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Beyond Assimilation and Nationalism: Walking in Two Worlds Is Necessary

Indians who live in reservation communities are faced with two major cultural environments consisting of mainstream U.S. and their tribal community

Indians use a variety of strategies to manage their life prospects and identities. The old stereotypes of opposing traditionalist and progressive strategies do not capture the complexity of contemporary life choices, nor the consequences of tribal identity and commitments to sustaining tribal nations.

American Indians who live in reservation communities are faced with two major cultural environments consisting of mainstream United States and their tribal community. The United States has made great efforts to invite American Indians to take up U.S. culture in economic, political, legal and cultural terms. Most American Indians have been exposed to U.S. culture during their lives, and it is not easy to live without some knowledge and understanding of U.S. economy, bureaucracy, and culture.

Research shows that students who are bicultural, with knowledge and understanding of both their tribal community and U.S. society, are often successful and capable. Persons with bicultural skills can move between U.S. and tribal communities, and often are willing to serve the interests of both communities. Educating students to be multi-lingual and multi-cultural may be the best way to maintain strong cultural attachments and commitments to the future of tribal communities, while at the same time ensuring tribal members have abilities to work in both tribal and U.S. societies.

Indian individuals who are highly assimilated into U.S. culture, are useful to tribal communities if they are bicultural, but not if they reject tribal culture and communities. Assimilated individuals with little commitment to tribal culture and community, often will leave tribal communities, or if they live in the community they will not work to preserve tribal culture or nationality. Some tribal individuals may be highly assimilated, and successful in U.S. society, and at the same time have strong commitments to tribal community. Their commitments may not be cultural, but their commitments to tribal life may be in nation building, creating new government institutions, economic growth, and their understanding of tribal membership may be legal and based on descent. Assimilated individuals with tribal loyalties can be very helpful for tribal nation building, if they are willing to serve the goals and views of the entire tribal community.

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Persons who are strongly attached to tribal culture and are antagonistic to U.S. culture, may be useful for sustaining tribal community and culture, but are not helpful for solving tribal cultural and political issues with local, state, and federal agencies and communities. Some research suggests that about 10 percent of Indian people have strong nationalist points of view, and want to solve tribal community issues with emphasis on restoring traditional ways of life and culture as much as is possible.

The Indian tribal members who may be problematic for sustaining tribal communities are individuals who are not strongly integrated into either U.S. or tribal society. Some individuals may be in outright rebellion, indifference, or alienated from both tribal and U.S. society. This situation can happen due to breakdown of tribal culture on reservations among some individuals or families, and little or no success by government agencies toward creating commitments or understanding of U.S. culture and values.

Persons with little knowledge about or commitment to either U.S. or tribal traditions, are culturally alienated, not willing community participants, and will either seek change or will go through the motions of compliance with reservation life and Indian policies. Persons who are alienated from both U.S. and tribal community and culture tend to fall into depression, not do well in school, and often encounter problems with U.S. and tribal justice owing to use of drugs, alcohol, and other illegal activities. Often individuals and families that are alienated from both U.S. and tribal culture are not useful for tribal community building and continuity. Rehabilitation programs try to provide a tribal cultural foundation to many individuals who do not have strong cultural commitments to tribal or U.S. communities.

Building strong commitments to the future of tribal nations among highly assimilated, highly traditional, and highly alienated tribal members is possible and necessary.