“Concrete Indians” is a portraiture series (of large scale black & white portraits) and exploration of Indigenous collective identity. (Photo by Nadya Kwandibens)

Indian Identity and Assimilation

Duane Champagne


Indigenous identities have become multiple and more complex, and some more hostile, at the beginning of the 21st century. Many contemporary indigenous nations are not culturally homogeneous as the old anthropology textbooks would have us believe. Even in traditional times, there were differences in political allegiances among families, clans, villages, and other social and cultural divisions among indigenous nations.

Contact with Europeans has introduced new religions, cultures, the market system, and new political systems. Indigenous nations, like all human groups on earth, are subject to globalized culture, economy, and political relations. Whether by force or by consent indigenous nations are now multicultural and contain individuals who speak non-indigenous languages, have taken on non-indigenous religious orientations, some are well educated in Western traditions, while others have taken up the material life and daily job routines of national market economies.

For example, the Navajo Nation is often esteemed for retaining language and community, but about one-third of the Navajo Nation are Mormons, and another one-third are Catholics, although much of Navajo culture continues to persist among the two Christian Navajo groups.

The ways in which tribal peoples have adapted to the changing circumstances of the contemporary world are varied, both at the individual and community-national levels. Some new identities promote the continuity of indigenous cultures and ways of life, while others do not. The most explicitly pro-indigenous positions are nationalists or fundamentalists who emphasize recovery and use of traditional languages, culture, and government. Nationalist viewpoints want to make change selectively so that central tribal or indigenous national philosophies, cultural activities, language, and government are maintained.

Many of the new emergent identities are not always favorable toward preserving indigenous cultures and communities. Around the world, in Latin America, Africa, and Asia, many formerly indigenous persons have taken up mestizo identities. Mestizo identities are people of indigenous descent who have rejected or abandoned cultural life within indigenous communities. Good examples of mestizo nationalities are found in Mexico and El Salvador, and many African states are composed of detribalized people who have adopted national market, cultural and political institutions. Mestizo identities seek to replace indigenous identities with national identities, and at the same time reject indigenous communities and culture as backward or alien. Consequently mestizo national states are often hostile to indigenous culture and government, and want to assimilate and dismantle indigenous identities and communities.

A key issue in the emerging identities is whether the new multicultural identities support indigenous communities, nationality, and ways of life. In the United States there are many people of indigenous descent who have Western education and cultural orientations, but are legally citizens of tribal nations, and work to support the continuity and preservation of tribal nations and cultures. Tribal communities may be multicultural, but can be united in common cause by their loyalties to a common government and indigenous tribal identity. In addition, in the United States there are millions of people who report on the United States census that they are American Indian. Many can report the name of their tribal nation, while not maintaining a direct tie to a tribal community or citizenship within a reservation community. Such individuals may be called ethnic Indians. Ethnic Indians are not the same as mestizo identities, since many ethnic Indians are proud of their Indian ancestry and often support Indian rights and legislative issues.

The old dichotomy of assimilated versus traditional orientations does not capture the complexities of contemporary indigenous identities. Many ethnic Indians and persons with extensive Western cultural and religious backgrounds, are often strong supporters of American Indian political sovereignty, cultural autonomy, and land rights.

Assimilation is only a negative issue if Indigenous Peoples are turned against preservation of indigenous community and nationality. Contemporary multicultural tribal communities favor preserving tribal community and government, although the intra-tribal groups may differ over the vision, goals, and values each wants to carry into the future.

You need to be logged in in order to post comments
Please use the log in option at the bottom of this page



Cecelia's picture
Submitted by Cecelia on
...and who do we have to blame? This is the one reason why we unite to preserve our culture and the remains of our languages. We are one in Spirit

Two Feathers's picture
Two Feathers
Submitted by Two Feathers on
well said. Do so-called ethnic Indians have the same rights in their relationship with the US? Do they also have the same rights within their own Native Nation? Do the Treaties protect them?

Anonymous's picture
Submitted by Anonymous on
Its unfortunate but Racialism really kept indigenous peoples beyond nationalism, because the racism forced people to depend on their indigenous identities. And even here you had indigenous confederacies which were formed (nation of states), much like the US. Unfortunately today multiculturalism is a from the top down elitist ruling party class to pronounce racialism as a kinder gentler more acceptable form of racism. If you don't believe me, just read some of the blogs and listen to the news on the huge separation. Good luck.

Nathan's picture
Submitted by Nathan on
In regards to the Navajo. I am sure the three slices of pie you slice us up into is way off. For one thing, the baptist churches are the predominate on the Navajo Nation. The main thing, you fail to realize and point out, is that manly Navajo's, especially elders, still speak Navajo, still hold to traditional ways and some, particularly the women, still dress like the "old days". All while practicing the christian ways. It's generally agreed, that the Navajo have thrived and continue to do so, simply because, we are "adaptable" (an anthropology term). In your short story, you fail to mention this not only about the Navajo, but all others. Assimilation is not just material cultural change and religion, its way too complex for just a short story, so stick to one topic next time. Thanks

Rosemary Barker Dodd's picture
Rosemary Barker Dodd
Submitted by Rosemary Barker Dodd on
I can prove my Indian on my Mom's side but having trouble on dad's. Eastern Cherokee and Blackfoot.

talyn's picture
Submitted by talyn on
Two Feathers, as I read it Ethnic Indians have Native ancestry, but for one reason or another are not registered in a nation. This is where my siblings and I fall. Raised with a Native grandfather, aunt, and cousins, but we don't meet blood-quantum requirements. As such, no, we don't have the same rights in our relationship with the US, we have no rights within a Native nation, and treaties don't protect us. But we take pride in our anscestry, support the sovreignty of Native nations, and we try to vote for people who we hope will have a favorable impact on Native issues. Being what the auther calls Ethnic Indians led to some confusing moments in childhood, which I now look back on fondly. Dad made sure we knew that we were part Indian. My sister and I each have the same birthmark, an irregular patch of skin with noticably deeper pigmentation. At four or so, she decided this was our Indian part. So, by her logic, I have a Native left knee. It doesn't mean much on paper, but all of this does affect my identity. Who I am in my own head. I'm split, neither wholly one or the other, and sometimes it is a difficult place to be. But I would never give up that Indian part for the sake of a less fractured identity. I value it too much.

Teddy Agee's picture
Teddy Agee
Submitted by Teddy Agee on
I can prove my indian hertiage but the federal goverment does not grant us recongition becuase we do not fit int he BIA rules because some white man change the birth records for all indians in the state of virginia and not we only get our birth right if we have a act of congress passed and signed by the president to gain our birth right. All native americans should ban together to make sure that we get our birth right. Monacan Indian Tribe of Virginia