Indian Identity, Choice and Change: What Do You Choose?

Indigenous individuals and nations are faced with choices about identity, change and cultural continuity. The choices are not just mere faddish expressions but are deep decisions about culture, community, philosophy and personal and national futures. Many indigenous communities are divided over issues of personal identity, cultural and religious values, forms of government, and relations with the nation state. Such divisions are not endemic to indigenous nations, but they are reflections of the forced external colonial value systems and identities, as well as pragmatic choices about changing political, economic and cultural relations within the present-day world.

Indigenous Peoples, like all communities and nations, make choices about what to keep and what should be left in the past. For example, archaeologists say that pipes begin to appear about 4,500 years ago. The general use of pipes, primarily for sending prayers, suggests the emergence of new concepts of religious thought that spread throughout most of North America and the Caribbean.

Over the past 500 years of colonial contact, the processes of economic, political and cultural change have greatly accelerated. Forced change, more cultural choices, and changing economic circumstances all affect the choices individuals and nations make about their interests, futures, and cultural integrity. Some indigenous generations were sent to boarding schools and were deliberately withdrawn from their cultural communities. Many indigenous elders and parents pragmatically counseled the young people to take up the English language and seek employment within the present-day economy. In many cases, indigenous individuals were not giving up their identity, but trying to persist after massive loss of territories that sustained tribal economies.

Contemporary circumstances of indigenous nations vary considerably and as a result make different choices about contemporary cultural identity and nationality. There were thousands of indigenous nations before colonial contact, and there will persist thousands of indigenous nations acting to preserve their specific identities, cultures and heritages while adapting to present-day national and international government, economy and culture. The differences in view point within and between indigenous individuals and nations are often extreme.

Calling someone an apple, white on the inside but red on the outside, is one indication of how the politics of indigenous identity are expressed. In the U.S. and Canada, an indigenous person can and is encouraged by the national government to assimilate and abandon indigenous community and identity. In both countries, membership in an indigenous nation is a legal rather than cultural classification. In Mexico, however, a person who accepts and participates in national economic and political institutions is considered a mestizo, which is a cultural and political identity. Those persons who choose to live within tribal communities and speak Indian languages are considered indigenous, and outside of contemporary national community.

Contemporary Western Christian culture, science, as well as economic, political values reject indigenous ways of life and community and suggest that Indigenous Peoples should assimilate into national society as minority or ethnic groups. Nevertheless, many indigenous individuals and nations choose to reject approaches that stray too far from the foundations of their own indigenous cultural teachings. Indigenous cultural, economic and political institutions are not easily made compatible with Western nation states and cultures. The forms of economic accumulation, political participation, religious and cultural identity are extremely different between indigenous and non-indigenous nations. There is little effort by non-indigenous governments and nations to seek understanding of Indigenous People’s interests. There are few efforts for establishing common ground.

The cultural divide facilitates highly charged expressions of differences and, when combined with political, economic, and cultural marginalization, tend to intensify nationalist orientations among indigenous nations and individuals. At the same time, perhaps the majority of individuals of indigenous descent in North America are informed by mestizo-like or ethnic Indian cultural and political identities that focus them on participation in the national political and economic system. Contemporary indigenous identities are varied, complex, evolving, and will remain contentious within indigenous nations and within nation states and their associated national communities and cultures.


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Indian Identity, Choice and Change: What Do You Choose?