The Anthropology of Native America

Having just written a research paper on the state of the education of American youths on the topic of Native American history and current state, the idea of how anthropology of Native America should look is already on my mind. The history of the Native American and Amerindian has for too long emphasized pre- and early-European contact. They are continually referred to as the people they used to be; essentially ignoring their presence as modern day peoples. School curricula all too often only focus on these early stages of Native American cultures and tend to leave out the most relevant and pressing issues that plague the contemporary Native.

To me, the anthropology of Native America is not as simple as one anthropology. It is a collection. Much like the study of different cultures in Europe, Africa, Asia, and so on, Native American cultures should be looked at independent of one another. Though many hold a number of similarities and similar mindsets and worldviews, they are independent cultures and sovereign nations. This means, just as independent cultures in different countries and on different continents, Native America should be a blanketed term to describe only peoples that coexisted in early North America and their histories up to the present day. It should not be used to refer to more than their physical existence.

With that said, it is also a collection of aspects of the cultures. To be Native American, as we have discussed over the past few months, is not as simple as to have a direct and proven blood tie to Native American ancestry. Especially with so much pressure to assimilate to and work within the boundaries of Western culture, it has become increasingly more important to hold true to one’s heritage in different ways. These include simply living within a community of similar peoples as well as going so far as to assert one’s culture through meaning, worldview, and the way in which one lives one’s life. The anthropology of Native America includes all aspect of culture, from the material, to the tradition, to the spiritual mindset. It is much more than what happened in their past and extends to what is happening now.

Similarly, when teaching the topic of Native Americans, one needs to break up the course into multi-grade curricula. They are not a single peoples with one general culture but rather an assortment of tribes, nations, and overall populations that interacted with but are independent of one another. This includes both their early histories as well as their current states. Each culture deserves its own time and attention in order to provide the most accurate and respectful representation.

Discussion with Damascus

Having Mr. Francisco speak to our Native Peoples of North America course was a very unique and sobering experience. After spending so much of our time reading chapter after chapter and article after article about Native American and Amerindian culture as well as the political strife and challenges each tribe and nation have inevitably experienced, being able to speak to a Native American in person (or through a computer screen) was especially exciting. While being certain to study these peoples as respectfully and accurately as possible, we still were only able to learn from secondary sources. We read about different native groups and their cultures from pre- and early-contact with Europeans and Euro-Americans to more contemporary issues. We argued the legitimacy of certain sources, whether they played into the stereotypical “lumping” of cultures to perpetuate the idea of a generalized Native or over-emphasizing cohesiveness in an attempt to promote positive aspects that are often attributed to Native culture. In this discussion, were allowed the opportunity to hear about life in the Tohono O’odham firsthand. From this conversation, prompted by questions from the classroom audience, the most memorable aspect that I recall relates to the increase in border patrol.

There are a few reservations that lie in the borders of the United States and Canada as well as the United States and Mexico. This makes relations especially strained when security becomes heightened and increased by the United States, as it affects the Natives living on these reservations. They move in to protect the rights of those who live in the United States as well as those on the border but this is not always apparent in the way in which they carry out their duties or interact with the inhabitants of the reservations. Their job is to protect against illegal entrance into the United States and also help Natives as they work to keep illegal aliens from breaking into Native houses. Mr. Francisco spoke of a story when a Native woman returned to her home to find that an illegal immigrant had broken into her house and was resting on her couch. It is times like these where the increase in border patrol is a positive thing for Natives on bordering reservations.

Conversely, there are also a number of instances when these authorities abuse their power and harass those who do not speak English. Often times, these are the elders of the tribes. They are likely to be the ones that only speak tribal languages and not learned much English. What comes of this is a conflict between the Tohono Natives and border patrol as misunderstandings are common, and the patience and courteousness of the patrol is often short. This becomes another example of the imposition of a national government on a marginalized peoples. What’s more is that they way in which they interact with the Natives is not in congruence with their cultural norms and values. To have a foreigner step in and try to assert dominance over a population, whether or not it is for their protection and therefore for the better, it plays into this idea of the White having to step in and help the minority. Once again their cultures are belittled, people controlled, and freedom limited.

