Forum Journal & Forum Focus

The Preservation of Indian Culture: Looking at our Watches? 

12-09-2015 17:35

In Justin Kaplan`s wonderful biographies of the various personalities of the post-Civil War era he describes the decade of the 1870s in America as a crucial one in terms of the country`s identity.1 It was not only the occasion of the centennial of the nation, it was also about the time when the generation was dying out who had actually known the Founding Fathers. The last little girl to sit on the lap of Thomas Jefferson was an old lady in the 1870s, and when her generation died it was like a boat pulling away for the country, with the fingertips of those on the pier finally losing touch with those on the boat. The feeling in the country at the time of the centennial, then, was that we were for the first time on our own, with no personal contact with those who had created the country.

We are approaching the same milestone in Indian societies. We are getting to the point where we are going to lose the last generation who knew Indians who lived truly independent lives as Indians, fully immersed in their Indian cultures as their unself-conscious ways of life. We have the sense of responsibility, of a type of disorientation, of "Well, what do we do now?" Sometimes we speak with great self-assurance, and that self-assurance relates to our knowledge of the responsibility we have to previous and succeeding generations. We are not sure about exactly where we want to go, or need to go, but we do feel the pressure.

There are many issues surrounding multiculturalism in historic preservation having to do with the Indian nation. As I see them, the primary issues involved are government funding and involvement in preservation of Indian culture, and traditional expectations of Indian culture as they related to historic preservation.

Indian people, as a group, are the poorest people in the nation, but we also have other characteristics that are important: We are the only poor people with resources--that is, reservations--that are our homelands and that also offer some hope of our working ourselves out of poverty; and we are the only people in the country (poor or not) with group legal status--that is, tribal self-government, recognized within the larger American political system.

There are approximately 300 federally recognized Indian tribes in this country and 250 or so native Alaskan villages with political status that predates the Constitution. Indian tribes, in one of the most remarkable examples of creatively using the resources at hand, have essentially created in the past thirty years executive branches of government out of nothing and supported them with whatever resources they could get out of these federal programs in addition to their own quite limited resources and basic assistance from the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Indian Health Service. These tribal governments are fully recognized by the law, and particularly by the courts, but up until the early 1960s they were pretty much the captive instruments of the Bureau of Indian Affairs and did not perform many of the functions of modern municipal governments. The recognition of tribal governments dates back to the very earliest days of European presence in the hemisphere when the Europeans made treaties with the Indians, in part as a way of controlling the fierce European competition for power and influence.

But with the implementation of the federal programs of the early 1960s--particularly the Great Society programs-- tribes started acting as real governments, although because of the poor economic conditions on reservations they still didn`t have much money under their own control. When the federal domestic-assistance programs began to increase dramatically in the mid-1960s, categorical grants were made available to state and local governments for various worthy social purposes. Indian tribal governments realized that they may be able to qualify for these same programs and receive the same assistance available to their neighboring governments.

But federal domestic-assistance programs are based largely on the assumption that a state and local governmental infrastructure is already in place and the federal programs supplement the preexisting local efforts. Because of this special importance of federal programs, tribes sometimes relate to these programs in a different way and push hard to be included; programs that are merely incidental to other governments and communities may be the lifeblood of tribal executive branches. Programs that to other governments are supplements may fund an essential government service that may otherwise not be available.

Another reason why tribes may pressure federal programs is that despite the official recognition of tribal governments, federal statutes authorizing domestic-assistance programs often mention only state, county, and municipal governments and do not mention Indian tribes. Sometimes the statute is phrased in such a way that tribes are clearly excluded because they are neither states nor subdivisions of states, placing tribes in the position of either foregoing entirely a program available to their neighbors or having to go hat in hand to the state government for a share of the benefits of a federal program. Frequently, when tribes are included in a federal-program statute they are included at the last minute with cryptic language that may take twenty years to decipher in the actual administration of the program. For example, we are still working out the tribal-state relationships within the federal environmental legislation of twenty years ago or more.

The story of how tribes have fought their way into the federal domestic-assistance program system is an interesting one and a good example of cultural adaptation--"living off the land" in a modern sense. Some of the other survival skills that we use in the modern world unfortunately, but inescapably, involve having to play to tourists: not just tourists in Bermuda shorts coming to our reservations but emotional and intellectual tourists who almost require us to be the kind of Indians that they recognize and, in some sense, that they need. In our individual efforts to survive in the modern world, each of us as Indians has made unique responses to that pressure to perform, to conform to various stereotypes.

Indians are, of necessity, pursuing our own agenda regardless of the categories established by the larger society. That is, we have our own notions of historic/cultural preservation, and we will try to adapt resources made available by the federal government to those ends.

Indian tribal governments have a unique responsibility to cultures that don`t exist anywhere else on earth. Many of you have heard Pat Lefthand and Karen Atkinson comment that if the tribe makes a basic policy misjudgment at the Flathead Reservation, there`s no Salish-Kootenai land back in Europe that can keep the culture going for them; that`s it, you blew it on the reservation and the culture`s gone forever. This means that tribal policy decisions are made with this intense sense that this precious thing, this unique culture of ours is in our hands and every policy decision we make puts it in jeopardy. And so historic preservation, other programs, library programs, the whole gamut of federal programs are put into service as ways not only of dealing with the matters at which they are aimed but also of keeping culture and identity alive.

