GEOG 571
Intelligence Analysis, Cultural Geography, and Homeland Security

What it Means to be Native American in Twenty-First Century America


Although the indigenous nations of North America display a wide range of cultural variances relative to traditions, lifestyles, and religious beliefs, their shared experiences over the last several centuries, while not erasing their cultural differences, have tended to lead them to hold a similar world view. In other words, despite local and tribal differences, American Indians tend to hold similar views of what it means to be Native American. There are, of course, significant differences between Native Americans who have left the reservations and become part of other communities, and those who have remained on Indian lands. Nevertheless, members of the many tribal groups in the United States increasingly show solidarity as Native Americans (or the First Nations).

During the first half of the twentieth century, American Indians generally reacted to the dominant culture in one of two ways. Many simply remained on reservations where they were able to maintain their languages and cultures. Others, however, left the reservations for the economic opportunities promised by the growing U.S. economy. Many intermarried with non-Indians, and their children often choose to fully assimilate into European/American culture. For the most part, however, within a generation or so, Native Americans who moved off the reservations into non-Indian communities lost touch with the values, attitudes, and beliefs of their cultures, and many completely replaced their native languages with English.

It is not surprising that many young Native Americans choose to leave the reservations (even if reluctantly). In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, reservation life was often bleak, and economic opportunities were almost non-existent.

For nearly a century, no matter how they might feel about it personally, many Native Americas (particularly those not living on reservations) chose to make as little reference to their indigenous roots as possible. That is because most Indian people understood that while many within the dominant culture might enjoy watching indigenous dances, and might purchase native jewelry, pottery, and the like, it was nearly impossible to live a traditional native lifestyle outside the boundaries of a reservation. Additionally, a large percentage of those who left the reservations (especially people who married outside their traditional indigenous group) found that attempting to return to their roots was not easy.

I believe many Native Americans who were born and raised during the first half of the twentieth century must now be amazed that over the course of the last thirty years, it has become desirable in the United States to have indigenous ancestors. Many Americans (even those who have light complexions and European last names) now proudly include a Native American “princess” (often Cherokee) somewhere in their lineage (often with no proof of the validity of their claim of indigenous heritage). At one time, such claims were made because people thought it made them more interesting as human beings. In recent years, however, being a member of an Indian nation, or merely being able to claim indigenous blood, offers opportunities and benefits.

In addition to the economic benefits that may accrue to people who can demonstrate indigenous heritage, being an American Indian is now socially desirable. For example, all three state universities in Arizona actively recruit American Indian students. Furthermore, all three institutions give considerable attention to native studies programs, outreach efforts to reservations, and research endeavors that focus on the indigenous people of North America.

As might be expected, Native American responses to the changing societal view of indigenous people vary. Some Indian Nations such as the Hopi of Arizona, have tended to adopt from the dominant culture the artifacts and techniques they find useful, and generally reject the rest. For example, Hopi planners use Geographic Information Systems and Remote Sensing to help manage their large reservation. At the same time, however, Hopi farmers continue to plant their corn fields in the traditional way (albeit some may use a tractor to work the fields before planting). The Navajo Nation (of Arizona, Utah, and New Mexico) owns numerous enterprises, supports a large tribal community college, and has among its members many people who have become physicians, lawyers, teachers, professors, and leaders in many other professions. Nevertheless, many Navajo continue to speak mostly Navajo and make their living herding sheep and raising cattle.

Despite these differences, however, the indigenous community of America also exhibits many common attributes. After spending many years working closely with Native Americans in Arizona, I have come to believe that many (especially younger people) live with a sense of loss and longing. A large number of young Native Americans (and non-Native Americas as well) believe that prior to the arrival of Europeans, the indigenous people of North America lived free, uninhibited lives in an Eden-like natural environment. They believe that the influences of European culture and the greed of non-Indians destroyed the idyllic world of their ancestors. Of course, the vast majority of Native Americans know that life in North America prior to the arrival of Europeans was challenging. They are aware of the constant warfare between various tribal groups, and the difficulties that all people face in dealing with human and natural forces. Even so, they remain wistful about what might have been.

