Differences among indigenous identities

Among most indigenous peoples around the world, tribal identity consists of cultural, social and political participation in the community.

In Latin America, Indians are seen as a lower caste of people who do not accept the main values of the state, national market economy, and are not participants in the national culture or institutions. Their forms of dress, language, living location, and informal political organization separates indigenous peoples from the mainstream culture.  While indigenous peoples are granted formal citizenship, they are not consensual participants in national and social culture.

The cultural separation between indigenous peoples and the national culture creates a caste system, where very few members of the national mestizo culture will socially engage with indigenous peoples. The indigenous cultures and the national culture live side by side, ignoring each other.

Indian identity is a matter of social and cultural action as well as self-identification.  The national cultures of most countries of the world encourage their indigenous peoples to abandon tribal life and accept the culture and social life of the national nation state.

Among most indigenous peoples around the world, tribal
identity consists of cultural,
social and political participation
in the community.

In the United States, many American Indian communities retain cultural, community, territorial and political markers of tribal identity.  As among other indigenous peoples, participation in community and ceremonials and local kinship groups is a significant marker of Indian identity.  However, Indian identity in the United States is combined with treaty rights, federal recognition, and racial and legal classification.  The United States government recognizes Indian tribes and tribal members.  If a person has ancestors on a tribal roll, a treaty document, or special federal census or roll, then a person is often legally classified as an Indian.

Speaking an Indian language, social or cultural participation within a tribal community or culture is no longer required for tribal or Indian identity. A person can live their entire life in an urban city, and perhaps not ever visit their tribal reservation, but under U.S. law such persons are members of tribes, if they have the proper federally recognized ancestry and blood quantum. 

Since the 1970s, Indian tribes have determined their own criteria for tribal membership, but most continue to base membership on lineal descent and blood quantum.  Each tribe has the power to decide their membership rules and to make decisions about how to define membership.  While local community, culture, and kinship are still important for many reservation communities, most persons who identify as Indian on the U.S. census do not live in tribal communities, and probably have a racial or ethnic interpretation of their identities. 

The U.S. Census asks for tribal identification as a matter of race or ethnicity.  The racial and ethnic interpretation of identity is a primary way mainstream U.S. culture interprets and understands identity, and imposes such definitions on tribal communities and identifications. 

The emergence of formal and legalistic tribal identifications and identities in the United States has led to secular tribal political commitments and identifications that are separated from cultural community. 

Increasingly more individuals identify as Indian, live on Indian reservations, or do not necessarily participate in traditional tribal social or ceremonial life, but nonetheless adhere to tribal political communities, uphold tribal sovereignty, or are committed to tribal economic and political goals.  Issues of tribal sovereignty and indigenous rights have created possibilities for indigenous peoples to seek common goals within present-day reservation communities.

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Differences among indigenous identities

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