Indigenous Culture and Community Development

by chali

How would you apply the concepts of indigenous culture to community development?

Editors Reply: Thanks for that question. First, let's define indigenous culture for our readers. An indigenous people is a group that have been given some official status or rights by a national or sub-national government or authority, based on the unique history of the indigenous people tying them to a particular place.

So, in the continental U.S., for instance, indigenous people commonly would be considered native Americans (or what older people might call American Indians). Likewise in Alaska and Hawaii, indigenous culture typically would be a unique culture built up before the arrival of European ancestry settlers.

In the rest of the world, there are many similar situations, denoting where a particular cultural group is bound by a common history in a specific location or territory.

Generally the terms carries a connotation that the indigenous people somehow now have been disadvantaged by a dominant culture other than their own.

We think that all people of the earth have the right to retain, preserve, and celebrate their own culture and traditions, as long as those are not harmful to other individuals and groups.

Translating these comments into the community development field, we think that a primary consideration should be the engagement of the particular indigenous community in how it would like to participate in the larger society.

So for those who represent a dominant newcomer culture, the first task should be to build trust with the indigenous culture and to grant the right to self-determination.

Having secured the right to self-determination and preservation of one's own culture, however, the approach to community development in an indigenous culture is not that much different from the community development principles we have described on these pages. Respect for each other and care for the larger community should be hallmarks of all community development.

But the exterior manifestations of community development--the specific laws, initiative, and projects undertaken in the name of community development--will be different based on the cultural context in which it is occurring.

That cultural context will include history, language, government, social norms, and values.

For example, one culture might think that paved streets and individual houses for each nuclear family should be encouraged. Other cultures might feel that grandparents, aunts and uncles, and cousins all should be welcomed into one large abode and that these abodes should be grouped in a circle rather than along streets.

Understanding these differences and then figuring out a local solution where two or more sub-cultures are living in geographic proximity becomes an ongoing effort that will require lots of patience and dialogue to be successful.

Since we are U.S.-based planners, we think it is best to illustrate briefly in terms of how we think indigenous peoples here--Native Americans--should be treated. We think that it is a grave injustice to all concerned that we have not worked harder as a nation to figure out with these native folks how best their traditions, beliefs, and norms can be preserved, while allowing them to participate in the broad story of a prosperous U.S. to the extent they wish.

In this and other examples, we also have to note the difficulty that the leaders of indigenous cultures may not have the interests of the ordinary folks at heart, and may be just as susceptible to being corrupted by power as the leaders of the dominant group. LaDonna Harris of Americans for Indian Opportunity has long spoken about her view that the chiefs do not represent the interests of the entire tribe as much as they look after enriching themselves and exercising power.

A cultural difference led to the confiscation of native lands by those of European background who were schooled in the concept of private ownership of land. The all-too-human trait of constantly needing to establish a pecking order and prove oneself and one's own group superior to other groups led to European attempts at cultural domination.

Coming up with a new balance between peoples of different ethnic and cultural origin isn't an easy thing, but it is a vitally important task for the 21st century, when distance barriers between folks are easily overwhelmed. Working on evolving a new social contract among groups, both in the U.S. and in societies world-wide, has never been more important.

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