Transnational or Indigenous?

In recent years a new theoretic argument of transcultural or transnational movement has emerged within academic literature.

In recent years a new theoretic argument of transcultural or transnational movement has emerged within academic literature. The transnational argument has the strength of addressing the point that Indian or Indigenous Peoples move between and within multiple cultural settings on an everyday basis.

Most Indian people in the U.S. live in urban areas where the predominant culture is American, although many Indigenous Peoples retain Indian identities and ties to home communities.

In Indian fiction literature there is a discussion about people who write novels and critical academic essays about Indians. The discussion focuses on mixed-blood writers whose experiences are not usually deeply grounded within their own tribal community. The perspectives presented often have much to do with living in two worlds. The transnational theory takes up this point of view as well. And in a generalization extending out from the fictional literature, much of the transnational literature focuses on Indian experiences outside of tribal communities.

Academics who tend to take up the transnational perspective, like the mixed blood novelists, focus on Indian experiences, identities, and community that are not centered on tribal issues and life. Not all Indigenous People’s experiences are grounded in tribal communities, and more people of Indian descent live off-reservation than on reservation. Perhaps three or four times as many persons of Indian descent live in urban areas. Many have not had sustained tribal community experiences for more than one generation. It is important that there are writers, researchers, and policy makers who theorize and engage in the urban experience of Indian people. The transcultural argument is a pathway to extending the ways in which most Indian people confront the contemporary world.

The transnational argument, however, should not be substituted or privileged over indigenous positions that center tribal self-government, territory, and cultural continuity. The substitution of a non-tribal indigenous identity and centering attention on experiences and life in non-tribal contexts, often with no reference to tribal nations, is a form of ethnic identity formation. Many people of Indian descent who claim Indian identity and are not legally or socially in contact with the tribal community of their Indian heritage(s), can be said to have taken on an ethnic Indian identity, rather than a tribal national identity. The transnational theory extends the experiences of American Indians to the numerous non-tribal contexts, and gives greater ability to realize and understand the diversity of contemporary American experiences. The very definition of transnational theory is that people move between multiple cultures and places, so it captures the concept that the Indian experience is not confined to the reservation and to community cultures.

A danger of the transnational argument is that most of the writers tend to understand and have primarily experienced Indian people in urban areas, and have less understanding and experience with tribal national communities. The focus of the work concentrates on where people of Indian descent now have their experiences—urban areas—but they also insist that the urban experience is the current standard of indigenous or Indian experience and identity.

From this point of view the indigenous position is whatever the experience that person of indigenous descent currently engages. What differentiated indigenous people from ethnic groups is the centrality of self-government, territory, and specific cultures. If the centrality of place and homeland are lost, then Indian people have moved toward ethnic identity and away from an indigenous identity.

Transnational theorists should not insist that transnational experiences form the center or contemporary indigenous identity, unless that identity has become an ethnic identity, without the centrality of a specific tribal culture, homeland, and tradition of self-government. Transnational theories do a great disservice to Indigenous Peoples if they do not appreciate and respect that indigenous identity cannot be supplanted by an ethnic identity.

Special thanks to Nadya Kwandibens for the image above; to see more from her Concrete Indians series, visit Redworks.ca.