The late comedian Sam Kinison had a classic, foul-mouthed routine about common sense advice to the regular victims of famine in certain remote areas of the world – something to the effect of YOU KNOW WHY YOU’RE STARVING? YOU LIVE IN A DESERT! THERE’S NO FOOD THERE! NOTHING GROWS THERE! NOTHING IS GOING TO GROW THERE! MOVE WHERE THE FOOD IS!

That was the expurgated version. The bit is funny (to those with that sense of humor) in part because it so completely without sentiment, either for those who are hypothetically starving or for what they or any people often, to others, inexplicably feel about the terrain from which they come, no matter how apparently inhospitable. It is a wonder to Southern Californians that anyone anywhere in the world lives north of, say, the 45th parallel, but, astoundingly, they do, and choose to remain.

The San Carlos Apache Reservation: Photograph by Julia Dean

So it is, in part, with Indian reservations. Many are situated far from the industrial and commercial centers that sprang up over the growth of the nation without consideration of the completely alien Native way of life and attachment to land. This is fundamental to the problem of joblessness on some reservations. It might seem obvious to many non-Natives that American Indians should just pick up and move to the nearest sizable city to seek employment opportunities, and many have done so, willingly and not, over the twentieth century. That presents its own set of problems. However those who remain on the reservation do so for a variety of reasons, among them the feeling of sovereignty it affords (however trifling it may appear to others) and that attachment to a group and to the land.

All too often, without regard to such human considerations, people will pretend that Native Americans are just another melting pot minority and insist that the solution to Native social problems is a more committed effort at assimilation. It is a suggestion both profoundly callous to, and ignorant of, history. In the history of the American republic, there have been noted seven distinct periods or policies of federal government relations with Native America. Through all of these eras, however  well-intentioned policymakers may at time have thought them, a general ground of cultural disregard and economic rapaciousness persisted.

1. Trade and Intercourse Era (1789-1825)

2. Removal Era (1825-1850s)

During this era the Tribes of the Southeast were foribly removed to the Oklahoma Territory, in order to advance non-Native settlement and economic interests

3. Reservation Era (1850s-1887)

As Tribes succumbed to conquest they were limited or moved, and confined, to much limited land bases, over which, by treaty, they retained limited sovereignty.

4. Allotment and Assimilation Era (1887-1934)

Once the Indian Wars were considered over, the policy began to break up Tribal land bases, as occurred in Oklahoma, and force acculturation. The tremendous advances the Oklahoma Tribes had made in recovering from the Removal were wiped away

5. Indian Reorganization Era (1934-1940s)

In a complete reversal of policy, Tribes were encouraged through legislation to seek self-government and self-sufficiency.

6. Termination Era (1940s-1962)

In yet another reversal, the government sought the elimination of federal recognition of Tribes and large population transfers to urban areas, again with the aim of assimilation.

7. Self-Determination Era (1962-Present)

One more complete reversal.

It would have been quite remarkable had any substantial recovery from conquest occurred amid these frequently changing policies, culturally destructive in their outright intent or through their inconstancy. Many Tribes have made negligible progress. Others are striding forward, assisted in no small part by Casino profits, as I discussed yesterday.

One constant in the success stories, including in education, is the role of Tribal culture in social and educational advance. The Tribal Colleges demonstrate regularly how educational success for Native Americans is boosted by grounding in Native cultures. Carrie Billy, president of the American Indian Higher Education Consortium, stressed to us, when we spoke with her this past September, the empirical evidence for this relation. Indeed, when it comes to American Indian success, the key findings of  The Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development are that

Sovereignty Matters. When Native nations make their own decisions about what development approaches to take, they consistently out-perform external decision makers—on matters as diverse as governmental form, natural resource management, economic development, health care, and social service provision.

Institutions Matter. For development to take hold, assertions of sovereignty must be backed by capable institutions of governance. Nations do this as they adopt stable decision rules, establish fair and independent mechanisms for dispute resolution, and separate politics from day-to-day business and program management.

Culture Matters. Successful economies stand on the shoulders of legitimate, culturally grounded institutions of self-government. Indigenous societies are diverse; each nation must equip itself with a governing structure, economic system, policies, and procedures that fit its own contemporary culture.

Leadership Matters. Nation building requires leaders who introduce new knowledge and experiences, challenge assumptions, and propose change. Such leaders, whether elected, community, or spiritual, convince people that things can be different and inspire them to take action.


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This entry was posted on Friday, January 29th, 2010 at 9:04 am by A. Jay Adler and is filed under Indian Country. | Edit

3 Responses to “Culture Matters”

  1. Don Otis, on January 29th, 2010 at 11:19 am Said: Edit Comment

    One of our desires is to help small businesses, minorities and troubled areas. This is fabulous insight into what we need to consider when approaching the Native Peoples. It is easy to be “too white” – what is it Ashleigh Brilliant said, something like “how can I talk to you in flowers if you think in stones?”

    This line of thinking is going to be at the basis for thinking through our approach to all populations that we work with. Without understanding the setting, the history, all good intentions are for naught.

  2. Terri McIntyre, on January 29th, 2010 at 7:06 pm Said: Edit Comment

    Like the satire of Jonathan Swift in A Modest Proposal, Sam Kinison’s modern version of outrageous remedies to social plights causes us to sit up straight and say “What?” The satirist’s aim is to jolt us into paying attention. I believe we need to pay attention, and listen. One good place to sit silently and really listen is this site, sadredearth; another is There are more–a chorus of voices. What are they saying? Listen.

  3. A. Jay Adler, on January 30th, 2010 at 5:49 am Said: Edit Comment

    Terri, excellent insights. And thanks so much for your good work and support.

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