Intertribal Does Not Mean Interchangeable

I have noted previously that most hobbyist groups call themselves intertribal. This means that they acknowledge that they represent a multitude of tribal identities without claiming a distinct tribal identity. Anyone from any tribal identity is welcome to join and participate and, in theory, bring their culture with them to share with the others.

At least, they don’t try to call themselves a tribe or a nation. They portray themselves as an association of multiple tribal identities. In principle, this is a straightforward and acceptable idea. When properly conducted, it should be an appropriate place for a seeker to begin to learn the culture of his ancestors. In reality, I have yet to see this play out correctly.

I have long believed that an intertribal group should be a springboard to real exploration of your Native heritage. Of course, it would help if there were one or more people already there who have already assimilated the culture you are wanting to assimilate. The ideal model for learning the culture of your ancestors would be one of those further along the journey reaching back to pull you along.

Unfortunately, the reality is usually that there is no one in the group that knows much about any particular tribal culture. There is usually a generalized knowledge of Native life and history, gathered from whatever books can be discovered. There will usually be a fair representation of people claiming ancestry from the best known nations (Cherokee, Lakota, Haudenosaunee (Iroquois), etc.), but often none of them have any depth to their knowledge of the culture they claim ancestry from. Instead, there is a much too prevalent tendency for each individual to pick and choose information from any tribal culture that appeals to them.

Times have changed since I began my own journey. At that time, it was necessary to travel to a bookstore and peruse whatever was shelved there to find resources for study. Of course, there were libraries also, but you were still limited by the interests of the acquisitions committee and donations.

Since then, the Internet has exploded and one can find almost any book ever written available through myriad sources, often indexed by keywords, which makes locating primary source information much easier. There is also seemingly limitless information available through web searches, though it is often difficult to discern the validity of any given article.

Nevertheless, this presumes that people are motivated enough to actually research the culture they claim ancestry from. This is seldom the case. People prefer to be fed information by others, which presupposes that those people have accurate information to offer. The examples here are too numerous to recount.

I once was in a group with an individual who claimed Cherokee ancestry. So I suggested some well-known resources on the Cherokee for him to use to learn that culture. His response was that he preferred resources that had mostly pictures. I’m still looking for the Classic Comics version of James Mooney’s work.

I attended an educational presentation by a group that I was somewhat familiar with and heard an account given of an origin of ribbon work on Native clothing. The story offered was plausible enough and I liked it. So I attempted to verify it through my own research, which I was unable to do. So, the next time I heard the story in a subsequent educational presentation I asked the presenter to cite the source of their information.

This was an individual who claimed Lenape heritage. The story she had offered involved the children who were sent to the Indian boarding schools. The explanation (citation of source) I received astonished me. She tried to attribute the story to oral history because the Lenape did not have a written language.

There are two problems here: The Lenape language was transcribed and written down by Moravian missionaries before the American War for Independence. It is difficult to say how many of the Lenape could actually write the language at the time, but it is reasonable to assume that there were a few.

But even more pertinent to the explanation given is that the era of Indian boarding schools began after the American Civil War, well into the historic period of both Indian culture and American culture. It is certain that if there were any validity to the account given, someone would have written something of it somewhere.

Returning to the theme represented by the title of this post, the fundamental problem of most intertribal hobbyist groups is that all tribal cultures become generally viewed as somewhat interchangeable. Customs and practices from any culture can be grafted into each individual’s understanding of the culture they aspire to represent according to any whim or fancy.

If such an understanding were kept private and personal, no one would be harmed by the blatant inaccuracies thus constructed (other than the individual themselves). But when it is disseminated to the unsuspecting public as accurate and authentic, a transgression is committed that cannot be easily corrected. It is little wonder that pretendians are generally regarded as pariahs among those raised in the cultures that are thus misrepresented.

It cannot be emphasized enough how important it is for each individual to study the culture they aspire to represent, in as many aspects as they can. In my experience, it is likely that you will learn aspects of other national cultures in the process, but it is important to keep those carefully compartmentalized to the culture they belong to.

Likewise, it is imperative that you be able to cite the sources of your information as much as possible, and be honest when you are offering extemporaneous information (making an educated guess). Authenticity and accuracy is paramount if you are representing a tribal culture you were not raised in to the public.