The purpose of this research is to examine American Indian cultural values with respect to how those values affect Indian acculturation and assimilation into the dominant culture of the United States.
In the wake of violent confrontations between Indian and the established power structure of the United States–at Alcatraz, at Wounded Knee, at the Bureau of Indian Affairs–Robert Burnette and John Koster wrote: “The American Indian today is a product of history and of the disruptive elements of modern society. Federal policies–from the signing of the Constitution down to the present day–can be said to legislate his every waking action, for good, or, more frequently, for ill.” There is little doubt that this is true. During the great period of Westward expansion in the United States, the Indian was viewed by the settlers–the white man–as a barbaric force to be exterminated, often with the approval and the aid of the Federal government. The American Indian was defeated in battle and in the peace that followed those battles. Deprived of their land, shunted off to isolated reservations where the land was of poor quality for agriculture or anything else, the Indian was persecuted and deprived throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. “Two facts show how far apart the experience of the Indian has set him: only the Indian, of all Americans, has ever been subjected to a conscious and stated policy of genocide by the United States government; and only the Indian, of all Americans, has been denied freedom of religion and suffered relentless persecution at the hands of the government or with their enthusiastic approval.”
Certainly other ethnic minority groups have met with prejudice and discrimination in’ the United States. Successive waves of immigrants–Irish, German, Italian, Puerto Rican–have suffered the dual pangs of acculturation and assimilation. But other minority groups, after a generation or perhaps two have been absorbed by the dominant culture of the United States, leaving behind only isolated traces of their heritage and traditions. Certainly, the historical aspects of the treatment of Indians at the hands of the cultural majority has had a great affect on the rate of acculturation and assimilation of the American Indian. Yet, following all the turmoil of the civil rights movements of the 1960’s and early 1970’s, when Blacks made great advances, the processes of acculturation and assimilation continue to proceed slowly for the American Indian.
Thus, this paper will focus upon the cultural values of the American Indian which affect their acculturation and assimilation. Naturally, the historical background of the Indian can not be ignored but an emphasis will be placed upon modern factors that affect Indian acculturation and assimilation.
For the purposes of this paper acculturation is “a broad process defined as change in formerly autonomous cultures that come into contact.” Assimilation is a more specific process consisting of “structural and organizational absorption of formerly autonomous institutions or members of one society by another.” It must be remembered that there can be substantial assimilation without an accompanying marked acculturation. The converse is also true. There can be acculturation without extensive assimilation.
Most anthropologists agree that there is a slow rate of acculturation and assimilation by the American Indian to the dominant culture of the United States. However, their reasons for the slow rate of change vary. Evon Z. Vogt writes: “By the mid-twentieth century it has become apparent to social scientists studying the American Indian that the Indian population of the United States is markedly increasing and that the rate of basic acculturation to white American ways of life is incredibly slower than our earlier assumptions led us to believe.” Writing of the Indians of the American Southwest, Edward H. Spicer says: “The spread of religious ideas, of forms of government, of language, of tools and techniques, and of other elements of culture from the peoples of Western cultural backgrounds to the Indians of the Southwest has appeared to most non-Indian observers as unexpectedly slow.”
Vogt summarizes the common hypotheses for the slow rate of assimilation among the American Indian. The first argument is that the isolation of Indians on remote reservations has meant that the Indian remained isolated from the means of assimilation –education, communications, and similar institutions. A second argument, advanced by Dozier, claims that forced acculturation leads to a high degree of resistance to change in indigenous cultural patterns. A third argument is that while material aspects of a culture change readily enough, family and kinship patterns are more persistent. A fourth hypothesis emphasizes the importance of an organized communal structure.
Spicer, on the other hand, is not remarkably surprised by the slow rate of assimilation. “The speed of assimilation of American Indians has not been measured by any careful comparisons with other situations in which the contact conditions were similar. Hence, it remains meaningless to speak of cultural assimilation in the Southwest as rapid or slow.” Spicer cites other periods of conquest such as the Romanization of western European tribes, the spread of Arab civilization, the Hinduization of tribes in southern Asia, and the Europeanization of Africa, all of which continued for long periods of time from 400 years to 2000 years.
