Indigeneity or Ethnicity: A Choice That Could Harm Tribal Identities

iStock / Indigenous individuals are confronted with choices involving retention of an indigenous identity or choosing a mainstream racial and ethnic status.

Ethnicity and indigeneity are two different forms of cultural identity.

Indigenous individuals and communities are confronted with choices involving retention of an indigenous identity or choosing a mainstream racial, ethnic or minority status. Based on personal circumstances and an encouraging policy environment from modernizing nations states, many people of indigenous descent choose to abandon indigenous tribal identities. Some take up identities as detribalized indigenous people, or métis as in Canada, mestizos as in Latin American and South America, or as ethnic Indians as in the United States.

The material, political, cultural, legal, and economic forces of the contemporary world are largely predisposed to invite people of indigenous origins to abandon tribal identities and adopt an ethnic identity. An indigenous identity has its center of focus on a tribal nation, or a constructed nation based on internal consent among the Indigenous Peoples of the nation. Indigenous identities focus on or are rooted in kinship, place, land, self-government and holistic institutional and cultural interpretations of the cosmic order. Ethnic Indigenous Peoples have left their indigenous tribal understandings, and generally have moved physically or culturally toward acceptance and participation in mainstream institutions of government, market economy, and kinship.

For many Indigenous Peoples, the choice between ethnic or indigenous identities is not an either/or proposition. Indigenous Peoples increasingly move between tribal and mainstream national worlds. Many indigenous people have become multicultural, and have skills to work and make a living in mainstream nations, while at the same time respect and participate in tribal nations as cultural and political members. Moving between nations and cultures with some ease is at the base of the dual or plural citizenship patterns of the U.S. and Canada.

The formation of ethnic groups of indigenously attached persons are found in many countries around the world. Often indigenous ethnic groupings are more recognizable to nation states, since they are willing to conform to the demands and definitions of national political interest groups. In Canada, Métis form detribalized groups with distinct mixed indigenous and European traditions. The Métis seeks rights that are distinguished from tribal indigenous nations.

In the U.S., there are more people of partial indigenous descent than there are people who identify with a tribal nation. Many ethnic Indians in the U.S. maintain a tribal line of descent like Cherokee or Choctaw, along with descent from English, Irish or other immigrant nationalities. Many, perhaps most, ethnic Indians have little more than passing interest in contemporary Indian community or nations. An American Indian tribal descent is one of several cultural heritages that are honored, but not lived in everyday life. In Latin America and South America Mestizo identities, another form of indigenous ethnicity, requires that the person or group abandon indigenous tribal identities, as well as culture, language, land claims, and self-government.

The formation of indigenous ethnicities are the result of cultural globalization, strong national policies, and the economic marginalization of indigenous people, all of which puts pressure on Indigenous Peoples to accept the mainstream culture, economic, and political system. Nevertheless, many indigenous nations continue to insist on their own rule of law, recognition of their traditional political forms, power over their own territory and resources, and practice of their own languages and cultures. The post-traditional contemporary world offers choices, and moving to an indigenous ethnic identity is one of those choices.

Indigenous ethnic are an emergent part of the world order. It, however, is critical whether indigenous ethnicities will defend or destroy indigenous tribal identities and nations. In moving away from tribal identities, if indigenous ethnic groups are going to be hostile, then they will have joined with mainstream forces of assimilation and acculturation that indigenous nations have struggled against for so long, and will continue to do so in the future. Alliances and mutual support among indigenous tribal and indigenous ethnic groups will support achievement of indigenous tribal rights and goals. However, the indigenous ethnic group movement appears to want to abandon tribal community and rights.