The Skillful Native

Have you ever watched Discovery Channel’s program Naked and Afraid? Neither have I. It is a program about two individuals who must last about a month in nature with nothing but a camera and one item of their choosing. It is meant to test them both physically and mentally. Where am I going with this, you ask? Well, I was doing laundry and had turned the television in my room on, as background. It was on the Discovery Channel because I enjoy the car restoration programs and since I was not really paying attention to it, I left it. As I was carrying a load of laundry into my room to place on my bed for a future folding session, I overheard that Naked and Afraid had just started. I giggled to myself at the title and thought nothing more. A few minutes later, they were assessing the initial skills and preparedness of the two contestants based on their lifestyles and previous experience. One, a male, was in the military and could undoubtedly survive and prosper in the African jungle in which they were being placed. That said, he was now without his equipment and resources. The other, a female, is of Native American descent and therefore, they inferred, she would probably do pretty well for herself. Now you see the connection.

I searched YouTube for this episode so that I could watch it in its entirety and see if they referenced her natural Native “skill” again. I also wanted to see if she actually would fit the stereotype. Much to my dismay, though I was able to locate the episode (Man vs. Amazon) with a limited of my search, which consisted of different versions of “Naked and Afraid Native American,” I was not able to find the full episode on YouTube, nor was I able to find it on Discovery’s website. Regardless, the idea is the same. In this program, Native Americans are depicted as not only peoples of nature but also as one group. They were sure to point out her bloodlines but did not even mention the nation with which she identified.

This depiction of Native Americans and Amerindians is a common stereotype. This is essentially the “Noble Savage” caricature. The Noble Savage is a the Native American that is quiet, respectful, uncorrupted by civilization—and often times grieving for the land that has become polluted and ravaged—and one with nature. He or she is at peace with plants and animals and continues to live a stereotypically Native way of life. The Noble Savage also knows no allegiance to any clan, tribe, or nation in specific. He or she is solely a Native American, as if they are all the same. I never would have thought that a modern organization such as The Discovery Channel would perpetuate this kind of stereotype. At least in this day and age, the Native American should no longer be defined as the ancient peoples of the earth, as almost intermediaries with Mother Nature. Rather, they should be defined by their own identities; by the autonomous actions and cultural traits of the group with which they identify. To put it simply, not all Native Americans even come close to fitting that stereotype and certainly not in this case.

In this program, though the female contestant did not look stereotypically Native American, her survivalist skills are attributed to her ancestry. When I read her bio online (Laura Zerra), not once was her heritage referenced. Instead, it highlights all of the experiences and work she has done that have provided her with the skills necessary to make her a perfect candidate to live in this unpredictable jungle for three weeks. Working as a survival instructor, back country guide, and a writer, she not only knows her way around new areas and environments but she also can reflect on her experiences as well. None of these traits come from her Native American ties but rather her interest in adventure and getting out of her comfort zone in general. With all that said, this whole experience provided me with a hearty chuckle at the ignorance of such a well-known television network.

Culture Area Concept

When first presented with the task of critiquing the “culture area concept,” my first thoughts were to the very root of the concept. I wanted to make sure that I knew the definition and how it would apply to our studies thus far. According to Wendell H. Oswalt in This Land Was Theirs, he states that a culture area is “a geographical sector of the world whose aboriginal occupants exhibited greater similarities to each other than to the people in other such areas,” (21). It is the lumping of populations and cultures in like areas together with a broader framework of similarities in culture that is attributed to their geographic conditions. I think when studying different cultures, this is a very important and unique perspective to take into account, as populations in extreme environments will be more likely to have similar cultures than those in very different environments. For example, one would expect the Netsilik to have similar traditions and practices to another group living nearby in the snow and ice, rather than a group such as Cahuilla, who reside in the California desert. From a cultural ecological standpoint, environment plays a crucial role in shaping the culture of a population. Culture is learned. It is comprised of and molded by all that affects a population; environment being a large factor. Due to this, one would expect a cultural ecologist to support the culture area concept.

Environment and geography determine what one can and cannot do or attain, physically. It is the structure on which the culture can be built. Mode of sustenance, for instance, also plays a huge role in how a culture operates. The way a population gathers and produces food is based on the environment in which it resides. One cannot simply hunt and gather if the area is barren. It would require highly specialized procedure which, in turn, would be considered a unique cultural practice. Environment has everything to do with culture, therefore suggesting that grouping Native American nations together based on their geographic locations and conditions is a justifiable practice.

