Acoma Pueblo Sky City
In Acoma Pueblo, the governors are selected by a religious leader and the community is organized into ceremonially significant clans.

The Modernist View: Liberating Indigenous Peoples from Tradition and Culture

Duane Champagne

One of the most powerful forces arrayed against Indigenous Peoples are the forces of modernity. Many, if not most, people in the world are modernists of some kind. They believe the world is progressing, and through technology, education, health, and policy, the world can be made an increasingly better place to live.

The modernist view rejects tradition as old fashion and often harmful. The arguments that U.S. policy makers made about Indian people was they needed to be liberated from the constraints of tradition and culture, since those beliefs and lifestyles kept them in a state of bondage, poverty, bad health, and ignorance. Christian churches lobbied hard during the late 1800s to gain allotments of land for individual Indians, and turn them away from tribal collective identity, culture, and economy, in order to enable Indian individuals to take advantage of modern civilization. In this way, traditional tribal governments, cultures, communities, and economies were put to the side and abandoned. Treaties and indigenous self-government, collective land, and culture would no longer be required, and Indian people would be included in modern national economy, government, and life.

RELATED: How U.S. Allotment Policy Devastated Native Lands

The rejection of termination policy during the 1950s is a benchmark event. Many Indians were willing to accept U.S. citizenship, but were not willing to give up Indian identity, self-government, treaties, land, and culture. The world has changed dramatically over the past centuries, and many Indian communities have learned to adapt. Left to their own ways, Indians would prefer their own cultures and nations. However, the world has become globalized politically and economically, if not, socially and culturally. Most Indian nations cannot live as they did two or three hundred years ago. The Indians that met the Puritans in the early 1630s are not culturally the same today, just as the Puritans not the same. Indigenous Peoples have learned to adapt, but they want to change in ways that make sense for themselves and their futures.

The diversity of indigenous cultures, institutions and histories makes it difficult to say there is a common pattern. There are diverse ways in which indigenous communities make accommodation to present-day nation state policies. Some examples are worth noting. Many U.S. tribes have taken up gaming as a way to enter the market. Gaming for most Indian nations, however, is a collective economic, if not political and cultural, enterprise where all members of the nation are equal shareholders. A tribal collective enterprise needs to make money, but the money is about upholding tribal government, community, and about sharing and maintaining collective ownership of assets. Each tribal member gets an equal share, if there are any monetary distributions. Indian nations want to go into the marketplace as collective entities, and for the purpose of serving their tribal communities, and maintaining their tribal governments, land, and cultures.

Some nations, like the various Pueblos, do not want to separate government, community, and culture. In Acoma Pueblo, the governors are selected by a religious leader and the community is organized into ceremonially significant clans. Other Indian nations, especially those organized through the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 (IRA), separate government and religion, but still maintain collective identity, and ceremonies are organized through community. Many Indian nations have always operated by community consensus, and often community remains more powerful than tribal government. For example, the IRA constitution of the Oneida of Wisconsin, has a general council composed of all adult members as the primary and most powerful governmental body. Similarly, in California, many of the tribal governments, despite bureaucratic and business corporate additions, have general community councils as their primary and most powerful political body. Many California general councils hold ultimate authority over management of collective social, political, and land interests as well as overseeing economic business and gaming enterprises. Indigenous nations are willing to address modernity, but in ways that preserve and maintain their collective political and cultural processes.

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Juliet's picture
Submitted by Juliet on
Making it a choice between keeping or rejecting all the traditional ways is a falsehood. Peoples around the world have adapted over time. Had we whites not insisted that our ways are the absolute bestest and truest of all and then attempted to impose them on the rest of the world, Native Americans (and others) would have adopted and adapted and the world would be graced with increased prosperity and possibly not so much nationalistic and religious violence. The trick now is to adapt while not losing the things that matter, and to do so against beliefs and attitudes that commoditize everything.