Culture Area Concept

Usually, when I am asked to offer a critique in an academic setting, I have no problems pointing out at least a handful of problems with a given approach or theory. Maybe that says something about me, but hopefully it just speaks to my nature as a critical thinker. The “culture area concept”, though, strikes me as more helpful than harmful from an educational standpoint. Given my relatively limited knowledge of Native American cultures prior to this class, dividing the country into sections, though arbitrary, helped me to get a picture in my head of what people were like in different regions. There were and are so many different tribes that without some familiar system of organization, I would have felt completely overwhelmed. Realistically, neighboring cultures are likely to have similarities on the basis of cultural contact and similarities in environments, so I am not deeply offended by these arbitrary lines drawn over the map as I am by most other methods of classifying cultures.

Now for the problems. By studying one group per culture area, students don’t get to see the differences within a culture area and therefore run the risk of having an oversimplified impression of native peoples. Though the environments and languages might be similar, different groups might have vastly different ways of utilizing their environment. People can be quite creative.

Overall, my impression of the culture area concept is positive because it makes an important but intimidating topic more manageable, so perhaps fewer students will be scared off. It is surface level, and care should be taken so as to not oversimplify all Native Americans in a given region as the same, but I think the most important thing in education right now is to get people started. We can smooth out the details as we go, but the conversation needs to start today.


Native Americans as a Foil for “Our Society”

This morning, I ran across the article “10 Quotes From a Oglala Lakota Chief That Will Make You Question Everything About Our Society“. I found the article after a Facebook friend from high school posted the link. I haven’t spoken to him is about six years, but I have no idea why he posted the link. I won’t try to speculate on that, but I will mention that it was one of several posts about Native Americans, one of which included the caption “…damn. Native Americans are the best.” It is obvious to me that this comment was made out of admiration and respect, but it was striking to me after seeing this particularly poignant video on cultural appropriation just yesterday, entitled “Don’t Cash Crop On My Cornrows” by Amandla Stenberg.

I don’t want to spend this post criticizing a once friend on cultural appropriation, but I would like to consider each of the 10 quotes that are meant to change my opinion of our society. Even the title is problematic, as it assumes a white audience, and a society that consists of one particular worldview, exclusive of all others. The title clearly is othering of Native American culture, holding this chief up as a wise and noble man, the perfect icon (or perhaps mascot) for all Plains Indians.

The first three quote emphasize the Lakota ideal of what it means to be polite. According to the quotes, being polite is considered insincere, and only actions demonstrate respect. Similarly, people should remain silent rather than speaking too quickly. These quotes emphasize that sincerity and thoughtfulness are more valuable than fancy speech associated with dominant white culture.

The next four quotes talk about how the Lakota respect nature, and view themselves as being part of the landscape, rather than being lord over nature. This fits, because no stereotypical discussion of Native Americans would be complete without mentioning how they were one with the land.

Finally, the last two quotes talk about the tragic process of assimilation. The Lakota didn’t want to be removed from nature, and because they were forced to be removed they have lost what once made them so special. These quotes close out the tragic story of the vanished Indian.

This article is meant to be respectful, but all it does is appropriate the parts of Lakota culture we deem meaningful and compelling, with no regard for the modern people. Lest the presumably white readers get too uncomfortable, we shouldn’t consider the Lakota to be modern, because then our majestic image might be tarnished. Instead, the article keeps the Lakota where they comfortably belong: in the past.


A Truly Modern Study of Native Americans

Starn’s work emphasizes a new group of researchers coming to the forefront of Anthropology. In particular women and people of color are increasingly prevalent, and so we are gaining new perspectives that were hidden before. An emphasis has been place on the an anthropology conducted by someone on her own people. Women and children are being studied because female researchers have easier access to this group in the field. It is obvious to me that this has been a positive change, and I hope the trend will continue. That being said, I see two problems occurring in today’s anthropology of North America.

For my class in the anthropology of childhood and youth this semester, I gathered information on the Yup’ik of Alaska. This offered me the opportunity to look for detailed information on one particular group in a way that I hadn’t otherwise needed to do. What I found was that most of the research available was concerned with traditional language and traditional culture. Small sections of any given article or book might be concerned with modern problems, but it was not the primary concern. I respect the desire to gain information on the cultural history of a group, and I do agree that the wider population should learn some cultural sensitivity toward traditional cultures, but in doing this researchers are perpetuating the vanishing Indian myth. More focus must be given to modern culture and modern problems. In many cases, the culture might want to return to traditional ways in some respects, and in this case it is of course a relevant topic for research. However, this should be led by the people, not the researcher.