While taking all of this into account, grouping cultures together based on assumed similarities is also a very dangerous road to travel. Once one has identified what one would perceive as a commonality, it can be difficult to continue to separate the cultures as distinct groups. By not only recognizing similarities between cultures but then attributing the similarities to like environmental conditions, one is subconsciously deeming them like peoples. This not only detracts from the individuality of a culture but also of a people as a whole. By this I am addressing the common misconception that most Native American and Amerindian groups, both past and present, are essentially the same. The mere fact that by saying “Native American” to refer to the peoples who inhabited this land before European influence one is ultimately stripping them of their distinctiveness and putting a single image of a stereotypical “Indian” in one’s mind.

When teaching, this may not be the best method to begin with. It brings about this stereotype which then becomes difficult to separate from actual research and fact. By lumping together Native American nations, one is subconsciously connecting them and risking the loss of an unadulterated perspective. Though one cannot be completely impartial, it is important to view cultures with as little bias as possible. Once one has had a chance to study and learn about different nations, then it can be interesting to compare and contrast them on a larger scale, such as with the culture area concept. Until then, it can be detrimental to the learning process.

Midterm Reflection

I first began this course, my knowledge of Native Americans was not extensive but I felt that I had been taught more about their culture and current state than many of my classmates. From the sound of it, many of them had either little to no curricula devoted to Amerindians, or they were limited to your stereotypical Native American class that depicts them as peoples of the past. These classes often include teaching about how they had a great respect for Mother Earth and every single living creature that they shared it with. According to classes like these, they wore decorated and fringed tunics coupled with moccasins, jewelry, feathered headdresses, and face paint. They rode horses, hunted, and some were extremely ruthless and deadly.

I have learned much about individual nations, such as the Netsilik, Cherokee, Chipewyan, Tlingit, Kootenai, Western Shoshone, and the Crow. From both readings out of Wendell H. Oswalt’s This Land Was Theirs: A Study of Nature North Americans, and individual articles and readings assigned by our professor, I have learned about their varying cultures, practices, and beliefs.

One thing that I learned is that the Netsilik and the Inuit are one and the same. I remember now that I studied the Inuit when I was in kindergarten. We learned about the ice igloos they lived in, which through this class I have learned is actually a word that means household and doesn’t specify what material it is made of. I also learned that much of the stereotypical “Indian” has come from the Crow. They used horses and lived in tepees that were adorned with artwork. The tepee, however, had more spiritual value than simply a place to stay warm and dry. It was a spiritual habitat that was symbolic of the embrace of a mother; the womb.

What I find especially interesting with the first half of this class is learning about the early Native populations and being able to compare and contrast their different cultures. I really like reading the origins accounts and connecting all of the similarities and themes while also paying close attention to what makes each one unique. From here, I like to take their geographical location into account and see if the differences can be explained by their individual environments.

I am excited to move our focus from the past to the present. Learning about modern Amerindians will certainly take an emotional toll, as they have been marginalized, exploited, and have had to fight for recognition since early contact with Europeans. I also think that it will be fascinating, now that we are able to analyze their modern culture and can recognize and identify the traditional practices and beliefs that they have been able to maintain. I think that it is incredibly important to learn about modern Amerindians because, not only do they play a large role in our history and ours theirs, but, despite the way they are commonly referred, they very much are a modern peoples. I also think it is important to continue to distinguish between different nations and tribes. All too often they are lumped together as “Indians” and their cultural differences overlooked.

Native Americans: Original Conservationists? Noblest of Savages? Modern Peoples?

Based on even the slightest glance at Native American cultural and traditional practice, they are environmentally conscious. Across the board, Native Americans are sure to take only what they need and to make use of whatever they can. This is often reflected in hunting practices, such as using as much of the animal as possible. This is all, however, an image that has been created to paint Native Americans in such a light commonly referred to as “The Noble Savage.” There is a famous PSA commercial from the early seventies that depicts Native Americans as conservationists and almost extensions of Mother Nature herself. In this short film, a Native American man paddles his canoe in his tunic, braids, signature feather and stereotypical bone jewelry. He pulls his canoe ashore alongside trash and plastic bottles and at one point you see someone drive by and throw trash out their window to land at the feet of the Native American. He sheds a single tear. This video is the epitome of the idea of Native Americans being “Noble Savages” and human representations of Mother Nature, which is in conjunction with what is referred to as “The Pristine Myth.”