While the nuclear family consisting of two parents and a couple of children remains fairly common in the United States, other family organizational arrangements are increasingly apparent. Millions of American children are now raised in single-parent homes, and a growing number of grandparents are finding it necessary to raise their grandchildren. These things are also happening in American Indian communities. Even so, Native Americans tend to place a great deal of emphasis on extended family relationships. In many indigenous families, great grandparents, grandparents, parents, and children live in the same household, or within walking distance of one another. Even uncles, aunts, and cousins are considered to be close relatives. Native American children who grow up on reservations and in nearby reservation border-towns are almost always very well acquainted with the members of their father’s and mother’s extended families. Whereas non-Indian children may seldom see more distant relatives, Native American youth generally know their kin very well.

Twenty-first-century life for Native Americans continues to be characterized by extended-family social obligations and economic responsibilities. The extended family expects its successful members to help other relatives who are not as fortunate. Therefore, Native Americans who hold good paying jobs, or who operate successful businesses, often support a sizeable number of older and younger members of the family. Because of this, there is an important leveling of material well-being among members of Native American families. Often, the oldest woman in the family takes responsibility for making sure those who have wealth share it with those who do not.

American Indians have traditionally been very respectful of the elderly members of their communities and families. For the most part, indigenous elders continue to be treated with deference and affection. Recently, however, some Indian leaders have expressed concern about a growing indifference toward tribal elders on the part of indigenous youth. Obviously, this phenomenon is not unique to American Indian communities. Over the last several decades, American youth, in general, have grown less respectful of their elders. Despite this trend, however, most Native Americans continue to show respect for the older members in their communities and families.

Not long ago, many Americans spent their entire lives in close proximity to their places of birth. As a result, they were rooted in a community and a culture, and they lived within a social network of family and friends. Currently, in response to employment requirements, economic opportunities, and even retirement decisions, people often make several geographic moves during their lives. Such mobility has tended to diminish the once powerful roles that traditional communities and extended families played relative to the well-being of individuals and the collective security of the nation. Additionally, the mobility of the work force and the increasingly impersonal nature of many work environments have also created a mounting sense of isolation. Therefore, the popularity of Internet communications through which people attempt to interact vicariously is not surprising.

Many Native Americans also find it necessary to move about in search of opportunities, but most remain well-connected to their tribes and families. As a result, they tend to have a sense of belonging that is now missing for a great number of non-Indian Americans.

In similar fashion to many other American citizens, youthful Native Americans seem to have a growing sense of entitlement. This is of course not unique to members of the native communities. Americans, in general, seem to expect the government to do more and more for them. The difference, however, in Native American entitlement programs such as “Indian Health,” and the entitlements provided by government to all Americans, is that indigenous nations are entitled to free health care because these benefits were guaranteed by nineteenth-century treaty agreements. In exchange for giving up the lion’s share of their ancestral homelands, Native American groups were promised health care, secure reservations, protection, education, food, shelter, and other kinds of assistance. Many of these treaties remain valid because they are legal commitments by the United States government to Native Americans. Therefore, indigenous people, in general, do not consider the government dollars they receive to be subsidies. To the contrary, they think of government expenditures to Native Americans as (legally required) payments for the land and resources taken from their ancestors during the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries.

Although the United States spends millions of dollars in support of Indian Nations, the total amount pales in comparison to the amount spent on other “entitlement” programs, assistance to other nations, and national defense. Therefore, Native American entitlements do not pose a serious threat to the security of the United States.

Government expenditures and tribal enterprises notwithstanding, Native American communities continue to be plagued by persistent poverty, high unemployment, high crime rates, low levels of education, alcoholism, drug addiction, numerous single-parent families, and serious human-health problems. Much has been written, and even more has been said, about what should be done to improve conditions on U.S. Indian Reservations. Many of these suggestions have been implemented, and some have seemed to work. Still, in spite of (or perhaps because of) these efforts, social problems on reservations seem to have grown worse.

It has generally been the position of the academic community that the deplorable conditions that characterize life on many Indian reservations are a product of forced assimilation coupled with the long-term racism of pre-twenty-first century America. Certainly, there is truth in this explanation. Until recently, Native Americans suffered a great deal from discrimination relative to employment, housing, and social interactions. My father-in-law (a member of the Tohono O'odham Nation) provides an excellent example of this. He was educated in the Tucson schools during the early years of the twentieth century. He went on to earn undergraduate and graduate degrees from the University of Arizona. During World War II, he served as a B-17 gunner in Europe. He later joined the Arizona National Guard and became an officer. When he completed his graduate degree in the 1960s, he knew that the Tucson schools were forced to import teachers from other parts of the nation. Therefore, he applied for a teaching job. He had the credentials and expected to be hired. Instead, he was told that the only place he would be allowed to teach was on the nearby Tohono O’odham (then called Papago) Reservation. Eventually, he did teach at the Indian Oasis School, while at the same time serving as an elected official in the tribal government. Surprisingly, he was not extremely angry, but instead expressed a sense of betrayal. As a youth, he believed that if he assimilated and did the things “white” people suggested (work hard, get an education, and serve the nation), he would prosper. To his dismay, he learned that the dominant culture did not link his assimilation with acceptance and integration. This is not ancient history. In 1953, his sister (who earned a doctorate from the University of Arizona) was not allowed to marry her white fiancé in Arizona. Therefore, they held the ceremony in New Mexico.

