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Native Americans in a Postmodern World

Duane Champagne discusses the concepts of modernism and postmodernism as they apply to Native American culture.

The worldview of most people in the contemporary world is still modernist. Modernism is an evolutionary vision that the market economy will grow, governments will become more democratic, culture will decline in importance, and people will become more similar and equal.

In many ways modernism was a product of Western culture and Christianity. Instead of the second coming of Jesus to save the world, a secular version prophesied that human salvation will come by economic development, more political freedom, and greater rationality and universal humanism. Economic and political progress promised liberation and freedom from want in the future at the end of history. Modernism was a worldview that supported nation states, where all citizens shared political equality and, if not the same culture, at least the right to practice a culture, while participating within national culture.

At least among some contemporary intellectuals, if perhaps not broadly, modernism has fallen into disfavor. Many communities and minority groups complained about the central Western assumptions to modernism. They argued for multiple visions of the future, and for the continuity of alternative identities and cultures into the future.

Many minority groups and ethnic groups did not necessarily see themselves as participants in the modernist future, and argued many alternative cultural interpretations and future scenarios were possible. Modernism was one worldview among many. The critics argued that modernism was tied too closely to Western tradition, and represented one interpretation among many.

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From an indigenous perspective, modernism was the justification for American nationalism and manifest destiny. The modernist view, closely and still related to Christian activism, did not have a place for indigenous peoples in the future of the United States or the world. Indigenous Peoples represented traditional forms of culture, and would not survive the formation of democratic nation states and the internationalization of a world market economy.

Modernists believed that the most humane future for Indigenous Peoples was for them to abandon their cultures, communities, and governments and join in as citizens of nation states. Modernists were assimilationists, a viewpoint that dominated much of Indian policy during most, if not all of the 20th century.

In response to the criticism of modernism, some intellectuals developed post modernism. In many ways, postmodernism is a continuity of modernism. Modernism was pronounced as dead by postmodernists. There could not be any dominant form of universal culture. While postmodernism recognized that many cultures and viewpoints existed, they acted as if they were still looking for the one true religion. Finding none after the death of modernism, the postmodernists fell into relativism and took the position that no culture contained truth or ultimate meaning. In the wasteland of cultural integrity, postmodernists focused on material views, individualism, globalization, and hybridism.

Postmodernism, from an indigenous perspective, can be seen as the continuity of and secularized outcome of modernism. Both modernism and postmodernism share a similar worldview. Postmodernists just do not believe in god, or in salvation at the end of history. Since postmodernism extends Western worldviews of secularization and rationalism, it is not an appropriate framework for indigenous intellectuals or policy makers. Postmodern relativism does not appreciate any culture or view point from its own history, and for the meaning and purpose that a people may have for their own culture and traditions.

Indigenous Peoples face the future, not entering the future as a wasteland of meaning, but by carrying cultural and community meaning and purpose forward to find solutions of life within the contemporary world. Postmodernism, like modernism, rejects indigenous meaning and culture as not relevant, and therefore doomed, and marginal. Indigenous Peoples are also cultural relativists. Rather than denying meaning in all cultures, Indigenous Peoples reaffirm and respect the beliefs and worldviews of all other peoples, and do not deny them meaning, purpose, or sacredness.