Thinking Tribally, Acting Globally

Feb 15th, 1992 | By | Category: 3-4: Indians Teaching America, Editor's Essay
By Paul Boyer

In the middle part of the last century, well-intentioned observers of Indian societies began promoting a policy of assimilation, believing that Indians should be fully absorbed into the main­stream of American culture. Proponents of this policy argued that traditional beliefs held Indians back and prevented them from contributing to the nation. Only by renouncing their past would they have a future.

Some attempts at assimilation were enlightened for their time. Others were shockingly callous and hurtful. But in either form it was a failure. Instead of bringing opportunity, it only further fragmented Indian communities and brought trauma for many individuals.

But less frequently acknowledged is how much of a loss this doomed policy was for the nation as a whole. By assum­ing that European society was always the teacher and native Americans were inevitably the students, many in the United States were unable to see how native American societies had been, and could continue to be, America’s teach­ers. While Indians helped to shape the nation’s democratic traditions and influ­enced its economy, their cultures were now declared backwards.

But after that traumatic century we are now entering an “Indian renaissance,” according to anthro­pologist Jack Weatherford (see inter­view, page 16). The contributions of Indian societies are finally being recog­nized and, most importantly, native American communities are again help­ing to shape national policy.

In this edition we looked at three issues broadly recognized as important to the future of our educational institutions and the nation as a whole: the status of women, the position of children and the elderly, and the integration of ethics and spirituality. Next, we explored these same issues in Indian communities. What lessons, we wondered, do tradi­tional native American societies have to offer the United States as it confronts each issue?

We found, first, that there is no Utopia. Because of extreme poverty, iso­lation and a lack of opportunity, native American communities often suffer as much, or more, as non-Indians from a stressed society. But we also found ample proof that hope exists. There are also inspirational examples of how the power of tradition is helping Indian communi­ties solve some problems that continue to stymie the nation.

These examples contradict the long-held notion that Indian reservations are only places of despair. They also offer evidence that native American values are precious resources and that Indians have much to offer this still-young nation. While they were ignored in the past, we would do well to listen to them in the future.

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