Whatever the reason advanced for the slow rate of assimilation, it remains that the American Indian has retained an individual and cultural identity that has resisted change throughout the 400 years of contact since the first European explorers landed in the new world. Some of the reasons for the slow rate of Indian assimilation can be found in the traditional cultural values of the Indian.
Dr. Ben Neiful, in an article for Indian Education, compared some values of Indian culture with those of white society. Traditionally, “the Indian, in his societies those thousands of years when he was fashioning his way of life, found he could have all that he required in the way of food, clothing, and shelter by living in harmony with nature. This meant that the essence of life was found in being and not in becoming something we are not today.” This concept, as it persists today in Indian societies, is in direct conflict with the values of white society. The dominant society is frantically engaged in “becoming” something. American children are taught very early that they must work hard, go to college, succeed in life. For the Indian, on the other hand, success is not necessarily a college education, a home in suburban America, and all the other material trappings that mark success in the dominant culture. Certainly, there are changing attitudes among the younger generations of American Indians, but change has been a long time in coming.
Neifel isolates three concepts of Indian culture that are in direct conflict with the dominant white society. The concepts of time, saving, and work as evidenced in white society have little meaning in Indian society. “Time, in the sense of measuring duration by clocks and days-of-the-week calendars as we do, is not important in the Indian way of life. In our economic and other social relationships it becomes essential to schedule most of our activities in accordance with a commonly accepted system of timing … In the economically simple life of the old Indian system there was never any need to coordinate the efforts of the group except in some general way around the natural objects, such as the sun, moon, and seasons.” The concept of time remains important today when Indians deal with the society outside their own.
Nor was there any need for the Indian to be concerned with saving for the future. “The things essential to life in those early times, like air to most of us today, had no economic value and therefore there was no need to act in terms of saving for this purpose.” The dominant American society is built upon the principle of saving for the future. There are banks, pensions, insurance plans. Everything is future oriented in the dominant culture but the Indian traditionally has no reference to such
The puritan work ethic too is deeply ingrained on American society. Work is good. There is pride in work. But this was not a part of Indian culture. Women did the tasks of drudgery which freed the men for the more important task of hunting and the protection of the group. “Habituation to hard work, including drudgery over a period of years, if necessary to earn a living, was not in the Indian system . . . Sociologists explain that this is an inheritance of Western European origin. The forefathers of immigrants to this country from Europe were taught to work.
Thus, there developed an important aspect of Indian culture which is still crucial today for an understanding of the Indian and his failure to rapidly assimilate. White society is future oriented. Indian society is oriented to the present. In a study of Navajos in the urban setting of Denver, Robert S. Weppner found that a lack of future orientation contributed to a lack of success in the urban environment. During interviews it was found that Navajos had a very nebulous future orientation in comparison with Anglos. “…subjects from both the Navajo and Anglo samples were asked to look ahead for a minute and tell the interviewer five things they would do or things they felt might happen to them in the future … The Anglos were very future oriented and listed multiple events such as buying a car or a home and getting a raise. On the other hand, the Navajos in many cases could list only one event and they were very simple occurrences.
William B. Newell takes the position that the Indian culture has been more readily assimilated by the white society than the reverse. In defining his position, Newell outlines many of the important cultural traits of American Indian which have been passed down through the generations. “In spite of the concentrated efforts and close proximity of European peoples in their endeavor to force upon the American Indian their culture the result has been a failure to a very large extent. This is again emphasized by the fact that today over half of the six thousand Iroquois Indians living in the thickly populated state of New York still retain their ancient religious concepts and 16 beliefs.”
Citing early records of Jesuit priests and colonialists, Newell Indian leaders “were elected on the basis of their merit, because of their honesty and integrity, and that they were usually the poorest men in the nation, never keeping anything for themselves, but distributing all annuities and monies equally among the people.” In addition, dictators were unknown among the Iroquois and the government had a central seat where unanimous decisions were rendered. A single dissenting vote defeated any proposal.
