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Spiritual balance is goal of the people

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What distinguishes American Indian communities from nation-states are different values, cultural understandings and goals. In the United States, American Indian nations have different cultural understandings on a variety of significant levels: creation teachings, understandings of political community, political processes, stewardship of the land and relations with the natural world. These cultural and value differences between Indian nations and the U.S. government underscore significant disagreements about and the absence of shared rules and understandings of culture, land and social and political philosophy.

Upholding a commitment to continue their own way of life is one of the main reasons indigenous peoples do not want to leave behind their traditions to join the cultures and political relations of nation-states. Nation-states have tried in many places to instill their own values and understandings within indigenous individuals, meeting with varying degrees of resistance. While often accepting new knowledge, indigenous peoples are not willing to sacrifice their identity, self-government, land or cultural ways of living.

Nation-states have a vested interest in educating their citizens to develop loyalties and commitments to the central government. Of all of the methods used to accomplish this, formal education is the most critical. Leaders like to believe their citizens are in agreement with the cultural and political rules of the nation, and therefore most citizens will not resist education that interprets history and supports the culture of that nation. However, since indigenous peoples do not share the fundamental cultural philosophies of the history and culture of the nation-state, they are often unwilling participants in the nation-building processes of formal education.

Consequently, the processes of education are politically and socially coercive, as witnessed by indigenous survivors of assimilationist residential schools of the United States, Canada and Australia. Still, when indigenous communities have some control over education, their children do not graduate at high rates and generally are not well prepared for college. We have not yet learned how to create successful, culturally supportive education programs in which the history, culture and well-being of the indigenous communities are the central goals.

The difficulties of indigenous education and participation in nation-state institutions are not simply a question of differences between tradition and assimilation, or colonialism. It lies in deep cultural differences between the culture of nation-states, Western culture in the United States, and among indigenous peoples. We must understand these fundamental cultural differences in order to understand who we are, and who the community and culture of nation-states represent.

The absence of cultural understanding leads to generation conflict and contestation. For example, the concept of freedom is fundamental to Western civilization, if not one of its defining concepts. Great Western thinkers such as George Hegel and Karl Marx envision the main evolutionary path of human history as a struggle to gain greater individual and social freedom. There will be freedom, in many senses salvation, at the end of history. Many conservative liberals hold this same vision today and argue for the long-term value of free markets and political democracy. The idea that freedom is realized through history is a secular version of Christian salvation, and derives from the vision of the emergence of national freedom when the Israelites escaped from slavery and tyranny in ancient Egypt more than 3,000 years ago.

The concept of freedom dominates Western intellectual thought and is inherent in modernization theory, as well as post-modern and post-colonial theories, that continue to focus on political marginalization of groups (like indigenous peoples) and give little attention to their own cultural interpretations, understandings or goals. The Western interpretations assume that freedom is also the goal of indigenous individuals and nations.

Freedom, however, is not a central core theme in the teachings of indigenous peoples. There are sometimes evolutionary themes, but those themes, such as among the creation teachings of the Navajo or Pueblos, focus on lessons of gaining increasing moral community and knowledge about how to sustain spiritual balance among tribal members, other peoples, and the powers or spirits of the cosmic order. Spiritual balance, the golden rule, moderation, working within ritual and life constraints, fulfilling ceremonial duties, maintaining individual and community moral commitments, and accepting individual and community responsibility for proper moral and ceremonial relations are core values for indigenous communities.

The basic cultural difference between freedom and spiritual balance need not, even cannot, be a hindrance for negotiation and greater understanding with non-indigenous nation-states. The challenge for the future is not in returning to traditionalism and rejection of nation-states. Rather, indigenous nations may be better served by establishing cultural agreements and differences democratically and consensually with nation-states and the international community, while developing economic self-sufficiency in ways that support greater cultural and political realization of indigenous ways of life.