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Contemporary Native American Culture
on the rise or fall?
With a subsection on considerations for social workers engaging First Nations people.
- an article by Josef Graf
It would appear that an exploration of the question - to what extent is Native American culture being undermined by contemporary society, and what are its prospects for the future? - reveals that there is a significant degree of resilience in this indigenous culture. In fact, when examined objectively, Native American cultural components are not only enduring, and are increasing, but have both been incorporated in the dominant culture since its inception, and may well become increasingly adopted in the future.
That Native cultural heritage persists, and may even be due for significant resurgence is indicated by comparative perspectives between both dominant and indigenous cultural forums in the areas of land ownership, health care, education, dietary regimes, social justice, environmentalism, conflict resolution systems, and general spiritual-materialist assessments - as will be put forward in this article.
While, historically, the Native population was deemed by most members of the invading culture to be rescinding virtually all of its cultural heritage, objective analysis indicates that what in fact took place was otherwise, both in the short term, and, especially, in a longer, perhaps futuristic timeline.
In the genocidal hey-day of the pioneering era, many early Europeans on the scene didn’t even recognize, when they saw, or took part in it, the criminal act of murder of fellow human beings (when it was committed on Natives, that is). Elimination of Native American physical presence, let alone cultural heritage, was high on the agenda.
Since that time, a degree of human evolution has taken place within the dominant culture (although there is still far too much narrow-minded racism that prevails. . .) The last part of the 20th Century saw some protective measures enacted - respect for burial remains, protection of arts and crafts, religious freedoms, and such. This has accompanied a rise in pan-Indianism, respect for traditions by a growing percentage of Whites, and an increase in ceremonies, as well as books, movies and workshops that promote positive views of Native culture (Wagner).
It is helpful, in terms of getting a clearer perspective of how things stand, to attempt a certain amount of re-writing of history, as well as “trying on” alternative viewpoints, for both the indigenous and dominant culture, including contemporary concepts of land “ownership” and other aspects of the dominant culture that are typically taken for granted. What opens up in this pursuit, is a view that upsets the status quo on limiting perceptions that our society holds to in a fixated manner.
Native Americans traditionally knew, in an instinctive way, that one can’t “own” land, that it is there for everyone to obtain provision from, and to coexist with in a living relationship. Tribes may have had territorial skirmishes, but they still viewed land as a living essence, not as “property.”
Modern real estate practices of the dominant culture have delivered civilization to a dangerous level of social and economic imbalance, and threaten the integrity of the social fabric. In addition to homeless desperation for many Americans, parents are now typically both employed during their children’s early vulnerable years, because housing can no longer be sustained, has gone out of reach of sensible economic means. In a way, the Native American perspective stands as a means of resolution for our socially corrupted society - as it does for many other areas of important social consequence.
Health Care and Dietary areas.
The Native American culture has long embraced a nature-based, holistic method of healing. Significant wisdom from ancient times, around herbology and practices such as sweat lodge ceremonies and fasting, still offer both effective and economical means of remediation.
As well, the traditional attitude toward aspects of nature would never have permitted the disastrous state of dietary and environmental degradation we now find ourselves contending with. Praying for the spirit of an animal when engaging with it as a food substance stands in marked contrast to the routine abuse of animals entailed in “modern” mass meat production.
Cultivation of land has descended into a blindly led materialist arena, wherein the earth is viewed as mere substance, so that any similar element of materialist conception is inanely perceived as a remedy for looming problems (thus, chemical fertilizers, pesticides and GMO crops are, even at this late stage, the mainstay of dominant society’s agricultural resolution).
In contrast to the dominant culture’s long term failure to significantly resolve criminal behavior, Native American concepts of justice run much deeper. Victims and perpetrators are brought together to render true, organic resolution, with tribal councils overseeing and arbitrating.
Consensus is viewed as an ideal, versus (poorly represented) “democracy.” Meetings to resolve issues typically entail striving to attain consensus, and the use of a “talking stick” system to ensure everyone’s voice is both included and respected (Resources for Native American restorative justice).
