Outsiders tend to see indigenous nations as static, archaic, dying communities—non-existent at worst, or remnants of ancient, once-noble, but now destroyed or deeply fragmented communities at best. Generally ignored in social and cultural theories and policies, occasionally and condescendingly deemed “ready for assimilation,” Indigenous Peoples are not recognized as self-governing communities. Frequently, they are relegated to citizenship status without consent and without indigenous rights.
It is an appalling situation, and it is vital to better understand it. Perhaps the best way to do so is to appreciate the often delicate balance that Indigenous Peoples have long struck between the past and the present.
From the moment they became coerced by outside influences, many indigenous people have opposed the marginalizing forces of manifest destiny or modernization with strong commitments to tribal knowledge and culture. This is nothing less than a nationalist strategy of cultural survival—of using Native languages, engaging in ceremonies and upholding traditional values to hold onto vital roots. It is a natural response, as well as a powerful one.
It is important to remember, though, that this approach should not be an end in itself. A nation that fears all change and regards it merely as assimilation or colonization will not learn and grow with the constantly shifting world order. A healthy amount of linguistic, cultural and ceremonial renewal is necessary for all indigenous nations. Focusing on renewal of traditional knowledge will help many Indigenous Peoples heal themselves and create cultural values that inform their decisions going forward.
It is important to remember, too, that “tradition” does not always mean remaining forever grounded in the past. If anything, indigenous nations have tended to be “this-worldly”—that is, emphasizing the here and now.
This concept is perhaps demonstrated through comparison and contrast. One of the underlying precepts of Christianity is that one achieves salvation in heaven by good deeds and faith on Earth. A Christian may escape punishment for sins in this life. But hanging over the malefactor’s head is the knowledge that eternal damnation awaits in the next one.
Contrast that with the system of rewards and punishments as practiced by most indigenous nations, as meted out by the all-powerful community of spiritual beings that composed the cosmic order. The breaking of ceremonial or social norms and values were punished with drought, loss of hunting, disease, defeat in war, subordination in the here and now. Indigenous power beings did not wait until after deviants died to punish them in hell, but rather found ways to torment them in the present.
From the beginning, maintaining balance and order with the contemporary world and cosmic order was a way of making decisions that ensured future and present community well being. Ceremonial renewal is an important part of indigenous being, but not for remembering past glories and golden ages. Ceremonies, elders, visions, moral order and cosmic balance were applied to addressing the issues that confronted an indigenous nation on an everyday, real-time basis. It is in this sense that the past and the present are so closely intertwined.
Indigenous nations are not places designed to house traditional culture like a museum or church. Rather, their ceremonies and moral relations are the basis for ensuring individual and national well being and are used to address everyday challenges. In short, indigenous nations are part of the present-day world.
Thus, the strong cultural foundations of these entities are not an end in themselves. Instead, they are a means to ensure that indigenous nations, however defined and carried forward, are preserved to meet the economic, political and spiritual needs of their people.