Sometimes, as in our relationship to programs like historic preservation, we will raise troubling fundamental issues about definitions and whether they apply to Indian situations. But we are in an awkward position: Federal programs are very important to us, and yet--like other communities in the nation, but perhaps even more so--our reality is not and cannot be structured by the structure of federal programs. Occasionally we may confront you and say, "You`ve got this program and it`s dealing with issues that are related to those we are interested in, but if you want to restrict historic preservation to buildings, we`re not going to put a lot of effort into preserving your forts and trading posts. We have other issues that are of a broader cultural preservation nature."

For a number of reasons--mostly, I think, because of the differences in size--our cultures are not as institutionally complex as the mainstream American culture. The relatively simpler and more organic nature of Indian societies makes it difficult for us when we need to fit into one of the categories of the larger society. During the 1970s Congress passed the American Indian Religious Freedom Act, which recognizes the religious rights of Indian people. But it has proven to be quite difficult to put this recognition into some meaningful form within the American system of government because Indian spiritual lives and practices do not fit easily into the English language or into American history or into legal categories. If we had an Indian pope who could negotiate with the head of the Park Service we`d probably have no problem. If we had a clergy and churches we could just submit lists of priests, practices, and locations and we`d be in business. But if there is any cultural conflict between Indian tribes and the government, this is it, and it`s not necessarily anyone`s fault.

I recently met with members of a tribal commission charged with the responsibility to consider major governmental restructuring for their tribe, and one of the issues they were looking at was the relationship of their own government to their culture. I was explaining to them that the U.S. Bill of Rights, although it is certainly a magnificent document promoting individual freedom, was not handed down from on high as a universal list of rights. In fact, it is a laundry list of the things that Europeans had been doing to each other for several hundred years before the American Revolution. We talked about the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause and how the American system relates to the very different circumstances of a smaller, culturally homogeneous society like an Indian tribe. They then stunned me by saying, "We don`t consider ourselves a religion; we are a culture, a way of life with certain spiritual practices." I said, "Look, I understand what you`re saying, but sometimes you have to take what you can get. It has been hard enough to get America to see the religious practices of Indians as being entitled to the same protection offered to non-Indian religions. Don`t change tracks now, because Indian rights would be very difficult to protect if we didn`t have the First Amendment to rely on "

It may sometimes be difficult for Indians to explain and non-Indians to understand as we try for some purposes to fit Indian concepts and needs into non-Indian, largely English language, categories. But in a way it is good practice for everyone concerned, because the issues we pose are quite simple compared with issues posed along similar lines throughout the world. It is ironic that it was an Asian-American a few years ago who caused a big stir by writing an article called "The End of History," arguing that the collapse of communism is an event of nearly teleological significance. From the tribal perspective, which takes in a good percentage of the world`s population, the collapse of communism sets off "The Resumption of History." For the past several hundred years tribal and village peoples have been figuratively looking at their watches waiting for the end of an argument among Europeans about the political and economic systems that are going to ravage the world and displace tribal peoples from their land. We`ve been hoping the argument would be over before we all had to move into Buenos Aires, Mexico City, or even Rapid City because we could no longer make a living on our land.

It is important for Indian people to be precise in what we communicate and for all of us to work toward a means of communication in which the genuine issues of cultural conflict--and there are many--are defined as precisely as possible and distinguished from other issues. There was a time when Indian people were part of the furniture in discussions of the Indian/non-Indian relationships--not really included. Now, things are quite different. When a mixed group of Indians and non-Indians is dealing with Indian issues, it is often intimidating for the non-Indians; the Indians are able to "pull rank," sometimes dominating, or even silencing, discussion by--in my opinion--inappropriately raising cultural issues. In recent years there has been a great deal of talk about cultural conflicts, but underlying many of the problems in Indian affairs are simply issues of bad communication or poor administration. My advice to non-Indians is always: Be sensitive to the possibility that cultural differences may underlie problems, but do not let it ruin your day, and don`t be afraid to ask for an issue to be explained so that you can understand it. To Indians, I say: It is not enough to refer to cultural differences; you have to explain what cultural differences have to do with this particular conversation.

Let me just say in conclusion that we also have a lot of discussion in the country these days about something called political correctness or multiculturalism and their excesses. I think that much of the debate is nonsense. My standard is--and I hope yours is, too-- whether a particular view of history or literature is true, whether it teaches us something or not. The arguments about truth, significance, or usefulness are what intellectual inquiry is all about; all we outsiders ask is that we not be excluded from consideration at the outset because of where we came from. The definitions of truth, significance, or utility are not clear even within one culture, so it doesn`t seem too threatening to ask that we simply be included and that the problem of standards be fairly and honestly debated.

Cultural diversity is inescapable in the world, whether the Arthur Schlesingers like it or not. Rewrite the history of the western hemisphere that explicitly says in each paragraph that there were no people here already, no societies at all. Then go back and read the history you have written, knowing it is a deliberate lie. You will then perhaps see that we are not seeking mere "revisionism" for its own sake or to be perverse, and you will have some insight into how we and other so-called "marginal" groups feel when their cultures and histories are not only excluded from the canon but dismissed as unimportant or as available to be sacrificed to preserve the social fabric.

  1. Justin Kaplan is the author of Mr. Clemmons: Mark Twain, Mark Twain: His World, and Walt Whitman: A Life, among other publications.

Publication Date: January/February 1993


Author(s):Philip S. Deloria