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Tribal Culture and Economic Growth

Will economic growth in the 21st century erode or augment tribal culture?

  • Justin B. Richland
  • Early contact with non-Indians caused American Indian cultures to flourish in some ways and to atrophy in others. Non-Indians supplied steel chisels and paint to Northwestern tribes for totem pole art, the loom and colored threads to Southwestern tribes for weaving, and the horse to Great Plains tribes for buffalo hunting. Non-Indians also brought new diseases, warfare, and brutal subjugation that disrupted tribal life. After the conquests of the 18th and 19th centuries, flourishing and atrophying continued in the 20th century when many tribes acquired the English language, governments, schools, western medicine, Bibles, rock and roll, rodeos, jails, cut-rate stores, tractors, big-screen televisions, and desk jobs. At the same time, many tribes also lost their original language, prayers, dances, ceremonies, herbal medicines, religious beliefs, arts, clans, and methods of farming and hunting. By both force and allure, American culture crowded out many forms of traditional culture.

    In the 21st century, rapid cultural change will presumably continue, especially through economic development on Indian reservations. Will economic growth in the 21st century erode or augment tribal culture? Will tribal culture retard or promote economic development? These are the questions Dominic Parker, Robert Cooter, and I ask in a forthcoming research project about American Indian reservations. The preliminary findings of this project were recently presented at PERC’s workshop in Bozeman, Montana, on economic development and tribal culture.

    Rather than trying to define culture, we are exploring causes connecting tribal culture and economic development.

    Theory of Tribal Culture

    Culture is often described as social rather than individual, local rather than universal, learned rather than instinctive, historical rather than biological, evolved rather than planned, distributed rather than centralized, and cultivated rather than coarse. Scholars distinguish between cultural expressions and their foundations. Expressions include activities such as singing, dancing, dressing, and artistry—the usual media representations of Indians. The foundations include marrying, child-rearing, socializing, worshipping, governing, and working.

    In American Indian communities, culture often distinguishes insiders from outsiders. People vigorously debate what is really “Hopi” or what is “Indian” and what is “white.” Besides affecting pride and human relationships, the debate can affect subsidies, grants, school curricula, and jobs.

    Culture is an indispensable concept like “society,” but it is also vague and contested. Loose criteria control the word in speech and the concept in thought. Any scholarly attempt to find culture’s “essence” or “true meaning” is inevitably too narrow. Rather than trying to define culture, we are exploring causes connecting tribal culture and economic development.

    Many tribes describe themselves as “nations,” and their governments mobilize the symbols of nationhood. By focusing on one particular form of cultural distinctiveness—that of tribal language—our research attempts to address the following questions: Does national distinctiveness promote wealth, or does wealth promote national distinctiveness? Is assimilation the price that Indian nations must pay for wealth, or is distinctiveness one of the rewards for obtaining wealth?

    The Hopi Dictionary 

    In the summer of 1998, I was sitting in the Tucson, Arizona, office of Emory Sekaquaptewa getting lessons on Hopi grammar and syntax. At the time, and up until his death in 2008, Sekaquaptewa served as research professor in the Bureau of Applied Research in Anthropology at the University of Arizona, and Chief Justice of the Hopi Appellate Court—the highest court of the Hopi Nation. Although I had first met Emory in 1995 while doing legal research, I had long known that his real passion lay in Hopi language and culture. Indeed, despite having no formal training as a linguist (Emory was the first Native American JD to graduate from the University of Arizona), he turned many of our conversations to lectures on the significance of language to the vitality of contemporary Hopi jurisprudence and culture more generally.

    The objective was to get Hopi people to realize that their language and culture could be the stuff of a standardized, national culture, a literate language by which they could accomplish all aspects of contemporary Hopi life.

    Time and again Emory told me of his efforts to document the Hopi language, and how starting with note cards and his own intuition, he would write down words and phrases that he thought would better capture important concepts in Hopi that did not have adequate translation in English. This effort evolved into the Hopi Dictionary Project. Emory brought in linguists and librarians and other Hopi language speakers to collaborate on his vision. The project culminated in the 1998 publication of the Hopi Dictionary/Hopìikwa Lavàytutveni: A Hopi Dictionary of the Third Mesa Dialect, a 30,000 word volume that today stands as the most comprehensive dictionary not only of the Hopi language, but of any of the languages of the Uto-Aztecan family, one of the largest indigenous language groups in North and Central America.

