Courtesy Nevada Indian Commission
Analyzing Indigenous Peoples must start with analyzing indigenous cultures. This image is from the annual Stewart Father's Day Pow Wow in Carson City, Nevada.

Starting at an Indigenous Place to Interpret Indigenous Cultures

Duane Champagne

Contemporary academic writings about Indigenous Peoples often do not analyze indigenous cultures. Most Western interpretations of community and identity address indigenous people as populations, and focus too little attention on indigenous cultures. In part most Western scholars, and often contemporary indigenous scholars, are not greatly familiar with indigenous cultures, and therefore do not think indigenous cultures as important to understand.

Many arguments and interpretations of indigenous cultures are made with the aide of Western theories that often are devoid of cultural analysis. Many theories focus on colonial domination, marginalization, victimization, and tend not to address indigenous nations from within their own terms and interpretations. It is not that the marginalization arguments are necessarily incorrect, but they are incomplete, and do not center on Indigenous Peoples. Rather, they focus on systems of domination, which are usually concentrated on the actions of non-indigenous groups such as settler colonists or mestizo nationalists. Few people interpreted indigenous cultures because there are so many unique nations, and each one has a complex interpretation of cosmic order.

Here the issue of indigenous languages is very important, since understanding cultures often requires understanding the culture from its own language. Critical concepts, however, can be translated. Indigenous cultures must be interpreted with the knowledge, permission, and understanding of a host cultural group. Many contemporary Western theories, however, have their own agendas, and usually, if not always, those political agendas are not the same as the goals and values of Indigenous Peoples and their cultures.

Works focusing on the victimization of Indigenous Peoples often are critiques of contemporary Western nation states, and are aimed at reforming or revolutionizing the current class and political order. That is all well enough, however, it is a discussion that is focused on change or issues within Western nations. You cannot learn deeply or politically about indigenous cultures, when your aim is a critique of Western institutions.

Indigenous cultures need to be interpreted from the own points of view, and interpreters need to focus on the values and issues that are relevant to indigenous nations. Indigenous studies should concentrate on the goals, values, and interests of indigenous people. Many indigenous and non-indigenous scholars work with Indian nations, and in the process obtain deep understanding and experience with one or more indigenous cultures and communities.

The place to begin is with the conceptualizations and meanings of the culture, worldview, or cosmivision taken from the history and contemporary understandings of indigenous nations. Many contemporary Indigenous nations are multi-cultural, often containing traditional understandings along with Christian and non-tribal worldviews. All these multiple worldviews need to be given respect, in the same manner that indigenous nations give respect to other peoples worldviews and traditions.

Many scholars, often including indigenous scholars, do not know where to start in interpreting indigenous cultures. There is a tendency to resort to Western philosophical concepts with such terms as epistemology, ontology, axiology, and other technical terms. These expressions are useful for comparisons, but do not originate with the cultural worldviews of indigenous nations. Indigenous cultures usually are holistically arranged to employ interrelated conceptions of religion, art, causality, morality, and performance all at the same time and in the same place.

For example, Navajo sand paintings are used to spiritually and physically heal a person suffering from a morally caused illness with the help of ceremony. The sand paintings are destroyed after the ceremonies since they are considered power beings that could be harmful if abused. Western worldviews want to separate and secularize all the elements of culture. Western philosophical terms are not a good place to start for interpreting indigenous cultures. Assumptions made at the beginning about the nature of culture, will be included in the conclusion of the interpretation. One must start at an indigenous place to uphold a meaningful interpretation of an indigenous culture.

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Sammy7's picture
Submitted by Sammy7 on
Duane, I sincerely wish that I could be more agreeable concerning Christianity. I wish it were otherwise. To me, Christianity continues to be the religion of death. Its belief in dominion over the Earth and its continued belief that its teachings and beliefs are the only pathway to heaven have brought us to the edge of extinction. Its stated beliefs in life pale in comparison to its deathly consequences. To me the belief in Christianity is an abomination. Christianity belies the very heart of Indianness. Its deathly consequences cannot be masked by regalia. Christianity continues to bring death to our doorstep, and perhaps soon for one final act.