Native American Cultural Revitalization Today

I remember a history class my junior year in high school dealing with the period in United States history when Indian tribes were being forced onto reservations. Presented as a better option were Indian schools where children were taught to assimilate into American society. To ensure that they would learn English and American customs these students saw their families only rarely. I raised my hand and asked how the Indians felt about assimilation. The teacher answered that Indian ways were the way of the past and Indian cultures simply were not going to survive.  I think this was one of the experiences that led me to become interested in folklore and anthropology, because, for me, there has always been an obvious flaw in this argument: schools are not supposed to take knowledge away from people. I have no Indian background, but did not need one to know that my teacher was wrong — or history was wrong. This was 1969 and an Indian rights movement was well underway. Oglala Lakota author Vine Deloria’s book, Custer Died for Your Sins: An Indian Manifesto, had just been published. Cracks were appearing in the accepted history of the first Americans as vanishing peoples.

A man posing with his hands on the floor, wearing a wolf mask on his head.

Atlumhl– Koskimo,” a Kwakwa╠▒ka╠▒’wakw Indian  wearing a large wolf mask and poses as a wolf would sit on the ground. Museums are returning sacred objects such as this mask to tribes in the United States, and, as in this case, in Canada. Photo by Edward S. Curtis, Edward S. Curtis Collection, Prints and Photographs Division.

There are many Indian cultures in the Americas with varied histories and various reactions to European contact. As a result of assimilation programs many Indian peoples lost much of their culture and part or all of their languages. Traditional lands were taken away for European American settlement, including places sacred to Indian peoples. Artifacts of cultural importance to Indians were taken away for protection in museums since Indian culture was expected to disappear. The wax cylinders of Indian songs made between 1890 and 1930, which are now in the American Folklife Center’s archive, were largely made by ethnologists and linguists who believed that the songs and Indian languages would be gone in one or two generations.

In 1879 a case brought by a Ponca Indian named Standing Bear established that Indians are persons within the definition of the law. In 1924 all Indians were made citizens of the United States. Even then, Indians were not granted rights under the Constitution uniformly across the United States. Indian rights were made uniform with civil rights legislation in 1968.

Efforts to Christianize Native Americans led to some religious customs being strongly discouraged and even outlawed by some states. The American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978 established that Indian religions and rituals were protected under the Constitution. The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990 went further than this to clear the way for Indian religious objects and human remains held by agencies that receive federal funds to be returned to the appropriate tribes. Today there is a process for human remains to be returned to tribes for reburial. In some cases museums are returning sacred objects, while in others, museums may hold objects to preserve them but work with the tribes to establish appropriate traditional care and to make artifacts available for ceremonies. In many cases this work has enriched intercultural understanding of the traditions surrounding these objects.

A young woman dancing with an embroidered shawl around her shoulders.

The Omaha are among many tribes working to preserve their traditional culture through the generations. This is Mary Snowball competing in the Traditional Cloth Dance at the Omaha Powwow, August 13 1983. Photo by Carl Fleischhauer. Forms part of the presentation, Omaha Indian Music.

A moving example is the Sacred Pole of the Omaha, a central object of Omaha spirituality and cultural history which was placed in the Peabody Museum in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1888 and returned to the tribe just over one hundred years later, in 1989. The Pole has continued to have profound meaning for the Omaha in spite of assimilation efforts, and current generations of Omaha longed to see the Pole, which is believed to embody a protective spirit. A video documenting this event was made by the Native American Public Broadcasting Consortium and is available on the Nebraska Public Broadcasting website: The Return of the Sacred Pole (29 minutes).

The Sacred Pole is a powerful example of the importance of sacred objects. Tangible cultural heritage items, such as the Pole or the wolf mask in the photograph in this article, do not in themselves present a complete picture of a tradition. Much of what gives an object meaning is intangible heritage, such as the ceremonies in which the object is used, the beliefs associated with it, the stories that may be associated with it, and the language those stories are told in. Most of culture, it is said, resides between our ears.

