands, fish, as well as oil, coal, gas, and hard rock minerals. Very often, the tribes lack the capital or management capacity to utilize and benefit even from the accessible resources on their lands. In this regard, the tribes implement an approach that comprises minimum financial effort with the major economic and environmental benefit. Inter alia, the Indians develop the efficient water, forestry, and agriculture projects that allow them to exist in appliance with their cultural values and economic pressures. Indeed, the Indians demonstrate the vitally important and globally applicable models of managing natural resources in the eco-friendly and economically viable ways (The Harvard Project).

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After a thorough analysis, it becomes clear that the Indians often discard some resources, such as oil and coal, in favor of others, such as water and land, not merely because of financial or technological incapability. The Native Americans value the renewable natural resources while consciously rejecting the destructive practices, such as coal mining or other modes of depletion of non-renewable resources of the planet. Here is an extract from the speech of a state forester Arthur “Butch” Blazer, a Mescalero Apache:

[…] the most effective managers of tribal natural resources are the people that grew up on that land – the Indians! For centuries, the respectful understanding of our mother Earth has been captured in many ways […] These teachings and knowledge were handed down from parents to children, from family to family and, in some cases, from tribe to tribe, thus securing an important and vital link to the survival of our Indian people. (The Harvard Project 175)

Such an approach is foresighted because it allows the Native Americans to include nature into their legacy and pass it through the generations as an asset. They may set an example for all developed countries to follow. Further in the text of his speech, Blazer adds,

Having returned to the reservation upon the attainment of my college degree, I was armed with the traditional knowledge of my people and the academic knowledge of the non-Indian world. With this in hand, I began to tackle the natural resources issues that were facing my tribe. (The Harvard Project 175)

The extract demonstrates how the Indians of the twenty-first century incorporate the knowledge of the mainstream culture (and its education) and combine it with their tribal knowledge in the most beneficiary way. Nevertheless, despite the rising education quality, as well as college and university enrollment (with the total of more than thirty high education facilities on the territories of in the Indian Country), it is still difficult for the Natives to acquire good education of the U.S. standard while maintaining their cultural relevance. Interestingly, the Indians have incorporated some other mainstream activities and economic enterprises into their economy and programs of the resource management. Inter alia, they have recognized tourism and similar activities as economically profitable; that is why, they utilize the tribal landscape for outdoor-based recreational opportunities, such as excursions, skiing, golf courses, and rafting trips (The Harvard Project). It is an eloquent example of a conscientious approach to the use of natural resources in the twenty-first century.

Environment and Ecology

Another edge of the territorial issue and another major concern for the Indians is the environment protection and preservation. Since nature is a cyclic and enclosed organism where everything is interrelated, pollution and other ecological disasters seldom bear a local character. As a rule, they embrace large territories, including the lands of the Indians. It means that the Native Americans have to deal with the consequences of the country-wide policies that cause harm to the natural environment. Among the major problems that originated from the outside, as caused by the industrialization and other evils of civilization, there are the water pollution, military waste, decaying waste-handling facilities, mine tailing, deforestation, and consequent wildlife habitat loss.

The Native Americans lack financial resources, such as proper funding for the environmental programs, and manpower to address all the issues. The Indians’ opportunities in legislation and enforcement of the environmental regulations and laws are, to a great, extent limited by the so-called checkerboarding in the distribution of the federal and local influence on particular territories (The Harvard Project 182). A full-fledged federal-tribal cooperation and coordination of efforts is needed and yet unreached. On their part, the Indians do everything possible to ensure adequate environmental protection to their lands. For example, the White Mountain Apaches are mentoring youth; thus, they are preparing them for the future careers in the realm of environmental management. The tribe imposed a sales tax on the hunting and fishing permits, and a part of the tax revenue composes scholarships for young people who enroll and pursue the environmental degrees in college. Similarly, the Pueblo of Sandia in New Mexico involves students in learning to test the water quality, a practical skill needed within the framework of the Pueblo’s Water Quality Standards Program (The Harvard Project).

Cultural Assimilation or Cultural Adaptation

The Indian culture is richer than shown to an eye of an outsider or exposed at the museum exhibitions. Many of the traditions are not passed or practiced openly. Instead, they take place in the Indian communities and families, local meetings, and holidays. Nevertheless, the Indian rites and traditions are already not as rich as in the old times. The remains of the legends and stories are now passed orally or stored in the written or even typed form. Interestingly, the Indians’ official website has a rubric titled “Indigenous Peoples’ Literature” containing the preserved Native American folklore – a digitalized version of the legends, parables, and stories in English (“Native American History”). The languages are “vital receptacles of culture”, and English is not one of the Indians’ native tongues (The Harvard Project 272). Originally, there were hundreds of Native languages on the territory of the North America alone. Two to three hundreds of them have been lost. Some languages disappeared recently, such as the Miluk language once spoken by the Coquille Tribe that died in the early 1970s with the death of its last bearer. Currently, their number is down to about 175 with only 20 being taught to children while English has become one of the languages spoken by the Indians (“Revitalizing Native Cultures”). The aforementioned website entry illustrates how the Indian tradition is trying to survive and how it is a subject to the influence of the outside culture (the English language) and its technology (website, digitalized library, among the other issues). This way, the distinction between the indigenous and mainstream culture is blurred.

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The impact of the mainstream American culture is evident in many other instances of the Indian cultural life. Inter alia, the Native Americans take part in the competition Miss Indian USA coined after the original U.S. practice. On the one hand, one may view Miss Indian USA as a sign of cultural assimilation, through which an alien cultural pattern either substitutes the traditional Indian culture or modernizes it via adding new, previously unknown elements. On the other hand, one may regard the participation of the Indian women in competitions of this kind as a manifestation of the Native American presence as a cultural phenomenon that should be recognized by the mainstream culture. According to the official website, the Native American women who participate in the program embody the Indian charisma, as well as demonstrate the mix of traditional and contemporary values. Ironically, the slogan of Miss Indian USA expresses the current dilemma of the Native American people, in particular, women, “She walks in beauty, as she walks in two worlds” (“Miss Indian USA Scholarship”).

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In conclusion, the face of the Native Americans of the twenty-first century is a face of a split and tattered nation that exists in the form of relatively isolated tribes scattered over the territories of the Americas, still living under the umbrella of the Canadian and American governments and cultures. In spite of the destructive legacy of the non-Indian settlers, the Native Americans manage to carry on their own cultural legacy. The essence of the contemporary Indians’ existence can be summed up by the following citation, “The common pattern in Indian Country at the start of the 21st century is one of remarkable resilience and determination to exist. […] Indeed, a striking characteristic of Indian Country […] is the statement made daily by tribe after tribe: ‘still here’” (The Harvard Project 25-26).