Cultural Survival Revival and Preservation

The potential loss of traditional lifeways and distinctive cultural groupings poses a special threat in an age of rapidly accelerating modernization and globalization. Culture, as a system of learned norms and behaviors, is not a tangible thing but a process composed by living individuals. The struggle by small, often dispossessed native groups to sustain their traditional modes of livelihood, religions, languages, customs, and rights is an attempt to maintain distinct identity in the face of homogenizing pressures from the larger and more powerful societies in which they must live.

Throughout history, cultures have adapted, assimilated, and changed. Except for cases of sudden mass extinction of entire peoples, they rarely disappear without a trace; rather, certain traits are passed along and become part of new cultural formations. Even cultures and peoples considered extinct—societies that have disappeared because of invasion, war, famine, disease, or intermarriage—leave living legacies in their influence on other groups and their own mixed-blood descendants. The possibility for renewal depends on prevailing definitions of race, ethnicity, and culture. Definitions of aboriginality are increasingly tied to land claims and official status. Historically, blood quanta and racial theories have been used to discriminate against people. At the turn of the twenty-first century, however, in many places there are some advantages to claiming official minority ethnicities, often in states where native status had previously been more of a hindrance than a help.

Many groups known in prehistory and history have died out, from protocultural formations encountered in archaeological excavations like the Diukhtai of northern Asia to the mighty Aztec empire following the European invasion. The Taino, Arawak, and Carib peoples of the Caribbean rapidly died off shortly after the arrival of Columbus in 1492. Disease, caused by imported germs to which native Americans lacked immunity, was the main cause of ethnocide in a holocaust of cataclysmic proportions. An estimated 1 million people lived on the island of Hispaniola in 1492. A mere twenty-six years later, the island's indigenous population had declined by some 98.5 percent to around 15,000. The Caribs, with a population estimated at 3.79 million in 1492, were declared extinct in less than a single generation. In the nineteenth century, the death toll of smallpox and other diseases in the Americas was devastating. On the northwest coast of North America, a disastrous decline in the Indian population was the tragic result

Plowing the ground in a traditional manner, Egypt (UN Photo)

of a smallpox epidemic, spread through blankets distributed to the Indians by the English.

As with habitat range and endangered animal species, land is vitally connected to the viability of distinct small native populations. The dependence of Saami and Evenki peoples in Lapland and northern Russia, respectively, on reindeer breeding and herding means that their continued existence as distinct peoples is threatened by the loss of this way of life. Sea-mammal hunters in the circumpolar Arctic have adapted their traditional means of subsistence to new ways of life and economic modes.

At the 1992 Earth Summit in Brazil, the World Conference of Indigenous Peoples on Territory, Environment and Development issued a statement asserting inherent rights to self-determination and inalienable rights to land, territories, resources, and environments. The urgent concern of sustaining and empowering endangered cultures through land reform and other measures has emerged in the decade since as a global human rights issue.

Tasmanians reemerged at the end of the twentieth century as a surviving people, with an altered but continuous heritage. The aboriginal Tasmanians were thought until recently to have died out entirely, victims of the Euro pean invasion. Prior to the arrival of Europeans, the aboriginal population of Tasmania was comparable to that of mainland Australia. The 1642 population was estimated at some five thousand; two centuries later it had fallen to a recorded low of just six individuals. During the 1820s, pastoralist settlers expanded their land holdings in a series of conflicts known as the Black War, forcibly driving the starving Tasmanians off their island. Before her death in 1876, a woman named Truganini became famous in Europe as the last surviving Tasmanian. During the twentieth century, Australians with aboriginal Tasmanian ancestors blended invisibly into the population. With no incentive for self-identification, descendants of the Tasmanians did not declare themselves as such until changes in state policy and benefits were enacted in the early 1970s. The official census figure showed a more than fourfold increase in aboriginal Tas-manian self-identification between 1971 and 1976. The figure more than doubled again over the next decade, growing at a rate some three times that of the aboriginal population in Australia at large, to 6,716 in 1986. The many descendants of the Tasmanians went unrecognized by majority white Australians because they are of mixed heritage, and their physical appearance no longer resembles the once typical dark-skinned aboriginal profile. In the face of land claims and a growing movement for social justice, Tasmanian people are reasserting their identity and claiming a status tying them to the land and its resources.

