Remaining 'Authentic' In a Changing World
Posted: February 22, 2008
by: Editors Report
Indian Country Today
Authentic Indians'' are for many non-American Indians only those who look and dress like the
stereotypical image of a Plains Indian - stoic and vanishing. There is a tendency for the general
public - and often sympathetic foreigners - to believe that the only true Indians are those who
greeted the Mayflower in 1620, and continue to live in the same way.
Famous anthropologists like Alfred Kroeber, a major researcher of California Indian tribes, and
Franz Boas, the father of American anthropology, argued there were no authentic Indians in the
United States after 1850. These men did not study the Indian communities they found during
their field research, but tried to reconstruct Indian communities as they existed in the past,
before significant Western contact. Rather than find examples of living history and continuing
customs, they consulted elders who could remember the languages and cultures, the old ways.
There is no doubt that the anthropologists provided great service to tribal communities by
preserving cultural knowledge and aspects of languages. But the emphasis on ''salvage''
anthropology, researching to find the last remnants of indigenous communities before they were
lost, and the absence of interest in living indigenous communities, did a great disservice to
Government programs and definitions of Indians take their lead from the legacy of
anthropological interpretations of Indian authenticity. Government policies demand that
communities seeking recognition through the Office of Federal Acknowledgement must prove
with documentary evidence that they are a distinct Indian community and can trace their history
through time. Similarly, for tribal groups who petition for federal recognition by way of the mixed
blood community clause in the Indian Reorganization Act must show that the surviving mixed
bloods continue to live in the style of Indians. These views do not allow that the world has
changed considerably over the past 200 years, and that Indians today do not, and cannot, live
like their ancestors. Americans expect authentic Indians to remain unchanging, although no one
expects Americans to look and behave like pilgrims.
During the 1970s, Vine Deloria, in his critique of anthropologists and their general lack of
interest in contemporary indigenous communities, suggested that anthropologists engage in
contemporary Indian life and issues. Until recently, many anthropologists were discouraged by
colleagues from working with contemporary tribal communities, because reservation Indian
communities to them were not authentic or academically interesting. Anthropologists who worked
in tribal communities in the United States often did not receive career rewards and recognition
that were garnered by colleagues who conducted research among other indigenous peoples
around the world. We commend those scholars and researchers who continued to work and
contribute to the well-being of tribal communities. Many communities have enjoyed positive
relationships with anthropology scholars and students alike.
The question of authenticity, however, continues to plague contemporary American Indians.
Native images and authenticity are frozen in time and are most often defined by non-Native
people. The general public receives vast amounts of images from modern media, including
movies and television. Most film and television writers of shows depicting Native people and
history are often non-Natives with no particular study or first-hand knowledge. American Indians
are treated as one-dimensional characters - as noble savages, the unfortunate victims of
history, or as bloodthirsty warmongers. Even some American Indians today have adopted a
static imagery of authenticity. When Native people are called ''apples,'' white on the inside and
''red'' on the outside, putting aside the racial connotations, the imagery suggests that individuals
and communities cannot change, and that being Indian is and always will be a static condition.
Indian people do change. We just may not change in patterns that are recognized or common to
Western or American society. Indian people are willing to change and adapt to necessarily
uphold their values, cultures and ways of life. The world is changing rapidly, and Indian people
must make decisions about how to manage relations with local, state and federal government,
while trying to gain economic self-sufficiency and maintain cultural and political autonomy.
Changing world conditions require Indian people to meet the new conditions in order to continue
as communities or distinct cultures. Since the world is fundamentally different from the past of
say, 200 years ago, the ways of meeting the demands of contemporary and future life will also
require change. Even more so, the new conditions often require new solutions, sometimes not
contained in the traditions. New ways of approaching economic self-sufficiency or cultural
expression are found useful. The changing world offers new choices. Native individuals and
communities have more choices and ways of finding solutions to issues as they pertain to
There is no stereotypical or authentic path for indigenous peoples, just as there is no such path
for American society. Communities and individuals choose who they are and how they want to
live in the world. It is probably impossible to stop them, even if one wanted to. Indigenous people
respect the choices of individuals and communities, which have the right to seek their own
solutions. We might not agree with choices made by individuals or some communities, but we
must respect their right to make choices.
American Indians and indigenous people are culturally diverse, and the contemporary world has
multiplied the choices available and possible. We can expect even more diverse choices in the
future. Fortunately, indigenous people have always been diverse, and as an expression of
sovereignty or autonomy we will continue to make diverse individual and community choices that
will lead to many new pathways.