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Indian Identity and Assimilation

Indigenous identities have become multiple and more complex; contemporary indigenous nations are not culturally homogeneous.

Indigenous identities have become multiple and more complex, and some more hostile, at the beginning of the 21st century. Many contemporary indigenous nations are not culturally homogeneous as the old anthropology textbooks would have us believe. Even in traditional times, there were differences in political allegiances among families, clans, villages, and other social and cultural divisions among indigenous nations.

Contact with Europeans has introduced new religions, cultures, the market system, and new political systems. Indigenous nations, like all human groups on earth, are subject to globalized culture, economy, and political relations. Whether by force or by consent indigenous nations are now multicultural and contain individuals who speak non-indigenous languages, have taken on non-indigenous religious orientations, some are well educated in Western traditions, while others have taken up the material life and daily job routines of national market economies.

For example, the Navajo Nation is often esteemed for retaining language and community, but about one-third of the Navajo Nation are Mormons, and another one-third are Catholics, although much of Navajo culture continues to persist among the two Christian Navajo groups.

The ways in which tribal peoples have adapted to the changing circumstances of the contemporary world are varied, both at the individual and community-national levels. Some new identities promote the continuity of indigenous cultures and ways of life, while others do not. The most explicitly pro-indigenous positions are nationalists or fundamentalists who emphasize recovery and use of traditional languages, culture, and government. Nationalist viewpoints want to make change selectively so that central tribal or indigenous national philosophies, cultural activities, language, and government are maintained.

Many of the new emergent identities are not always favorable toward preserving indigenous cultures and communities. Around the world, in Latin America, Africa, and Asia, many formerly indigenous persons have taken up mestizo identities. Mestizo identities are people of indigenous descent who have rejected or abandoned cultural life within indigenous communities. Good examples of mestizo nationalities are found in Mexico and El Salvador, and many African states are composed of detribalized people who have adopted national market, cultural and political institutions. Mestizo identities seek to replace indigenous identities with national identities, and at the same time reject indigenous communities and culture as backward or alien. Consequently mestizo national states are often hostile to indigenous culture and government, and want to assimilate and dismantle indigenous identities and communities.

A key issue in the emerging identities is whether the new multicultural identities support indigenous communities, nationality, and ways of life. In the United States there are many people of indigenous descent who have Western education and cultural orientations, but are legally citizens of tribal nations, and work to support the continuity and preservation of tribal nations and cultures. Tribal communities may be multicultural, but can be united in common cause by their loyalties to a common government and indigenous tribal identity. In addition, in the United States there are millions of people who report on the United States census that they are American Indian. Many can report the name of their tribal nation, while not maintaining a direct tie to a tribal community or citizenship within a reservation community. Such individuals may be called ethnic Indians. Ethnic Indians are not the same as mestizo identities, since many ethnic Indians are proud of their Indian ancestry and often support Indian rights and legislative issues.

The old dichotomy of assimilated versus traditional orientations does not capture the complexities of contemporary indigenous identities. Many ethnic Indians and persons with extensive Western cultural and religious backgrounds, are often strong supporters of American Indian political sovereignty, cultural autonomy, and land rights.

Assimilation is only a negative issue if Indigenous Peoples are turned against preservation of indigenous community and nationality. Contemporary multicultural tribal communities favor preserving tribal community and government, although the intra-tribal groups may differ over the vision, goals, and values each wants to carry into the future.