With that said, it is undeniable that different Native American cultures limit their impact on the environment. From the text I have read, research I have done, and personal experience I have had, I can say with confidence that for the most part, Native American lifestyles have been less impactful on the environment. According to Georges E. Sioui, a large part of Native American culture is to give thanks to spirits or beings larger than themselves. Appreciating the things that have been provided to them by nature as well as being sure to only take what is needed in an attempt to minimize impact is tied into their day to day practices. Much of that is due to the sense that man is a guest in the world and to lay claim to nature would not be respectful nor right. It would be wrong, however, to assume that this is the case across the board, or even that it is always a conscious effort. It would also be difficult to argue that Native Americans did not participate in practices that would considered unsustainable. Such practices include elaborate potlatch ceremonies, where gifts are produced and given in excess.

These ceremonies would be held for a multitude of reasons but overall they were economic exchanges. The Tlingit are one of a number of Amerindian groups that participated in these extravagant potlatches, while also consciously minimizing their impact on the ecosystem in different ways. They strategically harvest the eggs of the glaucous-winged gull (Larus glaucescens) so as to keep from overharvesting. With both of these examples, it clear that the notion of the “Noble Savage” could only even be partially true. In my opinion it is much more accurate to view their practices as a whole. Their methods of sustenance vary but are sustainable. The same is true for cultural practices and is evident in the frequency with which they took and take place. As a whole, Native Americans were and are sustainable and conscious of the environment and their impact, but not every part of their culture can be considered a conservationist effort.

The question remains whether or not they are considered the first conservationist peoples. I would not feel comfortable stating that all early Native American peoples were both conservationists and the original conservationists. To me, to argue such a point would be to imply that they were the very first conservationists in this world. Not only is this statement entirely too broad but it is not easily testable, rendering it meaningless. By depicting Native Americans as the first conservationists, one is playing into the “Pristine Myth” and the idea of the “Noble Savage,” and ultimately as past peoples who lived long ago; long before industrialization, capitalism, and pollution. This also plays into Lewis Henry Morgan’s stages of development, which progress from savagery to barbarism, and finally to civilization. Based mainly on technological innovation and mode of sustenance, Morgan’s stages would place Native Americans in the lowest category as the least complex; again promoting the idea that Native Americans are peoples of the past that no longer exist today. All of which we can certainly agree are false.

Project Proposal

For this research project, I would like to explore the side of Native American history concerned with education. To put it simply, I want to see what is being taught in modern day schools and why. Based on the first few classes of my Native North Americans course, the disparities between education levels of my classmates with respect to Native American history and current state is very apparent. They ranged all the way from the illusion of Native Americans being ancient peoples to having conducted research projects concerned with contemporary Amerindians.

In my case, my experience lands somewhere in the middle. I would say that my elementary school and high school made the effort to not only teach the early histories of Native Americans but also the events that occurred during European colonization as well as more recent conditions and treatment. In elementary school, we spent one year studying early Native American cultures as our curriculum, which seems similar to experiences had by some of my classmates; focusing on Native American traditions. Though this was your stereotypical deer-skin clearing and tunic-making class, it was early exposure to life before European settlers. The following year, we studied the settling from the point of view of the settlers. This included focusing on two settlements in particular; one successful and one less so. Later in my middle school and high school, we studied the treatment of Native Americans in more recent times as part of our United States History courses. These classes have provided me with a perspective that is not ignorant of the situation but also not expert.

With my project, I would like to look into why there is such a range in education when it comes to Native Americans and Amerindians in general. Being from New York City and having such a foundation of knowledge of Amerindian history, specifically Native Americans from North America, it has been a very interesting and surprising journey learning about the experience of others. To hear that some have had little to no education on contemporary Amerindians was simply appalling to me. Not only are these people incredibly relevant today, but their history is tied into and has been affected by all North Americans. I would like to see what is being taught and see if I can come up with a reason as to why some can have an experience like mine, in which one is taught Native American past and present, while others can have experiences much like those of my classmates, where one is either taught very little or, in some cases, none at all. Hopefully, I will be able to interview a number of individuals who have had different levels of education on the topic and, if possible, maybe even get the opportunity to speak with different schools to hear why they choose to teach what they teach; if they hold any power of choice at all.

What perplexes me most is the idea that, in my opinion, this is basic history. If this were the case with world history, where, say, some schools chose not to educate their students on the topic of certain foreign affairs, I would be less concerned. Since Native American history has so much to do with the creation of the United States, to consciously leave it out of the classrooms is essentially to nullify its impact on our culture. It also can be perceived as an effort to remove Euroamerican blame for much of the hardships and mistreatment Amerindians have experienced throughout history and even today.