    Thus it was surprising that on the eve of the official release of the dictionary Emory was not excited about the achievement of what, on other occasions, he and others had considered his life work (indeed, he was often described as the Noah Webster of the Hopi Nation). Only later would I discover that there were objections to the publication of the dictionary by certain members of the Hopi Tribe, including Leigh Kuwanwisiwma, director of the Hopi Cultural Preservation Office, the arm of the tribal government charged with policing the misrepresentation of Hopi cultural property, including intellectual property. Among the concerns raised by Kuwanwisiwma was that the publication of the dictionary would end up making the Hopi language and the cultural meanings that it conveys accessible to non-Hopis, which would expose ceremonial secrecy and ritual significance to those who were not authorized to know.

    While Emory was giving me personal lessons in Hopi, I had little appreciation that I was unwittingly enacting the very kind of engagement with the language that was, in the view of some, the reason the dictionary should never be published. It is instructive of Emory’s views on these issues that, in those early days, he never let on that this was at stake in our meetings. Instead, he would say the unfinished business of the Hopi Dictionary Project was not seeing it appear in print, but rather of getting it distributed to the Hopi families who he believed needed to learn how to write the language. Only by expanding Hopi literacy could the larger problems of Hopi cultural loss be reversed. For Emory, the objective was to get Hopi people to realize that their language and culture could be the stuff of a standardized, national culture, a literate language by which they could accomplish all aspects of contemporary Hopi life—both informal and formal. The ultimate goal for Emory was not only of Hopi cultural preservation but of vitality, and it was through a dictionary that the tribe could provide the basis for Hopi literacy, taught to all Hopi children in schools and used to conduct official Hopi nation business.

    In the years that would follow, right up until his death, Emory played an instrumental role in developing a variety of materials and programming designed to foster Hopi literacy and language learning. These projects included teaching a course to Hopi educators living on the reservation, supervising the drafting of novel Hopi literacy materials and lesson plans, even participating in the launching of a Hopi tribal radio station that would broadcast Hopi language programming to all of northern Arizona.

    It was the efforts launched by the Hopi Dictionary Project that would eventually gain nearly universal support of the Hopi tribal membership, which is now a mainstay of the contemporary tribe and a key element in their sense of cultural pride and vitality. This is evident by the fact that where the dictionary was largely funded by contributions from non-Hopi donors, the language and literacy programming based on it are supported by tribal funds. This includes major and on-going support for the Hopi Lavayi Project—the Hopi language and literacy program which, perhaps ironically, is under the direction of Kuwanwisiwma. If Emory were alive today he would allow himself a knowing and grateful smile at this positive turn of events and the role that his efforts played in preserving and promoting Hopi language and culture.

    Economic Growth, Wealth, and Language Revival.

    To further understand the connection between language and culture, our research considers the value of an Indian language to individuals who speak it. Language is a means of expression and an instrument of communication. Expression is intrinsically valuable and enjoyable. As the case of the Hopi dictionary demonstrates, people will pay in money, time, and effort to express themselves in ways that they enjoy. Consequently, as Indians get richer, they may spend more money, time, and effort cultivating Indian languages

    Using data on the self-reported use of tribal languages at home, we examine the relationship between tribal language use and income growth on reservations from 1980 to 2010. The use of tribal languages plummeted during the 1980s, casting doubt on their future viability. Tribal language use then stabilized between 1990 and 2010 as incomes on many reservations expanded due to growth in income from a number of different economic ventures, including casinos. We explore this positive association in detail to uncover causal relationships between tribal language use and income. Although our research is still a work in progress, preliminary results suggest that recent income gains on reservations—emanating from increases in economic growth opportunities and adjacent county wealth—have enabled tribal language retention and revitalization. Although we cannot precisely identify all of the mechanisms through which income from casinos has enhanced language investments, our theory hypothesizes that pure income effects and increased demand for cultural tourism have played roles.

    This analysis complements other research finding positive effects of economic growth on incomes and health outcomes. Although many observers assume the benefits of such developments necessarily came at the expense of tribal culture, our preliminary results suggest the opposite: The emergence of new forms of economic growth appears to be a catalyst for an increased attention to cultural reinvigoration of a variety of types, including a return to and renewed commitment to native language learning.

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