Reclamation of Native Identity, 1988–2000
American Indians continue to work to regain control over their traditional, cultural, and economic lives in order to regain a feeling of belonging. Identity in Native America is directly intertwined with culture and language. As a result, some of the issues today which are vital in shaping the identity of contemporary American Indians include depictions of Native peoples by the media in sports and popular culture; how indigenous languages are being reclaimed, revitalized, and maintained; and identity reclamation by such groups as Native Hawaiians.
Mascots and Stereotypes
All Native groups in the United States are concerned about how other cultures view them. Perhaps one of the most public of depictions is Native imagery in sports and pop culture. Native American mascots have afforded many individuals and institutions a means to fashion identity, but to many indigenous peoples these athletic icons perpetuate inauthentic and harmful images. Halftime performances, fan antics, and mass merchandizing transform somber and reverent artifacts and activities into trivial and lifeless forms that simultaneously reduce Native Americans to a series of well-worn clichés, masking the complexities of Native American cultures and histories. Mascots offer misleading, flat, and fictional renderings of Native Americans and reduce them to stereotypes. Debate over the use of American Indian figures as mascots or names of sports teams (the Braves, Indians, Chiefs, and Redskins, to name a few) continues today.
These sorts of “identity politics”—social activism, politics, theorizing, and similar activities based on the shared experiences of members of a specific social group—rely on similar experiences of oppression. Many of the groups that engage in identity politics are racially, ethnically, or pan-ethnically organized, but the most important and revolutionary element of identity politics is the demand for recognition by groups because of their differences. Identity politics was an important precursor to multiculturalism and diversity in modern political and educational culture.
Language Retention and Reclamation
One of the first things taken from Native students upon entering government boarding schools in the 19th century was their native language: children were punished for speaking their language aloud, and English was enforced as the only way to communicate. As a result, many generations of Native language speakers were deprived of the right to use their own languages. Now, however, tribal groups are revitalizing their spoken languages as a means of increasing tribal identity as well as providing cultural connections to ancestors and history. The paramount and most practical reason would be to give added meaning to traditional life. The oral traditions and customs of Native American societies are examples of how a people perceive themselves. Culture, identity, and language are intertwined in Native American societies.
An individual’s tribal identification is based upon a number of variables, including language, contact with tribal members, degree of exposure to mainstream society, and a personal view of ethnic identity. Additionally, language provides cultural identity and a source of origin while it also helps establish a sense of belonging to a particular group and community. Tribal communities are creating opportunities for their tribal members to reconnect to cultural ideas found uniquely within native language.
Hawaiian Identity Issues
Other groups, such as the native people of Hawaii, face other struggles beyond stereotypical depictions or language loss because of different historical trajectories. Prior to the middle portion of the 19th century, Hawaii was a sovereign kingdom ruled by Hawaiian nobility. After the overthrow of King David Kalakaua led by American landowners, the vast majority Hawaii’s native inhabitants were left without voting rights or political representation. In 1893, as a result of the Hawaii Revolution, the last Hawaiian monarch, Queen Liliuokalani, was overthrown, further limiting Native Hawaiian rights. Pushed by American worries about strategic interests in the Pacific, the U.S. Congress approved the request for annexation of the islands as a “trust territory” of the United States in July 1898, the first step in Hawaii’s road to statehood, which occurred in 1959.
Over time, the increasing economic power of the non-native population led to increased political power. Increasing sugarcane and pineapple production for world markets, in conjunction with the burgeoning tourist industry, led to the systematic dispossession of Native Hawaiians of the little property they retained. Increased economic power of non-natives led to decreased political power by Native Hawaiians, and by 1950, their destitution was endemic. As a result of their dire poverty, the Native Hawaiian population underwent a steady decline. This decline, coupled with the surge of people moving to the islands from the continental United States, led to a situation where the larger population of white settlers outvoted Native Hawaiians, further diluting their political power.
Over time, Native Hawaiians as a group have lost the federal recognition of the type held by American Indians and Alaska Natives. However, in 2010, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Native Hawaiian Government Reorganization Act of 2009. The act was designed to create a separate, race-based government specifically for Native Hawaiians to give them the ability to engage in government-to-government negotiations with the United States and the state of Hawaii regarding jurisdiction over and title to their lands.
Whether through countering the damaging stereotypes present in such popular culture arenas as the sports industry, through the reclamation and preservation of Native languages, or through legislative efforts to combat identity erasure, contemporary Native Americans are actively pursuing self-determination, particularly as it relates to creating an identity based on their own terms.
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Watkins, Joe. “Reclamation of Native Identity, 1988–2000.” The American Mosaic: The American Indian Experience, ABC-CLIO, 2018, americanindian2.abc-clio.com/Topics/Display/32. Accessed 22 Jan. 2018.