There are literally thousands of similar stories about talented Native Americans who were not allowed to fully participate in the American dream. Without question, current conditions on Indian reservations are in large part a legacy of the long-term policies of the dominant society. Yet, whether fair or not, it falls on Native Americans to overcome the injustices of the past and make the hard decisions needed to improve life in their communities.

As previously noted, active discrimination against people who have indigenous roots is no longer common. To the contrary, being Native American is now often seen as desirable. Accordingly, it might seem reasonable to argue that it is time for all indigenous people to stop thinking of themselves as victims. Instead, many more of them should overcome poverty and dependency by taking advantage of the benefits they accrue from affirmative action, Indian Health, scholarships, college- acceptance preferences, and government assistance programs. Unfortunately, it is not that simple.

Modern Indian youth have grown up in communities that do not generally stress the kinds of attitudes and behaviors that are needed to effectively compete in twenty-first-century America. For example, being punctual is a mandatory requirement for longevity in most jobs. On reservations, however, being on time is a much less precise concept. Planning ahead in order to avoid last-minute problems is necessary for success in the dominant culture, whereas people who have been raised on reservations tend to believe that things will happen when they happen, and there is not much that anyone can actually do about it. There are many more examples of the cultural differences that make it difficult for modern Indian youth to compete, even in a less racist America. The important point is that whereas the members of the greater community are generally more than willing to bring Native Americans into the system, they are not very tolerant of traditional indigenous attitudes and behaviors. Perhaps what has changed is that now the dominant culture has actually come to link assimilation with acceptance and integration. Nonetheless, assimilation seems to remain necessary for Native Americans who seek to work and live outside their indigenous communities.

Whereas Native American reservations generally do not pose a threat to the civil security of the United States, those situated in close proximity to the U.S./Mexican Border are now ensnared in a national-security crisis of immense dimensions. In particular, residents of the massive Tohono O’odham Reservation of Arizona are enmeshed in the middle of a war against organized crime by the governments of the United States and Mexico (or perhaps more accurately, a war against the governments of the United States and Mexico by organized crime). A porous border of approximately eighty miles separates the Tohono O’odham Nation from Sonora, Mexico. For more than one hundred and fifty years, tribal members passed back and forth freely without notice. Many O’odham who live on the American side have relatives in Mexico. Over the last two decades, however, the Tohono O’odham Reservation has become a major avenue for drug smuggling and illegal immigration from Mexico. In 2007, tribal authorities estimated that approximately 1,500 illegal immigrants a day passed through the Reservation.

The Tohono O’odham Reservation presents a wealth of opportunities for smugglers. Physically, it is a relatively sparsely settled expanse of isolated desert and mountainous terrain that offers nearly unlimited opportunities for cover and concealment. In addition, similarities in the ethnic appearance of the Tohono O’odham and the people who use the reservation as a pathway into the United States make it difficult for federal authorities to differentiate between the two. Furthermore, high unemployment rates on the reservation motivate many O’odham to cooperate with smugglers in one way or another. Some merely feed illegal immigrants and offer them a place to hide or sleep in exchange for a few hundred dollars. Others, however, actively participate in transporting illegal immigrants to Phoenix or other urban centers for as much as $7,500.00 per person, or store, transport, and sell drugs for Mexican cartels. Obviously, it is tempting for people who have little, and who believe that they will not be able to compete in the greater economy, to work as smugglers, or to at least cooperate with smugglers when, by doing so, they can make thousands of tax-free dollars every year. So great is the problem, that some estimates indicate approximately half the reservation’s total gross income is associated with illegal drugs and illegal immigration. Therefore, it is reasonable to suggest that current conditions on the Tohono O’odham Reservation pose a serious threat to the civil security of the United States in general, and to the Tohono O’odham in particular.