Cultural Survival: Maintaining Culture Despite Outside Influence

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  • 0:01 Preserving Cultural Identity
  • 0:57 Threats to Culture
  • 3:17 Interactions with Others
  • 5:00 Speaking Up
  • 6:20 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christine Serva

Christine has an M.A. in American Studies. She is an instructional designer, educator, and writer with a particular interest in the social sciences and American studies.

This lesson discusses how a culture can persist despite outside influences and other change. You'll also learn how society has evolved in its approach to different cultural groups and traditions.

Preserving Cultural Identity

Sani's life shares a lot in common with many Americans. He watches certain television shows, drives the same kind of car others drive, and speaks English. Yet his cultural identity is quite distinct. He is part of the Navajo Nation and also speaks the traditional Navajo language. He engages in many of the customs of previous generations and has core beliefs that are connected with his heritage. He works as a teacher in a local school and aims to pass this information along to his students.

This lesson examines how those like Sani maintain their cultural identity despite the outside influence of other cultures. You'll learn what has threatened this in the past, including colonialism, and what efforts have been made by these groups to ensure their own survival, like tourism and activism. You'll also learn about the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Threats to Culture

The Navajo Nation is an example of a group of indigenous people. While there is no one definition for this term, groups who identify themselves as indigenous tend to have long historical ties to a territory, distinctive cultural traditions, and often a shared language, either now or in the past. These groups are typically smaller in population than the larger society.

Some examples of indigenous groups include tribes like the Navajo Nation, native people from Canada such as the Inuit, and hunter-gatherers in the Amazon. If the world was a room of 100 people, about 5 of those people, or 5%, would be considered indigenous. Sometimes the term 'aboriginal' is used instead of the word 'indigenous.'

There are some groups of people in the world that have not had contact with others, but this is quite rare. Most indigenous groups have had contact with other cultures, many for generations.

Colonialism, the practice of overtaking a region and using it for the benefit of the colonists, has affected many indigenous groups. These groups were often forcibly removed from lands by newcomers. Some group leaders had entered into agreements with colonial powers, but these contracts were often either misrepresented or outright broken. For instance, Sani's ancestors originated in New Mexico and faced removal by gunpoint, including 18 days of walking as part of this imprisonment.

In addition, those of European descent often aimed to change the traditional cultures of native tribes through teaching their own European heritage, sometimes forcefully. Today, Sani ensures that the children in his classes learn about many cultures, including their own.

Indigenous groups are not the only cultures who must work to maintain their traditional practices in today's society. Religious communities, such as the Amish, also encounter challenges to their way of life, as do many other ethnic groups.

These and other groups have persisted despite these challenges, a process known as cultural survival. Cultural survival can be described as the ability for a culture to sustain its identity despite outside influence.

Interactions with Others

Cultural traditions are also challenged in ways that go beyond the colonialism and exploitation of the past. Those who identify with a specific cultural group can face the dilemma of how to maintain their own way of life even as they interact with people from other cultures in a modern society. These groups may continue to meet regularly and hold traditional ceremonies, either with outsiders or among their own group. Leaders may create policies through their own government. Individuals also may choose to incorporate some elements of the culture around them while preserving many of their own practices.

Rather than completely rejecting all interaction with other groups, many cultural groups are interconnected with the larger society. These groups may develop partnerships with other communities and organizations. This can happen for economic reasons and even tourism in particular.

In many cases, tourism can help educate others about a particular culture and also potentially brings money into the community, though not always. This can be controversial because cultural groups are affected by the experience. Tourism shapes how a group sees themselves and how they present themselves to outside cultures. There can be pros and cons to the interactions with tourists. For instance, the students in Sani's class often find their pictures being taken by tourists without being asked simply because they are Navajo. On the other hand, many of their parents work for organizations that survive on the money that tourism brings to the area.

Speaking Up

According to the nonprofit group called Cultural Survival, one of the main activities that an indigenous culture can engage in to ensure the preservation of its community is to defend its own rights.

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