Of Indian character, Newell points out that Indians were gentle and kind, cared for their old people, and had a strong sense of family loyalty and kinship. Quarrelling and bullies were unknown among the Indians. Sir William Johnson, a British Indian Agent is cited: “They are only beginning to deceive in their transactions with us.” In another Johnson document, he states that he has tried to make an Indian steal but failed in his attempt. “Women received the honor and respect that no other people gave their women.” The Indian learned cruelty from the white man (including scalping) and the Indian had a strong sense of equality, sharing their food equally, and their sense of responsibility and brotherhood extended even to the white man until experience taught the Indian otherwise.
In opposition, “white culture was nationalistically rather than communally oriented; capitalistic rather than communistic (in the non-political sense of the word); individualistic rather than tribal in the material and social sense . . . The essential purpose was not that of self-improvement, but rather that of improving one’s position in society… It is evident that the essential sense of the meaning or purpose of life, the Indian and White cultures were not merely divergent, they were thoroughly opposed.”
While there were differing practices and cultural traits among the hundreds of different tribes in the United States, there were still enough common bonds between them to speak of the Indian as a totality rather than smaller units such as tribes. William H. Hodge, for instance, cited Clyde Kluckhohn’s “premises of Navajo life and thought” as a key to understanding the Navajo’s behavior. “The traditional Navajo view of life can be described in terms of premises, the first of which is subdivided into a number of formulas:
Premise 1. Life is very, very dangerous.
Formula 1. Maintain orderliness in those sectors which are little subject to human control.
Formula 2. Be wary of nonrelatives.
Formula 3. Avoid excesses.
Formula 4. When in a new and dangerous situation, do nothing, or
Formula 5. Escape.
Premise 2. Nature is more powerful than man.
Premise 3. The personality is a whole.
Premise 4. Respect the integrity of the individual.
Premise 5. Everything exists in two parts, the male and the female, which belong together and complete each other.
Premise 6. Human nature is neither good nor evil–both qualities are blended in all persons from birth on.
Premise 7. Like produces like and the part stands for the whole.
Premise 8. What is said is to be taken literally.
Premise 9. This life is what counts.
Many aspects of this philosophy are found in the philosophies of other tribes from coast to coast and north to south in the United States.
The Navajo finds the basis of his beliefs in the traditional religion. “The Navajo conceive of the universe as a dangerous place, since it is an all inclusive entity, containing both good and evil. Any disturbance of the universal harmony, causing and imbalance in the cosmos, results in evil and danger, and must be ritualistically corrected.” Thus, we see the traditional religion carrying over into modern Navajo life. The traditional Navajo view of the world as a dangerous place can only be compounded in a modern American urban setting.
Among the Zuni, qualities of individualism are held in low esteem and a high value is placed upon inoffensiveness and sobriety. “They deplore an authoritative manner and strongly disapprove of aggressive leadership.” Traditional Zuni religion emphasizes a oneness with the universe. The Sun Dance was an important religious occasion for other Indian tribes. The Teon and the Ogala “came together at one time during the year for a deeply emotional religious experience . . . Renewal of kin ties, the arranging of marriages, exchange of property, recitation of past years deeds and exploits, political maneuvering, and all of the other associated activities were secondary to the central group ritual.” The Natchez sought to control supernatural events through their shamans. The Creek participated in elaborate rituals and ceremonies that concerned the cycle of the natural universe and the supernatural universe.
There are common religious elements among American Indian tribes, enough so that a Native American Church could come into being early in the twentieth century. The Native American Church did not bring all Indians together in one religion and the Native American Church bases its sacraments on the use of peyote but the traditional elements of Indian religion are found in its tenets. The Native American Church has drawn from Christianity as well as the traditional religions. Because of the use of peyote, the Native American Church has faced numerous legal battles. One legal decision, in Arizona, describes both the ritual of the peyote and the tenets of the Native American Church. “The peyote rite is one of prayer and quiet contemplation. The doctrine consists of belief in God, brotherly love, care of family and other worthy beliefs. The use and significance of peyote within the religious framework is complex. It is conceived of as a sacrament, a means of communion with the Spirit of the Almighty–and as an object of worship, itself, as having been provided for the Indian by the Almighty.” Again, we see the common elements of Indian cultural values–the importance of brotherly love, the closeness of the family and its value to the Indian, and the belief in God. The Native American Church has preserved those elements of the tradition which have resisted assimilation. The Arizona legal decision described the use of peyote in the ritual of the Native American Church. “When thus consumed, it causes the worshiper to experience a vivid revelation in which he sees or hears the spirit of a departed loved one, or experiences other religious phenomenon; or he may be shown the way to solve some daily problems, or reproved for some evil thought or deed. Through the use of peyote, the Indian acquires increased powers of concentration and introspection, and experiences deep religious emotion. There is nothing debasing or morally reprehensible about the peyote ritual.”