I am also concerned by the extreme focus of contemporary studies in North America on people for minority groups doing research with their minority group. In some situations, this is wonderful. When a group is oppressed and a member of that community is able to speak out about the problems in their culture, we move further away from the cultural model of the white savior. People from all cultures and all backgrounds should be welcomed into the field of anthropology, and I think they are. Perhaps, though, they are welcomed a bit too enthusiastically. The mindset of anthropology might clash with the worldview of a particular group. In particular, I imagine many Native Americans would never want to be involved in archaeology, due to their beliefs on the afterlife. There is nothing wrong with that, and this means archaeologists must work even harder to be respectful of this culture. Many people from oppressed communities are attracted to anthropology because of the activist side of it common in the field today. I think most people who work closely with a group begin to care for them and want to help them. I was drawn to cultural anthropology in large measure because of the opportunities I saw to help people. In the same breath, I don’t believe there should be a moral pressure or obligation to be an activist, because that method for helping people might not fit in with a person’s worldview.

My point then is that I like the direction anthropology is going. I like that more voices are being brought to the table and anthropologist are helping the people whose lives are the basis for their careers. My caution is that the pendulum might be swinging too far, to the extent that there is an expectation for minority people to want to study their own people and to be involved in activism. That should be an added bonus, not an expectation.


Conversation with Mr. Fransisco

A few meetings ago, my Native North Americans class had the opportunity to hear a member of the Tohono O’odham tribe speak on his experiences growing up and and living on the reservation. He spoke about several hot topics, including Tohono relations with border control and language loss, both of which are important for modern discussions, but I was more compelled by his stories of Tohono religion and values. Throughout my time at Wake Forest, I have been able to participate in interfaith dialog through my campus ministry. As one of the smaller ministries on campus, we often find fellowship with other ministries, including other protestant denominations, the Catholic Community, Hillel, and Muslim Student Association. Often, discussion between these groups involves finding common ground through our similar beliefs regarding the nature of God, and I have heard my peers make comments similar to “I believe that all religions are a different interpretation of the same belief in God”. While her intentions were good, as an anthropology major I had to argue that her scope of “all religions” was limited to the worlds so-called “major religions”. Perhaps this seems a strange way to introduce my reflection on Mr. Fransisco’s stories, but it is through this lens that I view religious discussion to be of critical importance to a dialog of tolerance and understanding.

Since Europeans first met Native Americans, Native Americans have been viewed as a savage population that needs to be converted. As the saying goes, “kill the Indian, save the man”. The phrase has been used to refer to Native American cultures and customs, as well as their religion. Though I argue modern Euroamericans are generally more tolerant of Native American cultural practice than early settlers, there exists still a desire to convert non-Christians. What people fail to recognize is that Native American culture is intertwined with the respective religions of each group; they cannot change that religion without also losing a piece of their culture. Now, that is not to say it is my place to tell Native peoples they cannot change their religion. After all, time marches on and cultures change. But just as it is inappropriate for me to say “Don’t change!” so too is it unacceptable for Christians (or other religious groups) to say “Change!”.

It is easy for members of monotheistic religions to find common ground, but when the religion in question becomes more different or less common, people have a harder time being understanding and tolerant. Mr. Fransisco told a story of how his family failed to perform certain rites and rituals, and this led to misfortune within the family. I will admit that it was hard for me to not immediately dismiss this belief as superstition or coincidence, but the reality is that every belief system is valid and right in its own way, and each religion has its own way to explain misfortune. Tohono beliefs might not have much in common with mine, but I still must respect them as valid beliefs that explain the world in a different way. As Mr. Fransisco talked about his religious beliefs, I learned about the religion, but I also was challenged to be a good anthropologist by having to exhibit cultural relativism more than I normally have to. This type of discussion is important because it is not often included in so-called “interfaith” discussions. Interfaith really means between represented faiths, and that isn’t very diverse. I do understand that religions with fewer members will be less represented, but that doesn’t make them any less important to the discussion. Rather, it means that when representatives are present, they should be more listened to and more valued.


Identity Construction among Modern Cherokee

To me, the most serious failing of dominant understanding of Native Americans is that they are not seen as modern peoples. This holdover from the idea of the “Vanishing Indian” is disturbing to me because I didn’t expect this to be a modern problem. Rather, I thought people today would realize that these are a modern people who still exist today, and are not in any way remnants of a dying past. Alas, I have been too optimistic. It seems to me that this is precisely why our education system glosses over the roll and history of Native Americans in our US History courses. Therefore, while taking this course I have been most interested in two themes: the roll Euroamericans played in attempting to destroy Native American cultures and peoples, and how modern Native Americans produce their cultural identity. For me, this was particularly salient in our studies of the Cherokee.

