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Respect community diversity

Tribal communities are no longer homogeneous cultural groups. One can say that most indigenous communities were never entirely homogenous, culturally or politically. While tribal groups often shared ceremonies and creation stories, they retained considerable local political and economic autonomy. Families, bands and clans harvested most of their economic needs, and were not economically dependent on other groups, and were therefore in a position to exercise considerable political choice. Tribal nations were coalitions of willing and cooperative kinship and local group alliances. Large ceremonial gatherings were places to exchange gifts and renew social relation. There were common cultural understandings.

While during pre-western contact periods, indigenous nations exchanged cultural and social knowledge. Western colonial contact greatly intensified the exchange of cultural knowledge and introduced new social and political conditions.

Nowadays, it is hard to say that most tribal communities share common or homogeneous culture. Many tribal members are now Christians, many are well educated in American schools, and multiple worldviews are found in most tribal communities. People might accept this situation as part of contemporary multicultural life, but the issues are more fundamental.

Tribal nations did not share worldviews, religion, or understandings of territory or political process with the United States or colonizing European powers. One of the main reasons that many Indian communities and individuals do not assimilate and become part of American society, an always-open invitation, is that tribal members retain different values, culture and way of life, but also adhere to different forms of social-cultural-political-economic organization.

Many tribal members are now Christians, many are well educated in American schools, and multiple worldviews are found in most tribal communities. People might accept this situation as part of contemporary multicultural life, but the issues are more fundamental.




Indigenous peoples see social-political organization, the sacred and the political, as the same, strongly intertwined. While American society sees social, economic, cultural and political life and institutions as highly compartmentalized and separate. The difference in social forms is one reason Indian communities tend to not want to accept American institutional forms. The U.S. and indigenous forms of social organization have fundamental differences.

Contemporary tribal nations, however, increasingly are multicultural and encounter fundamental social-cultural differences among tribal members. These differences are often characterized as struggles between Christians and pagans, progressives and traditionals, or assimilationists and nationalists, and sometimes Indians and “apples.”

The absence of common ground to resolve the coexistence of multiple social and cultural forms, which is a central issue between the U.S. government, or nation-states in general and indigenous peoples, has become a longtime feature of contention within tribal or reservation communities.

In many contemporary American Indian tribal communities, there are traditional groups that often comprise a minority of the membership. A major difference between the traditional community of old and now, is that contemporary traditionals no longer have access to sufficient local, subsistence-based economic support, and many have become dependent on social welfare benefits. Where traditional communities have access to local wage labor, the communities have remained more intact and stronger.

In many contemporary communities, issues between culturally differing reservation groups is decided in a very American style, largely by majority rule. Consequently, the largest group imposes its will on the minority. This contention, however, is about fundamental values, worldviews, and forms of social organization, and since there is no agreement about these issues the majority ends up culturally and socially coercing the minority.

We should not be satisfied with this solution, since we want more from the United States in recognizing indigenous rights. Indian communities must understand and recognize the rights of their traditional minorities. We need to reclaim respect and uphold support for the values, subsistence economy, worldviews, and social institutions of the traditional minorities in our communities.

If we cannot respect the indigenous rights of our own social-religious minorities, how can we expect nation-states to do the same? We need to recover the powers of local group autonomy by encouraging self-sufficient local economic autonomy, and working out solutions that respect and uphold indigenous rights for all Native individuals on their

own terms.