Recent events begin to make it clear that our materialistic society has been delivering us to devastation - socially, culturally, and (despite utter fixation on things financial) economically. In contrast to this materialistic quagmire, the Native American perspective holds to a living, animistic world of nature and social forums, wherein spirit is known to indwell all things.
Taking just one scenario as an example, and by use of retrospect, it could be said that the exchange of the original ecosystem of the Great Plains for the current system in place amounts to a very substantial net loss. The modern beef industry doesn’t hold a candle to the millions of bison that roamed the area, and that system barely needed to be tended by human resources. Far superior harvest was traded for steadily declining quality and environmental degradation (Return of the Bison, retrieved).
Finally, it has been held by several history analysts, that the very constitution of the United States was influenced in its inception by the sophisticated Six Nations verbal constitution, which existed for hundreds of years before the founding fathers of America drew up the U. S. document. One of the founding fathers of the U.S. constitution, John Rutledge, “proposed they model the new government they were forming into something along the lines of the Iroquois League of Nations, which had been functioning as a democratic government for hundreds of years. . .( League of Six Nations, retrieved)”
In a way, then, it would make sense to exchange the original question - “to what extent is Native American culture disappearing or surviving in the face of the dominant culture?” - with, “to what extent should we be embracing, studying, and emulating many aspects of Native American culture. . . .?”
Overall, the above conceptions explore only some of the elements of Native American culture. Like any cultural group arena, there is, and has been for some time, a growing tendency for members to individuate.
Thus, there are both Native Americans who are decidedly members of the cultural resurgence, and there are Native Americans who are not necessarily assimilated into the dominant culture (although some are) but, like some in the dominant culture itself, are fairly independently individuated.
Given the benefits that could derive from open-mindedly understanding and embracing key aspects of Native American culture, it stands to reason that a whole buffet of benefits awaits, should the dominant culture wake up to all of the many cultures that interweave through modern American society. Picking and choosing the best from each culture could bring exponential social evolution at a time when that is precisely what is needed to see us through these troubled times. In fact, we could say, to ensure that human civilization itself is to continue.
Transposing cultural competence into viable social work practice
By way of summary, and to transpose the essence of the above exercise in cultural competence, a few considerations emerge for the social worker to contend with.
As Weaver asserts, understanding intangible elements of culture is important in building effective social or therapeutic relationships. Conversely, limited perspective of a human being confines potential outcomes (Weaver, 26).
Social injustice can lead on to two opposing results for a client (Miller, 1999), deflation of self-value, or transcendence over environment. In the latter, and preferred outcome, the individual encounters what may be referred to as a greater rendition of Self. Overcoming “conditioning” frees up “Self-ness.” But this turn of events implies that, through overcoming conditioning, one is rescinding one’s cultural influences, or at very least, associating only with central aspects of a culture, and with a free-spirited manner, as opposed to a limiting-belief scenario, wherein the subject is not the captain of their own ship, so to speak (Weaver, 31).
So then, when does culture become beneficial for an individual and when not so helpful?
Big Empathy is called for. And this means maturing, in a way that could be defined as evolving toward a greater capacity to apprehend multi-dimensional complexity within others, thus rising above prejudice and stereotyping.
Other qualities in such maturity include a capacity to be mindful, or present, in the moment, and to be open to moment-to-moment unfolding or transition. Above all, such a stance requires flexibility with acceptance of diversity, per se (Weaver, 50).
As well as capacity to engage everyday empathy.
Thus, we could say that people who engage in racism, prejudice, or stereotyping are generally not mature, or evolved. Or they might have been impaired in the process of maturity, or - in view of reincarnational considerations, be at the low end of evolution, and need further lives to evolve (though development can be accelerated by increased presence of more evolved individuals.)
