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Culture Zones and Indigenous Identity

American Indians and other Indigenous Peoples are often classified as living within culture zones.

American Indians and other Indigenous Peoples are often classified as living within culture zones. An advantage of the cultural zone approach is that the indigenous nations within cultural zones live and engage in economy within similar ecological environments. North American culture zones include the Arctic regions, Plains, Southwest, California, and others. Peoples living in similar ecological zones will exploit their local environments and are confronted with similar challenges. Consequently, there are some economic and ecological similarities among the Indian peoples of a cultural area, and some cultural and economic patterns that are similar among the Indigenous Peoples of a particular cultural zone. 

In terms of indigenous identity, few Indian tribes identify with a region. Rather Indigenous Peoples have specific creation teachings, kinship groupings, languages, ceremonial teachings, and other features that distinguish them from other tribes in a common cultural zone, and more broadly. Indigenous identities tend to be local and organized around villages or kinship groupings.

The traditional Cherokee, classified in the Southeastern Cultural zone, had numerous politically autonomous villages and seven clans that were present in almost all village areas. The Creek, also from the Southeastern cultural zone, lived next to the Cherokee, but had many more clans, and politically autonomous villages organized into two groups of “red” and “white” towns. The red and white designations can be understood as something like earth people (red) and sky people (white). The Cherokee and Creeks spoke different languages. Cultures varied significantly within cultural regions even though the various Indian nations exploited similar environments and ecologies. In terms of identity and history, indigenous people have chosen identity through common political, cultural and territorial location. In this way of classifying the indigenous world, there are many indigenous nations, each with very specific and different cultures, political organizations, kinship groups, and specific territories. The commonality of cultural zone or ecological environment does not predetermine Indians historical or cultural actions.

Many Indigenous Peoples in the U.S. and Canada are living on reservations, which do not enable the hunting and gathering, or horticultural, livelihood of historical cultural zones. Since most U.S. and Canadian Indigenous Peoples cannot exploit their local ecological environments in ways they traditionally have done, reservation life makes Indigenous Peoples depend on markets and/or government aid.

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Contemporary classifications of cultural zones become less relevant, because the policies of the national government have greater day-to-day impact. Nation states and their policies toward Indigenous Peoples have become increasingly powerful influences over indigenous governments, land, economy, culture, and political identity. Today, if we want to understand the most pressing external impacts on indigenous nations we can look to nation states. What are nation state policies concerning Indigenous Peoples? Attitudes? Definitions of Indigenous Peoples? Favored Relations? Vision for the future?

Contemporary Indigenous Peoples can be grouped together as under the influence of a nation state. Indigenous Peoples still form nations with politically autonomous histories and governments. Now, however, nation states to a large degree greatly influence the political, economic, territorial, and cultural choices of Indigenous Peoples. Nation states have more powerful influence over Indigenous Peoples than do international organizations. In many ways, the United Nations is a coalition of nation states, and generally expresses and protects the common interests and views of nation states.

Nowadays, Indigenous Peoples can be classified by which nation state extends its policies and rules over them. United States, Canadian, and Mexican nation states have differing histories and policies toward their residence Indigenous Peoples. This is not to say the Indigenous Peoples are prisoners of nation states, but rather Indigenous Peoples are limited to making choices within the context of nation state political, economic, cultural and legal powers and influences. Ecological zones are still not without their impacts on Indigenous Peoples, but now national and international political relations, as well as national and international markets and cultures, play an increasingly powerful role in the futures and contemporary actions of Indigenous Peoples.