While doing my readings for this class, it is not uncommon for a friend to ask about what I’m reading, or what the class is about. Through these conversations, I have learned that many students have heard of the “Trail of Tears” and they know it was awful, but they don’t have an emotional reaction to the topic the way they might for other parts of U.S. History that are more talked about. It is as though people have been told to think the topic is sad, but they have no concept of what happened and why it was so devastating. In reading the first hand account by a Cherokee man, we learn about how being forced to relocate to Oklahoma was culturally devastating, and many lives were lost. I can’t imagine the emotional turmoil they must have felt as a people with close connection to the land being forced to leave their land. What is interesting to me is that the Cherokee did everything Euroamericans asked of them. Cherokee formed a written language, sent their children to school, and had a democratic government arguably modeled on the U.S. government. Still, this was not good enough, and they were forced off their land with just as much or more force. This is salient to me because it demonstrates that dominant groups might complain about minority groups, but when the group changes to be more like the dominant culture, this is extremely unsettling. When a group that is “other” becomes more similar, it becomes more difficult for the dominant group to separate itself, inciting fear in the dominant group that they will lose their dominance.

Today, there is still tension between Cherokee and Euroamericans. I was very interested in learning about language loss and revitalization, and how it is connected to interactions with tourists and the casino. When tourists were coming to learn about Cherokee culture and ritual, Cherokee were protective of their culture and language. The language is connected to religious ritual, and they didn’t want their prayers to be known or misused by prying outsiders. This led to language loss, to the extent that the older generation was concerned that the prayers and rituals would be lost. After the casino was built, tourists were attracted to the area for different reasons, and lost interest in learning about Cherokee culture. This meant that Cherokee could feel comfortable using their own language again, and language revitalization efforts began. This is an oversimplification of a complex process, but it is interesting to me how the group values their culture and wants to keep it separate from the outside world. As an anthropologist who likes to learn about other cultures, this is hard for me to understand. I am exactly the type of person the Cherokee would want to hide their culture from, but I view my desire to learn as being positive or at least harmless to them. I am interested in how the Cherokee construct what it means to be Cherokee through their language and values, and how they don’t want to loose their uniqueness by allowing outsiders access to their culture. In addition, when tourists were visiting the Cherokee to see plays about their culture, the cultural difference was obvious. But when outsiders were no longer interested in their culture, the Cherokee needed to highlight the difference in another way, such as through language. Through this class I have learned about how dominant cultures want to keep minority groups other to themselves through oppression and violence, but I have also learned about how the Cherokee, as a minority group, have wanted to keep themselves other to the dominant culture.

Of course, through the course of this class, I have learned about many other cultures and their identity formation. They are all interesting and have their own stories to tell. For me though, the Cherokee story was particularly salient, in part because I am close with people who live less than thirty minutes from Cherokee, NC. I was ale to talk to him about that experience. My friend talked to me about how the groups are completely separated. He has never visited Cherokee, and he doesn’t know much about them at all. When I heard that, it made me sad, but through my reflection on Cherokee actions, I question whether this might be what most Cherokee want. Surely, I don’t know yet, and no group wants to live in abject poverty like many Cherokee do, but it called into question my preconceived ideas about cultural mixing and togetherness.


Native Americans as the Original Conservationists: The Impact of Word Choice

Growing up in Colorado, I am no stranger to talk about the importance of conservation. The green movement is hip today in many areas in response to rising concerns about climate change and a shift towards healthier living.  There is a popular urban myth I heard growing up depicting Native Americans as “the original conservationists”. This depiction over simplifies the situation, as not all Native American groups treat the environment the same way. In addition, this rhetoric encourages a depiction of Native Americans as “noble savages,” or as a people more connected with earth and nature. When people are seen as being close to nature, there is a risk of not seeing them as fully human. Yet there is more to the situation. Many Native Americans acknowledge and encourage the idea that their cultures treat nature with more respect than does Euroamerican culture. I would be remiss in my analysis if I disregard this aspect of the discussion.