Cultural survival, revival, and preservation initiatives are tied to the establishment and maintenance of protected zones such as biosphere preserves, game parks, and forests. Land and habitat are keys to sovereignty and ethnic survival for the Yanomami of the Amazon as for the Ainu of northern Japan. The rhetoric of ecological and ethnic extinction reflects the threat to both cultural diversity and biological diversity. The impact of the environmental and economic changes brought about by modernity and development has ruptured long-established patterns of human-nature interaction. The loss of environmental knowledge encoded in traditional cultures proceeds in parallel with the loss of endemic species. The emerging paradigm of biocultural diversity looks at ecosystems as a whole, including the dynamics of human-nature interactions and seasonal variants.

The remarkable comeback of the Mashan-tucket Pequot nation in southern New England provides a dramatic illustration of how the continued existence of a tribe was made possible by maintaining a small parcel of land. Once the dominant power in southern New England and Long Island Sound in the pre-Colonial seventeenth century, the Pequot nation was challenged when neighboring tribes allied themselves with British settlers. The Mashantucket Pequots were officially exterminated in 1638, in a devastating massacre by British troops pursuing a formal policy of genocide, and they were legally declared extinct. Yet survivors and their descendants, enabled by politically savvy leaders, managed to maintain a relationship with the colony and later the state of Connecticut, and to hold on to a small parcel of apportioned land. Despite outmigration, religious conversions, and a diminishing reservation area, the Mashantucket Pequots continued to survive. By the 1980s, the local tribal contingent on reservation land had been reduced to two old women, who kept the tradition alive through basket-making and picking berries. A sudden, dramatic reversal of fortune occurred when the tribe won federal recognition and the right to establish commercial gambling on the reservation. By the early 1990s, they had built the enormous Foxwoods resort, which quickly became the

Western Hemisphere's most profitable casino complex. After three and a half centuries of official extinction, the Mashantucket Pequot tribe is a major employer and once again a dominant economic power in the region. A tribal registration drive, construction of housing and schools, and a selective repopulation of the reservation has solidified their tenure. The task of cultural revitalization, however, was more problematic. The Pequots had lost their language and artifacts, been widely dispersed, and lacked a continuous, integrated culture. How does a small people, cut off from its own history and vanished traditions, reconstruct and represent its own image? Through large-scale public endeavors such as a massive museum and research complex and one of North America's largest annual Pow-Wow gatherings, the Mashantucket Pequots are facing the challenge by creatively engaging the preserved folklore of the New England tribes, the association of indigenous ecology with natural history and prehistory, settlement archaeology to recover the past, the adoption of stylized pan-Indian symbols, and identification with a growing pan-Indian movement to forge a modern identity.

The situation of this small Northeastern tribe, long on financial resources but short on available cultural traditions, is the opposite of that faced by many Indian peoples of the western United States. The Euroamerican vanquishing of these tribes was more recent and less complete. Although the traditions and identity of their past are closer to living memory, tribes were relegated to the poorest lands, worst education, and bleakest economic opportunity. Alcoholism and abuse, a grim legacy of colonialism, are persistent problems in contemporary Indian communities. Revivals of Indian religion and modern spiritual rekin-dlings provide one avenue of recovery. Repatriation of human remains and sacred arti-

facts from museums is another. The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), passed by the U.S. Congress, permits federally recognized Indian tribes, Alaska native corporations, and indigenous Hawaiians to file claims for the return of human bones, relics, associated funerary goods, and other heritage objects from museum collections to authorized representatives of affiliated tribal groups. The somewhat controver sial law was passed to provide a means for the reestablishment of broken threads from the past, the fostering of a sense of pride and the value of distinct identity in new generations of Indian people, and a more equitable relationship and dialogue with the institutions and hierarchy of the dominant society.

See also: Ethnoscience; Linguistic Diversity; Subsistence


Diamond, Jared. 1997. Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. New York: W. W. Norton; Independent Commission on International Humanitarian Issues. 1987. Indigenous Peoples: A Global Quest for Justice. London: Zed; Krauss, Michael. 1980. Alaska Native Languages: Past, Present, and Future. Alaska Native Language Center Research Papers no. 4. Fairbanks: University of Alaska; Maffi, Luisa, ed. 2001. On Biocultural Diversity: Linking Language, Knowledge and the Environment. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press; Miller, Marc S., ed. State of the Peoples: A Global Human Rights Report on Societies in Danger. Boston: Beacon;Turner, Terence. 2001. The Yanomami and the Ethics of Anthropological Practice. Latin American Studies Program, no. 6. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University.

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