The concept of globalization can be positive or negative, depending on one’s frame of reference. Positive when new technologies, trade, communication or business ventures promote, preserve, or enhance cultural traditions and improve quality of life. Negative when new ways of doing things destroy life styles, when ‘progress’ signifies financial advantage for a few to the detriment or destruction of entire communities. All too often, globalization leads to majorities becoming oppressed minorities who lose their cultural identities, their way of life, their land and their lives.
Wikipedia’s definition of globalization as a process by which regional economies, societies, and cultures become integrated through a global network of communication and trade sounds good. However, Native Americans define the process as out-of-control development that exploits the land, depletes and destroys natural resources, and leaves behind polluted water and contaminated soil. Mining for gold, silver and uranium left a heritage of toxic brownfields and heavy metals, including mercury that has seeped into rivers and into the diets of many tribes who depend on the contaminated fish. Hazardous waste from nuclear development threatens natural aquifers and sacred sites. Globalization has not been kind to Native Americans, their culture or their land.
Wikipedia also defines globalization as the transnational circulation of ideas, languages, or popular culture through acculturation. To Indigenous peoples, acculturation resulted in a transnational loss of individual tribal identities and cultural traditions due to the government policy of assimilation. Beginning in the late 1800’s, the federal government forcefully took Indian children from their families, sent them away to boarding schools, took away their traditional clothing, cut their hair, and punished them when they spoke in their Native language. The concept was to take the Indian out of Indians.
To Native Americans, acculturation / assimilation has a negative connotation. It has resulted in tribes scrambling to recover their native languages and preserve their cultural traditions, to redefine tribal identities. Tribal youth feel a disconnect from their past and are often distracted from traditional customs by the influence of globalization and modern pop culture. In schools that are not located on reservations, history is taught from a Caucasian perspective – historic events only pertain to western culture. Native languages have no place in curriculums. For Native Americans, globalization does not include sharing cultural traditions, concepts of earth stewardship and honoring elders. Modernization seems to mean looking forward and never back. In with the new, out with the old.
Caucasian children learn that 1492 was the year America was discovered. To Native Americans, 1492 signifies the year of contact, a year that ushered in a constantly changing world that has threatened time-honored ways of life. A world in which conversion to Christianity was the only path to follow, excluding centuries of belief in ancient concepts of traditional and spiritual healing. The dominant value systems of materialism, acquisitiveness and ownership were superimposed over traditional values. At a tribal gathering, one Indian spiritual leader was overheard to say, “Globalization is like building a McDonald’s on top of a Mayan temple.”
In a 2005 keynote address entitled, “The Impact of Globalization on Native Cultural Renewal,” Henrietta Mann, currently serving as President of the Cheyenne Arapaho Tribal College in Oklahoma, noted: “I surmise that globalization involves change. We can, as Indigenous people, accept that, because our Indigenous knowledge affirms that change is a part of life. We acknowledge change as a part of life & acknowledge that our cultural ways are very flexible. If they weren’t flexible, we would not have survived. This flexibility gives Native peoples the ability to live in balance & in harmony with an ever-changing world. It has always been that way on this road of life that we collectively walk on this earth.”
Dr. Mann continued: “Immigrants (after 1492) were aggressive, and they were ruthless about reshaping Indigenous world views. They quickly forgot the persecution from which they had fled and they tried to absorb us into the American melting pot, a concept intended to eradicate cultural differences. Native peoples were targeted for disappearance into this gigantic mono-cultural crucible. Ultimately, Native Americans became all but invisible in our own homelands. From this historical context, beginning at the time of contact, the Native peoples of the Americas have been subjected to the process of globalization.”
“Today, American culture is on the path of colonizing an entire planet in its own image. Globalization is the dominant ideology of this time. It is capitalistic & imperialistic in character and reaches deeply into the economic, political, cultural, technological & ecological dimensions of contemporary life. It touches upon everything in this world in which we live. Our traditional economics were replaced by western culture & we have had to live with imported western consumer goods & services since 1492. I would caution us about the degree to which we have embraced these material items. We can use them, but we must maintain our sense of balance & harmony within the time & the space in which we live.”