Postmodernists would define conservation as when a group of people has the ability to over-utilize the environment, but chooses not to in order to ensure that the resources will be available to future generations. Some argue that Native American societies have never been large enough to risk over-utilizing the environment, but this idea is uninformed. A quick review of Native American history shows that there were a number of groups with populations in the tens of thousands. Cahokia, for example, had an estimated population size between 10,000 and 40,000. Therefore we can say that certainly, this group could eat enough food to over-utilize the environment. Hunn et. al. demonstrate through the example of the gathering of gull eggs that in the case of the Huna Tlingit, they could easily collect too many gull eggs for the population to support, but intentionally do not to avoid depleting the gull population. These examples indicate that there is at least some truth to the idea that Native Americans are conservationists. However, to assume that all Native Americans practice conservation seems presumptuous to me, given the wide variety of cultural values I have learned about thus far this semester. I do not have a specific counter example of a group depleting the environment, but I do know that the Chipewyan people believed they were entitled to hunt as much as they could, even to the point of excess. This calls into question the Sioui’s claim that all Native Americans have superior environmental ethics.

The depiction of Native Americans as “the original conservationist” is problematic not only because of the questionable validity of this statement, but also because of the social implications of it. If the statement were made solely out of respect for and acknowledgement of cultural differences, I would not have a moral concern about this depictions. However, in the larger context of Euroamerican culture, there is a frequently criticized rhetoric of exoticizing anyone who is not white, placing them closer to nature and their animalistic urges, thereby viewing them as less civilized and less human. While we might view conservationism as a positive attribute- the “noble” part of the “noble savage”- it nonetheless places them closer to nature while whites are placed closer to culture. In addition, activists of the green movement often point to traditional practices and people of the past, saying we should go back to that way of living. In this way, they are perpetuating the myth of the vanishing Indian, failing to acknowledge Native Americans as a fully modern people who are still alive today. When we see a people as extinct or nearing extinction, we think it is acceptable to use their cultures as mascots like this:

When Native American culture is viewed as extinct or near extinct, it’s perfectly fine that our children don’t learn about them in history class because they don’t really matter; they were just the people who were here before us, but they disappeared from smallpox or assimilated to our culture, and it had nothing to do with Euroamericans forcing them onto reservations and into boarding schools. But I digress.

Many Native Americans believe that their cultures are superior to Euroamericans’ culture in their treatment of the earth. I don’t disagree with the sentiment. With regards to Sioui’s argument, this sentiment appears to be an attempt to distinguish Native American culture from Euroamerican culture. I argue that this does not detract from its validity. It is not unusual for a group to define itself in contrast to other cultures; perhaps we naturally see differences more easily than similarities. My studies in anthropology indicate to me that without the contrast to another culture, people are likely to assume that their cultural worldview is the best or only world view. Native Americans have seen how Euroamericans treat the environment, which has called attention to their own values surrounding conservation. Perhaps I am giving too much credit to the influence of interaction between Native Americans and Euroamericans, but that is not my intent. Rather, I would like to present one possibility of how Native Americans came to align with conservationist ideals. My point is that the reason behind this distinction from the dominant culture is irrelevant, because it should not detract from the Native Americans’ presentation of their own values and beliefs.


Research on the Long Term Effects of Forced Boarding School Program

For my topic, I was interested in looking at how forcing young Native Americans into boarding schools in the early to mid 1900’s affected the people and the culture. Initially, I wasn’t sure how to focus this topic, but through discussion with Dr. Jones I have decided to look primarily at the American Indian Movement and its leaders. Based on the time when AIM started and when boarding schools were being practiced, it is reasonable to think that many of the leaders would have been in boarding schools. If I cannot find any information to verify this, I will have to reconsider the lens of my project.

Up to this point, I have heard of Native American boarding schools, but I don’t really know much about them. I have heard people say that they were abusive and terrible, but I don’t have any details about where or how they were practiced. My interest in pursuing this topic initially was related to my desire to learn more about what happened in the boarding schools. However, I knew that my topic couldn’t be just a repeated account of the boarding schools. After all, this is a 300 level anthropology class. In thinking about how to give the topic an anthropological spin, I wanted to look at cultural change. I am particularly interested in how culture is defined by how people perceive themselves. Because of this, I am interested in what happened when children returned home from boarding schools. They didn’t really fit in with their own culture anymore, but they faced discrimination from Euroamericans. In previous classes, I have looked at what happens when people face a liminal space. This is a theme I wish to continue with this project.

As someone interested in children and teaching, I am horrified by the prospect of “schools” serving the function they served in these boarding schools. Children are often given no autonomy, and are forced to do things “for their own good”. I am hoping that through my research in this topic, I will have more concrete examples of the negative consequences of taking children’s autonomy. In addition, as someone interested in human rights and activism, I am excited about exploring the motivations behind the American Indian Movement. Many of these leaders have been accused of being radicals, but I think that my research will show that considering their experiences, their opinions aren’t all that radical.