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Multicultural perspectives strengthen Native American identity, says Stanford scholar

As Native Americans increasingly focus on reviving indigenous traditions, Stanford Humanities Center fellow Sean Teuton says cross-cultural exchange is a vital element to continuing the native narrative.

Courtesy of the Smithsonian American Art Museum Painting of American Indian lodge

Based on his study of multicultural writings by 19th-century Native Americans, Stanford scholar Sean Teuton says that a healthy national identity 'works best through open engagement with other cultures.'

Since the 1960s, Native American populations around the United States have undertaken numerous programs to revive a rich cultural heritage that was nearly obliterated by European and American domination. 

Today, tribes around America send their children to immersion programs to study traditional native language, history and literature.

However, Stanford scholar Sean Teuton argues that an insular emphasis on Native American culture may not be the best approach to preserving their cultural character.

"Too many people assume that to be 'really' Native, indigenous people must eradicate everything they have adapted from 500 years of interaction with other nations," said Teuton, a fellow at the Stanford Humanities Center and a scholar of Native American literature.

The Red Power movement of the late 1960s, said Teuton, "led to an expansion of national and cultural autonomy" among Native nations that continues to this day.  At the same time, it also gave rise to a growing separatist sentiment among Native communities that can "encourage the exclusion of broader world culture," he said.

Teuton, whose ancestors were among the Cherokee forced to relocate to Oklahoma during the 1830s Trail of Tears migration, stressed that while maintaining their cultural history on their new lands, indigenous nations have always been interested in what other cultures had to share.

After a survey of multicultural writings by 19th-century Native Americans, Teuton said he  wants to "offer an alternative to the idea that to defend Native culture, all others must be shut out."

Teuton maintains that as Native schools move toward teaching more indigenous literature, their students will also benefit from increased exposure to ideas from the broader world of literature.

"By studying this history of transcultural interaction," said Teuton, "we can only strengthen our vision of ourselves as culturally grounded, yet globally aware, citizens of today's world."

His research demonstrates that a healthy national identity "works best through open engagement with other cultures."

Teuton, who will help establish an indigenous studies program at the University of Arkansas next year, spent his time as a fellow at the Stanford Humanities Center writing Cities of Refuge: Indigenous Cosmopolitan Writers and the International Imaginary.

Teuton's Cherokee grandmother left Oklahoma during World War II, settling in Compton, Calif., where Teuton was born.  His move to Arkansas later this year, he said, "returns me to my roots in the Cherokee Nation, which is located just 30 miles away."

Bridging two worlds

Teuton's study of 19th-century Native writings reveals that many Native leaders of the time "entered a space between traditional and cosmopolitan communities." As they defended Native identity, indigenous communities consciously adapted Western institutions to represent themselves as sovereigns in the eyes of the United States, Teuton said.

Steve CastilloSean Teuton portrait

Stanford scholar Sean Teuton

By 1832, the Cherokee Nation had drafted a constitution, developed a written language and published a bilingual newspaper. Young Cherokees received Western educations at northeastern schools. By consciously immersing themselves in these practices, cosmopolitan public figures such as Elias Boudinot and John Ross learned how best to advocate for Native American self-governance.

Boudinot, who started the first newspaper published by a Native American tribe, published numerous editorials encouraging political treaties to secure Native rights with the United States. Ross, the principal chief of the Cherokee Nation for nearly four decades, represented his people to the United States government and allied himself with U.S. senators and other leaders to strengthen Native sovereignty.

At the same time, Native American writers published books in English to promote Native American self-determination.

Not all 19th-century Native American literature was this pointedly political, however.  In 1854 John Rollin Ridge, generally celebrated as the first Native American novelist, exhilarated readers with his action-packed novel The Life and Adventures of Joaquin Murieta. This tale of a Mexican bandit on the run "illustrates the extent to which 19th-century Native literature interested itself in foreign events of the era," said Teuton.

Teuton said he wants readers and students who are new to Native American literature to be moved by this Native literary history and "inspired to explore the rich contemporary Native American literature available."

Writers like N. Scott Momaday continue the precedent of Native American writers entrenched in both indigenous and world cultures. Momaday, who is of Kiowa descent, won the Pulitzer Prize for his 1968 novel, House Made of Dawn, about life on and off reservations in New Mexico. Likewise, poets like Joy Harjo, a member of the Muscogee Nation, and Simon Ortiz, a member of the Acoma Pueblo tribe, are just two of the many contemporary Native American poets whose works are popular both within and outside the Native American community.

"Readers new to Native literature are often surprised to learn the extent to which these works speak to their own hopes and experience," said Teuton.

An international future

Teuton said his scholarship draws attention to examples of indigenous cosmopolitans who entered the global public sphere "to defend the indigenous nation" rather than to erase their ties to cultural traditions.

Teuton said he wants to engage a scholarly community which has too often faced gridlock around questions of whether indigenous nations should isolate themselves from the broader world.

"I argue that they shouldn't – in fact, they can't.  Healthy indigenous nations seek exchange and trade influences, adapting and offering useful ways and values for international flourishing," Teuton said.

More broadly, Teuton's research provides a model of indigenous national identity, belonging and prosperity that does not entail Native Americans cutting off cultural contact with the broader world. Native Americans, Teuton said, "can and should walk the fine line between industrialized and traditional life."

The fact that most students enter college knowing virtually nothing about indigenous people or literature in the United States is a failure of our schools, Teuton said.

However, he added, lessons of international exchange go both ways: "Americans don't consider themselves to suffer cultural destruction when they don a pair of moccasins, and we shouldn't assume that Native people lose anything by adapting other nations' cultural forms to their own needs."

Veronica Marian is the communications coordinator for the Stanford Humanities Center.

Media Contact

Corrie Goldman, director of humanities communication: (650) 724-8156, corrieg@stanford.edu