Thus far this paper has focused upon the cultural values of the American Indian. The genesis of those cultural values is found in the traditional history, religion, and society. But it is evident that those cultural values such as harmony with nature, concepts of time, saving, and work, family loyalty and kinship, communal orientation, and the various aspects of religion common to many American Indian tribes have led to a reluctance on the part of Indians to accept the dominant culture. The slow rate of assimilation–if it is a slow rate–can be attributed to the cultural values of American Indians being in a direct opposition to the cultural values of the dominant American society. It is equally apparent that the assimilation process is taking place and with increasing numbers of Indians loving to urban areas that the rate of assimilation will be accelerated. However, the cultural values still affect the rate of assimilation. Let us examine the experience of the modern American Indian in his contact with the dominant white society and see how Indian cultural values conflict with that contact.
Of late much has been written about the adjustment problems experienced by Indians who move from the reservation to an urban setting such as Chicago, Denver, or Los Angeles. Often, reports were written about common problems as though each Indian experienced the same problems for the same reasons. There has now been the realization that this is simply not the case. “The adjustment patterns, recreation behavior, employment, and education expectations vary as much for people classified as Indians as similar expectations vary for the general population moving from nonurban to urban life.” Still, certain reactions, certain traits reflect the Indian experience in a unique fashion while other reactions and traits are common to any city-dweller. As might be expected, household stability, a strong family head, and regular income alleviate adjustment problems for the Indian. Conversely, if the family unit is disrupted through divorce, drinking, or illness, the family is affected and severe adjustment problems may occur. But, despite the level of education, employment, decent housing, and other similar factors, there remains a sense of “Indianness” among some urban Indians. One Indian living in Chicago described his feelings thusly: “Maybe I would be alone or feel lonely anywhere. I would like to have someone important to me and know I am important too. I would like to know that we are a part of nature, of the natural order, that time may pass, but there is always us . . . We’re part of nature, like trees have roots that have to grow from soil and be nourished. We have roots in each other and grow and are nourished. This Indian male feels the insecurity and alienation that many Americans feel in modern urban society. At the same time, there seems to be a relationship–a spiritual kinship to the Indian heritage of the oneness with nature–that may be unique to an Indian philosophy.
There is an additional factor that must be considered in any examination of the Indian in a contemporary American urban setting. “Within the matrix of city life there seems to be a detribalization resulting in a general identity as Indian, rather than tribal member, but this detribalization is also influenced by and reflects class structure … Retention of a strong component if Indianness may be the result of a real pride in heritage, but it may also be a kind of defensive behavior or refuge. The range of variation is extensive.” The move from tribalism to Pan-Indianism still retains the cultural values of the traditional society in many respects but those values are now focused on a total Indian society rather than members of smaller tribes such as Navajo or Sioux or Apache.
The importance of cultural values and Pan-Indianism to the contemporary Indian are apparent in studies of the Indian communities of San Francisco and Los Angeles.
Joan Ablon’s study of Indians in the San Francisco Bay Area focuses on the “nature of the new relationships that are conceived and maintained by persons coming from kin-oriented, relatively closed communities to large metropolitan centers.” Ablon writes that”American Indians bring to the city a diversity of tribal and acculturative backgrounds, but a common heritage of participation in small rural folk communities with a basis of aboriginal tradition, and a dependent relationship with the white world as symbolized by their long and often painful association with the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The reservations they leave are economically underdeveloped areas, but constitute communities which have provided some degree of security and social control for the individual, and have acted as buffers against the immediate encroachments of white culture.”
The relatively common background of American Indians is crucial to an understanding of the problems faced by the Indians in the process of assimilation. Resistance to assimilation can be readily found two areas. The historical tradition of animosity by the white toward the Indian has not been erased in contemporary society. Nor has the conflict between Indian values and white values been tempered by time.
