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Native American Indians Take Measures to Hold Onto Their Culture

North America was once the land of peoples whom Spanish conquerors mistakenly called "Indians." Overwhelmed by Europeans and white Americans moving ever westward, Native American culture was steadily squeezed into reservations and small villages. Their 2.5-million people today represent less than one percent of the U.S. population.

VOA's Valer Gergely went to New Mexico, where indigenous Americans are striving to hold onto their traditions. His story is narrated by Ted Landphair.

Indigenous Americans once hunted game and hoarded scarce water to survive in the harsh American Southwest. Now it is their very culture that is threatened. They hunt for jobs, not food. They seek respect for their ways and protection of their cultural identity from the pressures of commercialization and American pop culture.

Some of New Mexico's Native Americans proudly perform their ancient dances and sell their traditional art to the public.

But others believe their culture is being exploited. One Indian dancer said, "Whether I like it or not, it's being commercialized. Everyone is starting to profit from our beliefs and our traditions. I cannot stop that. But our children, grandchildren must continue to carry on our language and the meaning behind our dances."

Mary Bowannie is a Native American journalist. She says she's disturbed by disrespectful images of American Indians. "When you go to a store here, you'll see cigarettes and tobacco that still carry images of 'natives.' All those type of images have an impact on how people look at Indian people in this country. It's a way of exploiting the individual tribal people or tribal nations.”

As a result, some villages, or pueblos as they're called here, now restrict sketching and photography of their religious and social dances. Acoma Pueblo, or Sky City, is the oldest continuously-inhabited community in North America. It was built 14 centuries ago. The 14 families that live in this tiny, closed community still use wood stoves to heat their homes and make their bread in clay ovens. Acoma has no electricity.

Brian Vallo, Director of the Acoma Cultural Center, says, "Today we do things of our own. We have to survive on our own, at least identify means of survival for our families. But when you look at your tie to your tribe, it's more a communal approach as opposed to individualistic. Because of that, we were able to preserve our culture and life way."

Yet to survive, the people of Acoma must demonstrate their way of life to tourists, who pay a fee to take still photographs. The pueblo prohibits the use of video recorders, fearing others will profit from their culture. The footage in this story was given to VOA as part of the pueblo's publicity kit.

Yet the tribe gains more than money from sharing its culture. By performing ancient dances and selling art, elders teach their traditions to the young, softening some of the influences of pop culture.

Vallo says keeping traditions is the tribes responsibility, "We all have to remember that we share the inherent responsibility of maintaining the culture and the way of our life. But we have also recognized that our community, certainly the younger membership, is different and will continue to change."

Conroy Chino, the state of New Mexico's labor secretary, is from Acoma Pueblo. He says he understands the struggle to maintain cultural traditions while trying to survive economically. "Spirituality in my tribe is a major factor; it is inseparable. But does it bring jobs; does it bring industry to my tribe? It doesn't and probably never will. But more than anything, spirituality is a building block."

Mr. Chino says more is needed to deal with the alcoholism, depression and other problems many Native Americans face. "It ranges from issues regarding poverty and suicide, unemployment, to self esteem and mental health issues."

New Mexico tribes have established businesses to lift their communities out of poverty. They say Indian-run enterprises such as construction companies and gambling casinos give them a measure of control over their destiny.

Brian Vallo says he has seen both good and bad influences of casinos. "The positive certainly outweigh the negatives. But I think the most significant outcome has been the fact that we -- the Acoma People -- have educated ourselves so much about business. With Indian gaming we have brought so much more to the table. We had to learn how to become good money managers, good investors, good attorneys. We have provided means for more opportunities for our community as a whole and for individual tribal members."

The governor of Laguna Pueblo, Roland Johnson, says that as reservations have learned the ways of business, they have become more active politically. "Now we have a comprehensive education system here at the pueblo, we have a program that provides services, just as they provided in any non-Indian community. All of that creates an ideal situation for our younger generations to come. We began to see that more and more, our young people are staying in the pueblo," he said.

LeAnn Siow has also seen more young people return. She says, "As soon as they graduate from high school, they just want to get away. But as they get away they miss the family, they miss the sense of community. Because when you are going to that world, it's just you all alone and when you are a different race and from a different culture you stand out more. But eventually they come back home."

At the Acoma Cultural Center, Brian Vallo reflects on the efforts to preserve his people's way of life. "I would like to think, and I hope, that whenever it's my time to go into the next world, I leave knowing that I contributed. In these days the responsibility is even greater because of the challenges and the exposure to the Western culture. It's challenging, but I welcome that. And I hope our culture will survive further into the future. I pray for that daily."

To that end, the people of Acoma Pueblo carefully guard the remnants of their ancient culture.