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Students play basketball during their lunch break at Monument Valley High School on Friday, Jan. 31, 2014 in Monument Valley, Utah. The school, which has grades seven-12, must prepare its 216 students, who grow up amid the Navajo Nation's iconic red mesas, for success in the wider world: jobs, college, trade school, Anglo culture. But it also must teach the Navajo language and traditions as a result of federal lawsuits, beginning in the 1970s, that accused the district of unequal treatment of American-Indian students.

Transnational or Indigenous?

Duane Champagne

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.


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davidche-weilee's picture
Submitted by davidche-weilee on
Dear Duane, Thanks for your decent commentary on distinguishing between non-tribally-based indigenous transnational and tribally-based indigenous transnational arguments. This helps me carefully understand and use transnational/transcultural theoretical perspective in my writing for indigenous studies. In order to ensure I understand your point appropriately, I would list my points to succinctly re-interpret and grasp your argument. Please feel free to let me know (or correct me) if I interpret your meaning inadequately. First, your basic standpoint is not fully against the emerging transnational argument. Second, you want to emphasize that the weakness of the transnational/transcultural theory is the lack of underscoring the substantial tribal living experiences or life of those stay or live on reservations to a certain extent. In other words, it pays too much attention to the urban experience of Indian people. In this respect, you tend to imply a top priority of consolidating tribal indigenous identity. Third, you thus argue that transnational theory fails to fully address or represent an authentic indigenous identity because its premise is not based on the practical and constant contact with tribal communities. Fourth, you use the Indian fiction literature as the evidence to support your viewpoint, especially underscoring the example of the mixed blood novelists. Fifth, you accept that transnational theory can provide urban Indians with thinking suggestions or action plans to face contemporary world and their mainstream value. But you disagree that the transnational argument should be realized and understood as the substitution of the core value of tribal self-government, territory, and cultural continuity. Sixth, transnational theory will be limited for indigenous nation building by strengthening indigenous people's ethnic identity mostly based on urban experiences, rather than tribally-based indigenous identity based on Indian reservations/community cultures and experiences. Seventh, the key difference between indigenous ethnic identity and indigenous tribal identity is the existence and the centrality of tradition of self-government, territory, and specific tribal cultures. And these three basic elements are very essential for the existence and sustainable development of indigenous peoples—they are, will be and should be treated as, the evidence for justifying why indigenous people can define themselves as “indigenous” legitimately while facing various dominant governments/circumstances. In sum, you warn writers, researchers, and policy makers of indigenous studies to be cautious with the use of the transnational/transcultural theory while trying to address indigenous identity because ethnic identity and indigenous identity have two different connotations. Once again, thank you for your insight based on tribal indigenous stance. Sincerely, Che-Wei Lee

davidche-weilee's picture
Submitted by davidche-weilee on
Hi Duane, Basically, your criticism of the misuse of transnational theory is a fair comment. Transnational theory should not be misunderstood as an exclusive view for explaining the urbanization experiences of Indian people just because of its extensive application in the urban Native American studies. I think I can fairly understand why many academics would largely use the transnational theory to explain urban experiences of Indian nations. Because there is an increasing trend that indigenous people are immigrating into urban cities for greater economic and educational opportunities. I take an actual case occurring in my home country Taiwan as an example. While most Aborigines still reside in predominantly mountainous regions and the plains regions in the central, southern, and eastern parts of the country, there is an increasing trend toward urbanization. To secure better employment or economic chances, and greater education opportunities, a growing number of Taiwanese Aborigines migrate to the urban centers mostly located in the western and northern areas of the country. For the above purpose, more and more parents gradually bring their next generations to, or purposely make their children born in, urban areas. Also, because many single Aboriginals work in urban cities for a long time and marry to non-Aboriginals, their mixed blood generations may be difficult to generate their tribal indigenous identity or ethnic indigenous identity without the basis of indigenous cultural and tribal contact (or if the Aboriginal spouse does not insist or is unable to make his or her children contact tribal community and culture). Thus, the cultural conflicts may not be easy to happen and affect some generations' cultural traditional (tribal) identity. But this is not a case for some urban Indians with critical self-awareness, they are empowered by some role models to restore their indigenous tribal identity when obtaining chances to learn their indigenous language, cultural beauty, knowledge, and wisdom. I believe that the reason why academics tend to use the transnational theory to largely explain urban Indian experiences is because the transitional process of cultural identity would easily occur among these urban Indian groups. In addition, these groups gradually occupy a certain percentage of total Indian populations nowadays that may affect federal policies. The findings and implications from the studies about them may be helpful and heuristic for contemporary urban indigenous people or the next generations who have no choice where to be born. Specifically, transnational studies may offer some suggestions for policy makers to appropriately deal with the issues of Indians’ tribal identity. The cultural difference between urban cities and reservations that causes cultural identity war may stimulate some urban Indians to reflect on their ethnic identity and tribal identity. At this point, transnational theorists can have plenty of data or rich stories as the evidence from these urban Indians to justify the distortion of their tribal identity and the deprivation of their tribal experiences. In other words, the tribal members who live on reservations for a long time or rarely go out working in urban cities may not encounter too many crashes (impacts) of non-Indian cultures that lead to fewer transitional process and experiences from reservations to non-reservation urban areas. I think that most transnational theorists desire to see and seek to figure out the dynamics of cultural identity among these urban indigenous peoples derived from the transitions from one culture to another. Furthermore, they can have more substantial power to contribute to practical recommendations for those have lost their tribal experiences and identity. Also, the proper use of transnational theory should focus on highlighting the transitional changes of an indigenous individual's cultural identity, rather diminishing the core value of indigenous tribal communities and identity. I would argue that transnational theory can be used from non-tribally-based experiences to tribally-based experiences, and vice versa. But mostly important, it should work to facilitate indigenous people (regardless of living in urban or tribal areas) to the restore of tribalism identity, and to make them consolidate the centrality of tribal self-government, territory, and cultural continuity. Because these elements are the evidence-based bases of legitimately defining them as “indigenous” people. Sincerely, Che-Wei Lee