The peculiarity of the position of American Indians as an ethnic group stems from a number of facts which are crucial to their potential adjustment in white urban life. The most important of these is a basic antagonism to white society that has developed from a history of rejection and discrimination. American Indians perforce have had their traditional cultures decimated in one way or another, and have been drawn often unwillingly into the mainstream of American life. Highly important also is the fact that many fundamental Indian values are not only incompatible with those of American culture, but work directly in opposition to the principles on which the modern capitalistic order is based. Indians generally do not want to compete with others. They would rather share money or material goods than budget or save. They will not often speak out to complain or demand their rights. A basic tribal world view defining the interrelationships of man with his society and the world around him, and the paternalistic nature of Bureau administration of Indian community affairs have helped produce complex and deeply entrenched attitudes of dependency which greatly hinder adjustment to the practical demands of urban life.
Thus, the continuing influence of the traditional life of the reservation community is present in the urban setting. Other aspects of Indian cultural values manifest themselves in the Indian community of the Bay Area. There are a number of Indian groups and social organizations active in the area. Ablon found traces of Indian cultural values in the organization and planning of the various groups. “Characteristic of the operation of the groups are a lack of authoritarian leadership, a general practice of group participation in planning, and a frequent absence of concrete pre-event duty assignment (with much complaining afterward about the resulting confusion.”
Most Indians in the Bay Area were found to prefer to associate with other Indians although many Indians stated that they had white friends as well. Ablon found that friendships between Indians and whites were more often on a superficial basis and could be better classed as acquaintances. Indeed, for many Indians, their relocation to the Bay Area resulted in a first awareness of their Indianness. Removed from the reservation, placed into the situation of living in a society where they were unique, made many Indians seek out Indian groups, dance “Indian for the first time, and take an active interest for the first time in Indian political activities and problems. There is an emerging sense of identity and awareness of being an Indian and an emerging sense of the social and psychological imperatives of Indian identity.
The adjustments most Indians make in learning the cues for living successfully in the white world seem to be superficial to their established basic personality structures. Such basic qualities of Indianness–as Indian identity and continuing belief in early teachings and values–are strongly resistant to change, despite efforts of the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the dominant white society to effect fundamental changes during the process of adjustment. In the course of my study in the Bay Area I did not encounter any persons I could consider to be assimilated. The psychological awareness of Indian identity was ever present and seemed to vary little in relation to intermarriage, profession, or diverse social preferences.
John A. Price found similar patterns of Indian behavior in Los Angeles with an accompanying trend toward assimilation and acculturation. In Los Angeles, which has the largest urban population of Indians in the United States, “the Indians are actively creating a pan-Indian subculture which accommodates their aboriginal history and reservation culture to the newer world of urban living. Athletic leagues, Christian churches, and other institutions Euro-American in character are focusing on their Indian membership and identity with such activities as social centers, annual fairs and yearly Christmas parties. Tradition-oriented dance clubs flourish.”
As was the case with Ablon’s study of Indians living in the San Francisco Bay Area, Price found that the Indian population of Los Angeles tended to continue to relate to Indians rather than whites in the urban setting. Los Angeles has a variety of organizations and social groups for Indians residing in the metropolitan area–kinship, tribal, and pan-Indian clubs or centers. In addition, Price found that Indians tend to retain their attitudes concerning certain aspects of daily life. “Indians tend to retain the attitude that one should not spend much on clothes or housing. On the reservation a few work clothes and a single set of dress clothes are sufficient; housing is of course inexpensive. Hence the Los Angeles Indians on the average spend a relatively small portion of their income on clothes and housing, while relatively large amounts go toward travel and entertainment.”
Indians in Los Angeles have learned, as other minority groups before them learned, to survive in the impersonal atmosphere of the urban setting. Los Angeles Indians “have found in social enclaves a security against the impersonality of the city, and a new and wider identity in pan-Indian associations.” The pan-Indian associations, in place of the older tribal associations, afford the Indian a wider perspective and although only one-fifth of Price’s respondents were actively affiliated
with a pan-Indian organization, the great majority were ideologically and emotionally affiliated with pan-Indianism.
