I recently lectured students at Harvard University about tribal economic
issues. While I was there I also gave a speech to a delegation of
government leaders from Pakistan.
Interestingly, the students in the class and the leaders from Pakistan
asked practically the same kind of questions. They both wanted to know if
our corporate and economic development would hurt our distinct tribal
culture. These people all had stereotypical images of Indians. Although
they liked our economic progress, they were concerned that we weren't going
to fit their idealized image of Indians.
I run Ho-Chunk, Inc., a 10-year-old tribal development corporation. When we
first started Ho-Chunk, Inc., we had discussions about being "too
corporate" or "too white" or losing our cultural identity. I used to spend
lots of time balancing this issue, but to be honest I have decided that it
really is a non-issue. It occurs to me that we are stereotyping ourselves.
We have an image of ourselves rooted in a culture based on an economic
reality from a long-distant past. The vast majority of Indians are not
living in the woods, hunting or growing their food and making their own
Rather than worry about being culturally appropriate, we should be focusing
on our inner core values as a people. How we make a living shouldn't define
us - that is the white world. What should define us is how we view
ourselves, how we view the world, how we treat each other, and how we treat
our families. To me, being Indian isn't about hunting and gathering. It is
about something far more important.
There is no playbook on how to be a modern Indian in a corporate world, so
we at Ho-Chunk, Inc. decided a few years ago to stop feeling guilty and to
simply self-validate ourselves. Ho-Chunk, Inc. is owned by a tribe, has a
board made up entirely of tribal members and is run by Indians. We decided
that we wouldn't be doing it if it weren't okay. This self-validation is
far easier to live under than constantly worrying or feeling strangely
guilty about our own progress.
Cultural change isn't a new concept. Culture has always followed economics.
When Neanderthals hunted animals for a living, their religion and culture
were based on animal spirits. When Mayans developed farming, their culture
and religion revolved around farming. They developed a calendar to know
when to plant their crops. They might have gotten a little carried away
with the human sacrifice thing, but to each his own.
What we think of as traditional American Indian culture was also a product
of the economic realities of 150 years ago. If you were going to be a
hunter and gatherer, you sure better know an awful lot about nature and how
to coexist in such an environment for the long term.
This nature-oriented coexistence is the stage we were at when we had
contact with the "white man." Our contact with them immediately changed our
economic reality. We become traders supplying furs. The quest for more furs
caused a number of Indian wars and resulted in several tribes having to
move west. The arrival of the horse created an entire new economic
environment for the Plains tribes and a new culture begin to emerge. Horses
became valuable. The more you had, the better.
My point is simple: culture is whatever it is right now. It is a living,
breathing system that is constantly evolving and changing. What drives the
evolution of culture is our internal human desire to lead a better life and
provide for our families. I don't think anyone should feel bad about being
successful. White people don't. We didn't used to. Individual wealth was
respected and something to be shared with all of the members of the tribe.
I bet if I were a Sioux 150 years ago, I would be bragging about how many
horses I have and somebody would be jealous and probably try and steal
them. (Just like the "mean" Pawnee were trying to do in "Dances with
Even our modern traditional activities are based largely on economics.
Would we really be making all this beadwork and art if we couldn't sell it?
Would our modern pow wow system be the same if not for all the prize money?
The answer is no. These activities are a form of pride and culture, but
they also are a way to make a living. Unfortunately some of us can't dance,
can't sing and can't paint.
I wonder if this idealized notion of ourselves developed because the life
we were forced to lead by the "system" was so horrible. We didn't want to
view ourselves as poor and unable to provide for ourselves and for our
families, so we turned to the image based on past pride. This image was fed
by the movies and popular mythology.
My mother has a theory that alcoholism hit our male population so badly
because the "system" took away our men's pride and their opportunity to
succeed and provide for their families. I think that our battle with
alcoholism does center on pride and economics. If we can provide
opportunities for our people to take on a traditional function (provide for
families) in a modern context (a good job), then we have a much better
chance of dealing with our social problems.
We need to stop stereotyping ourselves. No one really wants to go back to
the way we lived in the old days, but our self-image is so wrapped up in
who we were that it is hard to balance it with who we are now.
Even worse, we often use culture and perceived cultural purity as a weapon
to hurt each other and halt progress. I have witnessed several good
projects or ideas killed by someone attacking the idea or person on
cultural grounds. This form of attack is very effective because we are so
used to worrying about culture and our desire to hang on to it that it
often gets in the way of helping improve our lives today. It also is a way
to hurt people, especially young educated Indians who are vulnerable to
this type of attack because they are constantly reminded that they have
I have always been proud to be a member of the Winnebago Tribe. It has
always made me feel special. This strange internal pressure we place on
ourselves to be a stereotyped figure from the past is not necessary. Being
Indian is about our inner values, our spirituality, how we treat each other
and how we view the world. It is not about whether the meat on your table
was bought at the store or killed while on a hunt.
I do believe that the answers to our modern problems lie in the wisdom and
traditional values of the past, but I believe our true challenge is to hang
on to those values while weaving them into our modern life. I asked a
friend and mentor of mine, "Famous" Dave Anderson, what he thought of this
issue and he said it best: "Our culture has always just been about
Lance Morgan is CEO of Ho-Chunk, Inc.