Time orientation, in the Native tradition, is very different compared with the dominant society’s conceptions and operating principles (Weaver, 89). It could be said that, from an alternative perspective, a member of the dominant culture engages in filling their life with linear time management challenges until they are dead, and very often will have gotten next to nowhere for all that trouble. Native timelines tend to bore straight into the moment, and unfold from there, versus a linear future orientation.
In Weaver’s words (p. 90-94), “In contrast to dominant society views, indigenous people view spiritual, mental, physical, and social aspects of their lives as connected and continuously interacting. . . It is a spiritual necessity to live a balanced life in harmony with all other beings. . . For traditional Native Americans, spirituality is a part of every aspect of life including worldview, relationships, health and illness, healing, and ways of grieving.”
“Native communities continue to exist as distinct cultural entities with many strengths. Even when federal policies interrupted values transmission, wisdom, beliefs, and practices are strengths that have survives. Communities are striving to revitalize traditions. . . A study of Native women revealed they handle roles through integration and balance of traditional and contemporary feminine strengths in a positive, culturally consistent manner. Healing the spirit is done through returning to traditions to reclaim the self.”
There are grave dangers inherent in holding negative framing of a client. To hold to an image of Native Americans as alcoholic, self-destructive, and dysfunctional is to throw yet another block to resolution.
Workers must start fresh with every client. If they are open to positive qualities, sometimes very special qualities, novel avenues of resolution are waiting to be implemented. If a worker can remain open, mindful, and ready to facilitate opportunities that arise in unprecedented ways and, through patience, wait to ascertain the client’s perception of issues, and to highlight strengths as they become apparent, the worker can facilitate genuine empowerment.
Weaver concludes (p. 96) that there is only limited usefulness of psychological concepts, such as “depression” (and their related treatment modalities). With the DSM in mind, for example, we can go so far as to agree with Weaver when she says that “using Western criteria in assessing First Nations clients is inappropriate and can be a form of institutional racism. . .forcing the problems of Native clients into Western categories can distort their true nature.” Weaver goes on to cite various alternative assessment tools, suggesting, rightly, that the DSM is in dire need of transformation, if it hopes to remain in the new world to come, or at least in a world that strives to accommodate true diversity of cultures.
“Containment skills” are cited by Weaver as “a particular set of skills useful with many types of clients and particularly important when working with native American clients. . .[include to] refrain from speaking too quickly or too much, thus promoting productive silence. By displaying patience and allowing the session to proceed at a comfortable pace, significant material will often emerge.”
Lastly, “Social workers can form cooperative relationships with indigenous healers that include mutual referrals and collaboration in helping some clients.”
A sub-note: While considering all of this, it is well to keep in mind that ancient traditional cultures are largely now decadent, having originated from the Atlantean epoch, which has been superseded by five subsequent cultural developments (R. Steiner). However, the question goes out now - to what extent can First Nations people develop new cultural impulses, while still remaining true to First Nation spirituality? That could be a great angle of research to undertake.
Kalt, Joseph and Joseph Singer, 2004, Myths and Realities of Tribal Sovereignty,: Harvard University.
Martin, Joel 2001 The Land Looks After Us: A History of Native American Religion, Oxford University Press.
Mihesuah, Devon, 2000, Reparation Reader: Who Owns Indian Burial remains? University of Nebraska Press.
Wagner, Annie 2004, Invisible Indian Tribes, Fort Lauderdale Times.
Weaver, H. N., 2007. Explorations in cultural competence: Journeys to the four directions. Belmont, CA: Thomson Brooks/Cole.
Resources for Native American restorative justice, retrieved from:
Return of the Bison, retrieved from:
League of Six Nations, Iroquois constitution, retrieved from:
This paper explores the question - to what extent is Native American culture being undermined by contemporary society, and what are its prospects for the future? There is a significant degree of resilience in the culture, such that Native American cultural components are not only enduring, but have both been incorporated in the dominant culture since its inception, and may well become increasingly adopted in the future. The article goes on to articulate considerations when doing social work with First Nations people.