Because of the ideological importance of pan-Indianism in the process of acculturation and assimilation, it is necessary to understand the implications of the pan-Indian movement in order to understand the growing Indian involvement with the movement. We have seen how tribal affiliations in an urban setting are replaced by a greater allegiance to pan-Indianism simply out of necessity. Removed from the reservation and family and tribal contacts, the Indian seeks expression for his Indianness. That expression is found in pan-Indianism.
In his study of pan-Indianism, Robert K. Thomas provided a useful definition: “One can legitimately define Pan-Indianism as the expression of a new identity–and the institutions and symbols which are both an expression of that new identity and a fostering of it. It is the attempt to create a new ethnic group, the American Indian; it is also a vital social movement which is forever changing and growing.”
It is not unusual for such a Pan-Indian movement to grow and develop in the United States. Historically, it is an old movement which can trace its roots to the nineteenth century and even before. During the eighteenth century Eastern tribal chiefs perceived the commonality of Indians in opposition to the white society which encroached upon their territories. The movement led by Tecumseh in the early part of the nineteenth century was also Pan-Indian in its approach to the problems caused by the Westward expansion of the whites. Later, the Pan-Indian religion–the Native American Church–grew from the Ghost Dance and the Peyote movement. These movements were spread in part by the boarding schools such as Carlisle.
But events of the twentieth century, the decade of the 1960’s in particular, have also contributed to the growth of Pan-Indianism. i@,e younger generations of the various Indian tribes who have migrated to American urban areas can not but help to have been influenced by recent events, both in the United States and abroad. As the Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s spread into a black power movement and the attendant concern with heritage, tradition, and identity as a black person, so the Pan-Indian movement serves to awaken the same instincts in American Indians. Indeed, it is rather surprising that Pan-Indianism has not become a greater force in American society when one considers the adamant resistance of the Indian to assimilation by the dominant white culture. Abroad, there have been Pan-African movements which are similar in intent to the Pan-Indian movement.
There is a greater significance to the Pan-Indian movement as well. Thomas writes: “Pan-Indianism is the creator of a new identity, a new ethnic group, if you will, a new ‘nationality’ in America. The twentieth century seems to be the century for pan-tribal movements all over the world–in the New World, Asia, Australia, and Africa. Research on the Pan-Indian movement would not only tell us, as anthropologists, a great deal about the social and cultural processes . . . Pan-Indianism is the oldest such movement and perhaps could tell us what lies in the future for parts of Africa and Asia.”
Thomas advances the hypotheses that Pan-Indianism is a defense mechanism on the part of the Indian and that other such movements have their genesis in the same reasoning. “Modern industrial civilization, through the vehicle of the bureaucratic nation-state and its institutions, demands not only the incorporation of tribal peoples but immediate incorporation and individual assimilation. Industrial civilization individuates and attacks the solidarity of the social group. A tribal group can not tolerate such an attack. It is, furthermore, doubtful if the individual tribal person could survive as a personality under these conditions. The first reaction of tribes under this kind of stress is the banding together of tribal groups and a widening and bolstering of this new identity, in self-defense. Even when tribal peoples desire to be incorporated into an industrial civilization, they are unwilling to break up as social groups, and therefore try to come to some kind of compromise, such as partial incorporation while retaining the solidarity of 50 the social group.”
Thomas’s hypotheses seems particularly pertinent to the Pan-Indian movement. With the cultural heritage of American Indians persisting through the centuries of persecution and displacement from their ancestral lands, the American Indian had to develop defenses in order to survive as a tribal unit. As civilization and industry encroached more and more upon the Indian, tribal groups were hard put to retain their identity. The Pan-Indian movement affords the American Indian an identity as a cultural entity although that identity in no longer entirely related to the tribal group.
