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Indigenous Knowledge Commons

Dave Warren

For many people “tribalism” has become a term of abuse, others see it as a worthy ideal. Does “tribalism” have a valid role to play in modern society?

Dave Warren says: “Culture is an elusive idea. We all agree that it is important, desired, and necessary to human existence. Yet when we consider it in manifestations and expressions like Tribalism, ethnic nationalism, tribal identity--especially in a time of changing paradigms in global society--our assurance of culture as a positive force is often suspended.

Culture can be defined as all the ways of life including arts, beliefs and institutions of a population that are passed down from generation to generation. Culture, often called "the way of life for an entire society," includes codes of manners, dress, language, religion, Hrituals, norms of behavior such as law and morality, and systems of belief as well as the art.

The United Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (Unesco) (2002) described culture "... as the set of distinctive spiritual, material, intellectual and emotional features of society or a social group, and that it encompasses, in addition to art and literaturlifestyles, ways of living together, value systems, traditions and beliefs".

Ceasing to be a cultural person; becoming that which you are not, or cannot be, is loss of identity. It is the feeling that happens when someone with the authority describes the world and you are not in it…there is a moment of psychic disequilibrium, as if you looked into a mirror and saw nothing. Jerome Bruner, Acts of Meaning

Usually the purview of anthropology, and sociology, culture has become the interest of psychologists, economists, and political scientists. And the subject appears in the discussions of members of the national congress, technologists, and diplomats. We even hear newscasters on CNN discussing the effect of tribalism and culture in global issues and problems.

How do we cope with Culture as a force that seems to define and determine much of the relationships of people, communities and nations. Yet, culture remains ineffable. The question transcends academia or theoretical discussion. It is fundamental to the changing world, as nation-states reconfigure under the pressure of the emergence of the city-state, the tribal state, the geographically determined significance of place and people.

Science advanced, knowledge grew, nature was mastered, but Reason did not conquer and tribalism did not go away. Harold Isaacs, Idols of the Tribe (NY, Harper and Row, 1975)

Closely related to culture, tribe is usually described as a group of persons, a society, or a component of society that claims a common ancestry, shares a similar set of customs, beliefs, and leadership. More pejorative uses of the term stress the barbarous nature of tribalism, as well the tendency of Europeans to use the term to describe relations among nonwhite people in lands occupied by them.

Thus the distinction of tribalism and culture blurs in the popular mind when discussing indigenous peoples, especially in developments of a post-colonial world. This is particularly true when describing these movements as forces in the redefinition of old nation states and earlier ideologies.

Native American development is part this larger context. Native Americans like others in the world have an ability to combine a strong sense of common origin and shared values, quintessential tribal characteristics while identifying themselves as “nations.” These peoples do not surrender their sense of a peculiar ethnic identity to technology or science but utilize their historically conditioned values and beliefs to cope successfully with change. In 1996, UNESCO published Our Creative Diversity. This study looked for reasons for the failure of development projects, recognizing that culture, a factor of “complex web of relationships and beliefs, values and motivations,” was clearly critical to such projects, but ill understood. Identity is deeply embedded in culture. Culture, and tribalism, amorphous as they may be, are forces and actors in what makes people who they are, how they came to be and the explanation of self in complex systems of cultural organizations.

A “new global ethics” is sometimes called for in considering development, and must be rethought as a process. Any notion that it is something linear, uniform, or singular in character seems untenable. New designs in nationhood surface even greater recognition of each peoples’ values that underlay a way of life that increasingly challenges the presumptions of an earlier epoch. No longer is it possible to assume that there are universal ways of achieving modernization. Ultimately the new ethics of the world society derive its substance and design from a sense of each people‘s cultural wealth.

It is in the nature of humans to seek identity, special identification that provides references and bearings in the larger often-hostile world. What it is that makes identification possible is culture. In the circumstances of modern conditions, one can hope that we develop a viable pluralism backed by a willingness to negotiate differences in worldview. It is foolish and foolhardy to suppose that a dogged insistence upon some idea of “absolute value” will make the uncertainties vanish.

Bruner, Harvard psychologist, offers some guidance as we move toward a better understanding of culture as a force in life. Open-mindedness, be it in politics, science, literature, philosophy, or the arts, is a willingness to construe knowledge and values from multiple perspectives without loss of commitment to one’s own values. Open mindedness is the keystone to what we call a democratic culture. Democracy is neither divinely ordained nor is it to be taken for granted as perennially durable. Like all cultures, it is based on values that generate distinctive ways of life and corresponding concepts of reality. Though democracy values the invigoration of surprise, it not always proof against the shocks that open mindedness sometimes inflicts. Open-mindedness generates its own enemies. Democratic culture demands that we be conscious of how we come to our knowledge and as conscious as we can be about the values that lead us to our perspectives.

It requires accountability of ourselves for how and what we know. But it does not insist that there is only one way of constructing meaning, or one right way. It is based upon values that fit it best to deal with the changes and disruptions that have become so much a feature of modern life.

Admitting to the pioneering nature of the Our Creative Diversity study, UNESCO wanted to heighten the awareness that culture brings to the question of human development.
We aim to [show]…how culture shapes all our thinking, imagining and behavior. It is the transmission of behavior as well as a dynamic source for change, creativity, freedom, and awakening of innovative opportunities. For groups and societies, culture is energy, inspiration and empowerment, as well as the knowledge and acknowledgment of diversity: … we must learn how to let it lead not to the clash of cultures but to their fruitful coexistence and to intercultural harmony.

Native American development resides in this larger context

Creative Diversity, 7.
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