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Native American Cultures


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The Concept of Native American Culture: An early definition of culture is: that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom(s), and other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society. Culture can be learned, acquired, and reflects the patterns of traditions, thinking, feeling, and acting (behaviors). Values are taught early in lives and determine subjective definitions of reality for the person. Values exist at individual and collective levels (tribal member, tribal, inter-tribal and interactively with the dominant culture (white hegemony). Values may be regarded as non-consciously-taken-for-granted-values and directly-derived-values. Values relate to a tendency to prefer certain states of existence or behavior or knowledge over others. They are distinguishable between what is desired and what is desirable. They emerge from why people associate and discriminate ideas and behaviors in certain ways, thus developing tribal concepts which affect individual and group behavior thereby shaping culture.

Every tribe has within it clans and families. Each has unique aspects to its culture. For example, each clan might have a different animal to represent it – fox, badger, coyote, wolf, bear, puma (mountain lion), horse, eagle(s), hawk(s), et al. Each family within a clan will have unique cultural aspects for a particular family. Each tribe, clan and family may have its own stories, traditions and ways of living. Tribal councils are elected by popular vote by tradition, not familial inheritance, although sometimes that plays a part if there is a son old and wise enough. Clans and families will often live in different parts of a reservation; sometimes they are mixed.

To comprehend Native American Culture, one must distinguish the values related to knowledge, behaviors, and beliefs (values). There are dominant themes and since culture changes as the individuals learn, flexibility is necessary to find commonality and individual values. A more simplified concept of culture is (1) a pattern of basic assumptions, (2) invented, discovered, or developed by a tribe and its members, (3) as it/they learn to cope with problems of external adaptation to cultural dominance and integration, (4) that has worked well enough to be considered valid and (5) is to be taught to new tribal members as the (6) correct way to perceive, think, and feel in relation to those problems. The more stable the tribe, the stronger are its cultural values. Culture is a property of the tribe. If the tribe has been stable for some time, it and its sub-groups and persons can have cultures of their own in relation to the tribal culture. Tribal values will usually relate to goals, ideals, norms, standards, moral principles, religious or spiritual beliefs, magic or myth, and like principles. Ask why a tribal member makes a specific choice and whether it is based on an assumption (historical tribal knowledge), a personal choice, education, a tribal or familial expectation (e.g., story-tellers, shamans, medicine doctors, witches, et al), or some external cultural or political pressure. Each tribe has its own intimate and unique culture based upon its developed history, including changes brought about by imposition of customs or rules/laws by outsiders.

Tribal values and traditional expectations:

  • Goals - Tribal goals may include resistance to white domination, seeking income for better housing than that provided bu HUD, and income for education, health, treatment centers, municipal works, law enforcement, judiciary, administration, and self-governance.
  • Ideals - Tribal customs, traditions, spirituality, rasing children, respect for elders, nature, each other, and preservation of traditions, living in harmony, and ways of living.
  • Norms - A specific tribe, clan, or family may have a usual way something is done. It can relate to any of their stories or traditions. Norms are not synonymous with ideals or goals.
  • Moral principles - American Indians are very respectful of each other and others (strangers). This what made them so vulnerable to European American sttlers and the early government of the U.S. They mistakenly believed a man or government representative's word was good and would be respected.

As you read the Alexie novel, ask yourself why a character makes a specific choice. Why does he or she elect to speak with someone, act a certain way, and like things. Consider and make notes for ideas for your essay about how the cultural value or traditional expectation might have existed in your family in its own form.  The author, Alexie, often has the character express some monologue by way of thought or recollection that is related to the choice, or he may have a character’s history narrated in the story by the character (or another) to provide an explanation for chosen dialogue or a conflict in a scene. Or it may be based upon an assumption (historical tribal knowledge), education, a tribal or familial expectation (e.g., story-tellers, shamans, medicine doctors, witches, et al), or some external cultural or political pressure


Choose to discuss choices that are meaningful to your experiences and taught behaviors and how you might use the culture of the tribe and/or the tribal member. Some choices made dialogue o monologue, may be interesting but not have a significant impact on the plot or that character’s story line (such as reversing a choice made or changing a choice in the moment).

  • · Historical tribal knowledge
  • · Personal desire
  • · Education (prior)
  • · Tribal or family expectations (story-tellers, witches, shamans)
  • · Respect for people
  • · Respect for elders
  • · Respect for nature (Mother Earth)
  • · Knowledge of the power of the seasons (heat can kill, cold can kill, good weather can bring good crops)
  • · Respect for the feelings of others
  • · Respect for animal and plant life – floral and fauna have an equal right to live upon Mother Earth and should be killed only for
    necessity)
  • · Respect for tribal culture
  • · Social systems
  • · Beliefs – religious and spiritual
  • · Art – drawing, painting, war, writing, reading, ceramics, basket creation, story-telling
  • · Customs of the tribe
  • · Adaptation to new rules or laws imposed by the white hegemony
  • · Learning from elders who come to their reservation classroom to teach (note: this arises in Alexie’s essay on reading and
    writing)

Cultural identity:

  • · Native Americans
  • · Half-breed (considered a demeaning white man term)
  • · Less than half-breed
  • · Tribal connections and stability
  • · Family lineage
  • · If the tribal member has become addicted to alcohol or drugs, - these are considered evils of the white hegemony
  • · Self-esteem
  • · Depression
  • · Poverty
  • · Bigotry or racism
  • · Adjustment to the reservation life, education, marriage

The question to ask of the text is how the specific issue affects the tribal member, the member’s relationship with his family, relationship with the tribe, or others in the story. Does it present a conflict scene, monologue, dialogue – how is it presented by the author? Why did the author have this thing occur with this character or characters at that time in the plot of the story/novel? The culture related answers are how you come up with ideas to analyze major points and contextual evidence.

Sherman Alexie (b. 10/1966) is a Spokane/Coeur d’Alene Indian and grew up on the Spokane Indian Reservation near Wellpoint, WA. He found his mother’s name written in a reservation school textbook and determined to seek high school and further education off the reservation. Planning to become a physician while studying at Washington State University, he took a poetry class that change his life and his goals. He has written books of poetry, political books and Native American fiction. He has performed on the stage in poetry and comedy and is a thought provoking public speaker. He has received numerous awards for his writing. He lives in Seattle, WA, with his wife and two sons.

Writing an analysis of a piece of fiction can be a mystifying process. First, literary analyses (or papers that offer an interpretation of a story) rely on the assumption that stories must mean something. How does a story mean something? Isn’t a story just an arrangement of characters and events? A story isn't just a story – unless purely for entertainment, fiction works have meaning the author wants the reader to comprehend. If the author wanted to convey a meaning, wouldn’t he or she be much better off writing an essay just telling us what he or she meant? That's a possibility but, that would be nonfiction. Professional authors, including those that write for mass media and entertainment (e.g., police procedurals, legal thrillers, psychological thrillers, horror), like to write stories that contain lessons for their readers.