FACTORS WHICH CONTRIBUTE(D) TO NATIVE AMERICAN PERSISTENCE, RESISTANCE AND ADAPTATION TO AMERICAN MAINSTREAM CULTURE
Ever since the first Europeans arrived in the “New World” Native Americans have been the victims of ethnocide and genocide. Liberal assimilationists, such as Richard Henry Pratt, wanted to assimilate the Native Americans into American mainstream culture, whereas more radical Europeans wanted to not only destroy the Native American culture but to also eliminate the Native American peoples altogether. Luckily, the latter aim has never been fulfilled due to Native American resistance, which enabled them to persist up to the present day. However, in certain areas of life Native Americans have, to a certain degree, adapted to mainstream society. The relationship of resistance and adaptation is one of great complexity, and it is almost impossible to clearly define where resistance ends and adaptation begins. In some cases adaptation itself can be a form of resistance. As a consequence of this strained relationship, the question suggests itself why such a heterogeneous group as the Native Americans has been able to persist as one nation and at the same time preserve various tribal identities.
Resistance, “the act of striving to fend off or offset the actions, effects or force of [someone]”1, has actually been promoted to a great extent by the government of the United States itself. Pratt´s boarding schools and later urbanization laid the foundation of a notion of Pan-Indianism in “Indian Country”. Forced to live together in boarding schools or urban areas, Native Americans of various tribes came to a mutual understanding and joined forces against their oppressors. Also, the education Native Americans received, unlike even most Europeans at that time, enabled them to arrive at an understanding of the importance of organization and finally led to the formation of the American Indian Movement. Despite the ultimate failure of many of their actions, the American Indian Movement has provided Native Americans with a keen sense of self-confidence, spurring them on in their struggle for freedom. Moreover, legends like that of Crazy Horse have kept the fighting spirit alive.
Nevertheless, resistance is not the only reason for the fact that Native Americans have persisted up to now. I believe that their very culture, including traditions, beliefs and values, has contributed a great deal to their survival. First of all, Native Americans have, over hundreds of years, developed the ability to adapt to harsh conditions of life. They have always been struggling for survival and never given up. European oppression is only one of many of these harsh conditions they have had to cope with. This struggle includes survival tactics adjusted to the circumstances of a specific time, such as, in the case of the Europeans, making the intruders believe there was gold further north, thus managing to drive them through the whole continent. Important values of American Indian philosophy have also helped in preserving the culture. Adhering to strict traditions, especially in the "religious" sphere, has never let them forget their origins, and this has deeply influenced their relationship towards nature and the earth. Native Americans live in harmony with the earth, their mother. This relationship is a symbiotical one, for it involves reciprocity, i.e. for everything that is taken something else is given. The belief in holism and harmony brings with it a sense of time different from the European concept of tangible time. Since everything is to be balanced out sooner or later,
Native Americans believe in a role reversal, and this conviction makes it worth for them to endure all hardship, for a better time is to come. Finally, the strong sense of group affiliation, and the importance of the family, has also contributed its share to persistence. The awareness of holism revered, without their ability to also recognize the discrepancy between the Europeans and themselves, and to reconcile these two philosophies of life, Native Americans could not have preserved their culture.
The reconciliation of their own and the European way of life may, at times, make it necessary for Native Americans to adopt a European lifestyle. Doing so, however, does not necessarily mean abandoning their own cultural background. In fact, adaptation can be a kind of resistance, for it provides access to federal funds and also to higher education. Thus, a Native American may choose to attend a Western university on a scholarship so he can become a lawyer in order to help his people. This kind of resistance is one of many kinds of passive resistance on the part of Native Americans. Another reason why certain Native Americans prefer to adapt to American mainstream culture is the racism they are confronted with, especially in urban areas. Not only has urbanization created an environment for racism to flourish, but it has also made Native Americans familiar with available funds and benefits for their people. These possibilities to make life much more comfortable seduced more than only a small number of people, who settled down in urban areas, to abandon their heritage and becoming American in every respect.
In short, we have seen that resistance has been as much promoted by the government as by ideas inherent in Native American culture. Moreover, their long history and their philosophy of life has given them an admirable strength to persist even today. Finally, adaptation is either a kind of passive resistance, a way to cope with racism or a choice taken out of mere convenience. Therefore, resistance and adaptation are not two separate notions but rather closely related concepts, depending on the point of view one takes. The fact that resistance is often promoted by federal assimilationist actions suggests that resistance is a kind of reaction to these very actions. Following this line of thought implies that assimilation could have been more successful if not as much effort had been put into it.
1 The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. Houghton Mifflin 1996.