Identity is a major cause of concern for most ethnic groups who are undergoing the process of acculturation and assimilation. The deeply ingrained cultural values of the American Indian, sustained over centuries of discrimination, persecution, and attempts at extermination, must naturally give the American Indian great cause for concern during a very trying period. As Thomas’ hypotheses suggests, the individual, when confronted by external pressures of the sort that the Indian has faced since the first appearance of the white man in America, faces an extreme identity crisis in two parts. The first part is the effort of the tribal group to survive and maintain an identity. The second part relates to the individual and his effort to survive when the old cultural values are threatened. More and more, as the American Indian proceeds through the processes of acculturation and assimilation, the old cultural values will be broken. But those cultural values must be replaced by other values. Since many of the cultural values of the American Indian are in direct conflict and opposition to the cultural values of the dominant white society, the values of the Pan-Indian movement seem to be the values that will sustain the American Indian and provide a cultural identity in the wasteland and loneliness of urban America.
John W. Olson found that three major factors contributed to the Indian’s success or failure in adapting to contemporary urban American life. These factors are: educational background employment opportunities, and psychological stability. Certainly these same factors apply to non-Indians in American society as well but because of the complexities of the Indians culture and background there may be additional factors at work.
For example, the education of the American Indian and the curriculum in which the American Indian studies have been molded on the lines designed by the dominant white society. “To a significant degree, educational goals have been fashioned to conform to the competitive achievement orientation of the American middle class and to the attainment of material wealth.” As we have seen, American Indians, for the most part, are not oriented to the achievement of material wealth nor are they oriented to the attainment of long range goals. In this situation, the American Indian simply does not have the orientation necessary to compete for grades and scholastic success. It is an alien concept in Indian culture and “pressures in school to compete for grades or rank merely result in stress, tensions, or passivity.”
Naturally enough, employment opportunities in modern America depend upon to a large extent the educational background and qualifications of the individual. The cultural values of the Indian which work against the attainment of the successful middle class American education therefore carry over into the Indian’s search for employment. The poorly educated person must compete with others who have higher qualifications. Thus, often times, the Indian search for employment is reduced to seeking out the unskilled or semi-skilled employment opportunities where the pay is longer and the employee,is more subject to the vagaries of the economy–lay-offs, strikes, recessions and the like.
Psychological factors come under consideration as an outgrowth of education and employment opportunities but also because the Indian who moves from the reservation to an urban setting loses touch with the familiar and the traditional values which governed behavior and provided an identity. “When Indians are together on a reservation or in a small town close to many friends and kinfolk, they may have a number of conflicts, but they rarely have problems of personal identity; their images of
self are usually accurate in the sense that they have only to look at the friends and kinfolk and see models for behavior.” The Indian in the urban setting develops psychological problems when he loses his sense of identity as an Indian. Thus, the importance of the Indian cultural values–as often provided by the Pan-Indian movement–becomes a crucial factor. “Whereas other people may define themselves in terms of profession, socioeconomic class, or school or club affiliation, the newly urbanized Indian develops a concept of self around the idea of cultural heritage, and that cultural heritage gives him roots and a sense of belonging.”
Thus, the American Indian comes full circle in his attempts to cope with the white dominated American society. To survive and succeed in the United States, the Indian must become more white than Indian. But the idea of material wealth and success is alien to the Indian culture. Thus, to succeed and survive as an individual, the Indian must become more Indian than white.
Thus, the American Indian in contemporary America is caught in a kind of anthropological “Catch-22.” On the one hand, the Indian’s cultural values and heritage are alien to the attributes considered necessary for Americans; on the other hand, the Indian’s ability to achieve those attributes–and thus acculturation and assimilation into the dominant society–are retarded by the same cultural values and heritage.
The acculturation and assimilation process has been continuing for centuries for the American Indian. The cultural values of the American Indian have resisted much of that process rather successfully over the decades and the centuries. The acculturation and assimilation process may yet continue for more decades although it seems unlikely. As younger Indians move from the reservations to seek greater opportunities apart from their relatives and traditions, the tribal values will break down and perhaps vanish. But the Pan-Indian movement will ensure that Indian values remain, if not intact–at least recognizable. This is as it should be.
Other minority groups, other ethnic groups have been able to succeed in American society and life without giving up their cultural background, values, and identity. It is not an impossible task for the Indian but because of the strength of the Indian’s cultural values and heritage, the task is more difficult. However, time will reveal that the Indian will gradually assimilate more and more into the dominant society. Time will also reveal whether or not this is a could thing or whether assimilation should have been reversed.