Tex Hal, chairman of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation, combats the modernist view of Native Americans.

Native Americans in a Postmodern World

Duane Champagne

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.

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.

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dbender's picture
Submitted by dbender on
There is no way we could abandon our cultures and communities in favor of this thing you call "modernism". To me that means embracing capitalism and this American culture of narcissism. Capitalism is the very bane of our people. Fidel Castro, along with Che Guevara and many others did the right thing in opposing capitalism to protect Cuba's sovereignty starting in 1956 and ending in 1959 with the overthrowing American funded pro-capitalist Fulgencio Bautista. Fidel Castro wrote that "history will absolve me" and that to me is the truth. If you look at neighboring islands Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, and Haiti you can't help but realize the ruins that American corporations and capitalism have created. These people had their land bought out by the sugar industry and were paid very little for their efforts. That to me,is the essence of capitalism and exploitation. It has nothing to do with modernism and this and that, what you say. That is nothing but jargon. I think as Idigenous people we are obligated to protect our lands and the Earths environment as a whole not capitalize off of it and its people which is the essence of the neo-liberal agenda. The only way to do that is by becoming the exact opposite of a capitalist and that is a communist. Just like Fidel Castro and Che Guevara. It takes immense organization. Otherwise we as a people will be picked off one by one just like they did to us at the time of the Indian Wars and like they continue to do today by placing these pipelines and uranimum mines on our land. Interestingly, while nations whom have embraced American nationalism and trade with open arms, Cuba seems to thrive in spite of closed trade with their closest neighbor. Currently, Cuba is number one in the world in health care and exports physycians throughout the world while the United States exports war. Through communism we could stop the propaganda -- that is misinforming our people creating obesity, diabetes, cancer, and HIV. We could free them of the chemical dependency created by the adoption of the Standard American Diet and the fast food industry. We could go back to an ancestral diet and way of life. Our tribes should forge trade relations with other nations like Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Bolivia, and Ecuador. These countries finally came to the reality that capitalism was killing their people and infesting the minds of their people with lies and addiction. We need to stop feeding out of the hand of the US. That has done nothing but create a welfare state and that is exactly what our tribes have become just like Haiti. I envision our people as scientists and good stewards to the planet. I envision them as physicians and medicine men and women. The only way to that destiny is to do like Fidel and oppose capitalism and embrace communism. That means empowering our people to share not only food and land but a vision.

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