Today many Indian and Alaskan Native peoples are working to revitalize their languages when there are native speakers or documentation of the languages to make this possible.  In some cases elders who still speak the languages are teaching younger people who did not learn the language growing up. Dictionaries and teaching materials are being developed so that more people can learn these languages.  By the late 20th century, the Wampanoag, the tribe in Massachusetts famous for having helped the Pilgrims to survive the first difficult winters, no longer had any living elders to teach them the full language. They had continued to say prayers in their native language, and had a few words, but not a language they could use for conversation. They found that there was a Bible in the language written by a missionary, John Eliot, in 1663 and that native speakers had used his writing system to write documents such as deeds and wills in their language. Members of the tribe, headed by linguist Jessie Little Doe Baird, worked with linguist Ken Hale to learn to read these documents and create a dictionary of Wampanoag. There are now a few young people acquiring both Wampanoag and English as first languages as they grow up.  As it becomes a living language again, Wampanoag needs new words for modern life and technology, and so the language is growing. A film about this effort, We Still Live Here – Âs Nutayuneân, was made by Anne Makepeace for public television in 2011.

While the cylinder recordings housed in the American Folklife Center’s archive are not sufficient to revive whole languages, they can play a part in the revitalization of intangible Indian cultural heritage.  They provide songs for ceremonies and secular dances as they were sung at the end of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  Recordings from these cylinders have been placed in Indian tribal archives for use by the communities from which they came as part of the Federal Cylinder Project beginning in 1979.  Efforts to provide tribes with access to materials held in the Center’s collections continue today. This is an example of a cylinder recording, a song sung by Louis Pigeon in Menominee, telling the story of the culture hero Manabus tricking water birds to close their eyes and dance to his song so that he can eat them:  “Manabus Tells the Ducks to Close Their Eyes” (recorded by Frances Densmore in Wisconsin in 1925).

Many of the public programs of the American Folklife Center, available on video, include presentations of culture by Indians who are skilled at introducing their cultural heritage and at explaining their own efforts at cultural revitalization.  For those readers who would like to explore further, here are a few examples to get you started (each video is about one hour long):

The Navajo dance group, Dineh Tah is mainly made up of college and high school students learning their tradition from elders. This performance at the Library of Congress was in 2007. They omit some parts of the dances used only in ceremonies, but present enough to give their audiences a look at the rich tradition of Navajo dance.

Wayne Newell holds up his drum as Blanche Sockabasin looks on.

Wayne Newell and Blanche Sockabasin presenting Passamaquoddy music and song at the Library of Congress in 2009.

In the 2009 video,”Wayne Newell and Blanch Sockabasin: Traditional Passamaquoddy Music From Maine,” two elders present Passamaquoddy songs and traditions. Wayne Newell teaches Passamaquoddy language, while Blanch Sockabasin is a traditional basket maker and a teacher of singing and drumming.

Tim Tingle is an author and storyteller with long experience working to teach both Indians and non-Indians about the Choctaw people.  At the 2014 National Book Festival he presented a reading from his book that aims to teach young people what it felt like to be a child on the Trail of Tears as Indians from the Southeast were marched to Oklahoma Territory at gunpoint, How I Became a Ghost: A Choctaw Trail of Tears Story.  In 2011 he teamed up with flute player D.J. Battiest-Tomasi to present a concert of music and storytelling at the Library.

The 2006 video “Mary Louise Defender Wilson and Keith Bear Sioux and Mandan Hidatsa storytelling and music from North Dakota” includes a story of the Mandan and Hidatsa people told by Keith Bear, and stories of the Sioux told by Mary Louise Defender Wilson, told in Dakota and English.


Anderson, Jane. ” Anxieties of Authorship & Ownership: Intellectual Property, Indigenous Collections & Decolonial Futures,” April 3, 2013.

Curtis (Edward S.) Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Hall, Stephanie. “Indigenous American Cylinder Recordings and the American Folklife Center,” Folklife Today, November 27, 2013.

Hall, Stephanie. “Omaha Hethu’shka Society Songs and Dances,” Folklife Today, November 26, 2014.

Homegrown Concert Series Online Archive, American Folklife Center, Library of Congress. A list of available concerts online, including more Native American concerts.

National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution.

National Breath of Life Institute for Indigenous Languages.

National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution.

Omaha Indian Music, selections from the American Folklife Center’s collections documenting Omaha music traditions.

Seeger, Anthony. “Wait! Does This Belong to Us? New Ideas of Music Ownership & the Musical Life of the Kïsêdjê” April 8, 2015. This talk is about the introduction of the concept of intellectual property to an indigenous group in the Amazon basin and the ways that the tribe struggled with that new idea.

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