August 18, 2016 - Naomi Schaefer Riley

August 18, 2016
Naomi Schaefer Riley

At a festival at a nearby Native American Pueblo I saw again some of the beauties and virtues of tribalism, summed up when a Pueblo gets up to dance. By that I mean, maybe 1/2 of the people of the pueblo actually get up to dance.

But even among most of the non-dancing half, mostly women with young children and older women, watching you can see them feel the pulse of the drums and step the steps with the dancers on the plaza. Together — at a level probably no non-tribal human can truly know.

Togetherness at the Pueblo festival was not just in the physical synchrony of groups of men and boys, women and girls, moving easily together in intricate weaves of circles and squares, but togetherness in time as well as space: five year olds and grannies…young bucks and old bears… suited up in costumes in which each thread and bead matters to tradition.

Family ties and tradition are what tribalism is all about. “Respect your elders. They know the right way to live,” a code passed and enforced by each generation on to the next. Tradition.

What’s the point of the code and the rigidly trickle-down command and control power structure? Survival and togetherness, keep the family, clan, tribe, pueblo, nation together and alive.

Against what threat? Tribalism’s greatest enemy is today…is the world we live in beyond the bounds of tribal control, which with its many lures of entertainment, sex, drugs and rock and roll is draining the tribe of its young people and the powers of its old people, as more and more young Native Americans move off the reservation.

A lot of these tribal ex-pats have a hard time competing in America today, in part because of cultural dissonance or flat bigotry, but in greater part because the education offered on or near where Native Americans live is almost never better than far below average.

In the American economy today, Native Americans occupy the lowest rung, the lowest incomes, the highest unemployment rates. But even at the bottom, the figures for poverty, and unemployment, violent crime and life expectancy, terrible for all Native Americans, are worst for those who live on reservations.

So here are two problems to solve:

How can educational opportunities in Native American communities, on and off the reservation, give Indians who choose life off the reservation a better chance at success?

And how can economic opportunity on Indian lands be launched, so that those who choose to stay in tribal territory have workplaces and jobs, and access to capital to grow more businesses, jobs and properties…in short make Indian lands places of prosperity as well as a traditional life-style.

Chances are that could create a new cycle of Native American youth choosing to live closer to their parents, pueblos, tribes or traditions.

Reading Room

Naomi Schaefer Riley is a journalist, non-fiction writer, editor, and blogger, published by, among others, the Wall Street JournalThe New York TimesThe Boston GlobeThe Los Angeles TimesThe New York Post, and The Washington Post.  Her newly published book is The New Trail of Tears: How Washington Is Destroying American Indians. Encounter Books, New York 2016.

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