The Struggle to Save Native American Culture

The Struggle to Save Native American Culture March 2024

The aboriginal inhabitants of North America had lived on the continent for at least 10 millennia and over time formed complex tribes, societies and nations each of which had its own unique culture and identity. The tribes made similar adaptations to different ecological habitats, but at the same time, they were all separate and developed their own distinctive traditions, ways of life and systems of governance. After the European colonists had established themselves on the continent and later formed what is now the U.S. government, a conflict between the cultures and lifestyles imported from Europe and the aboriginal ways of life that had developed over the centuries among the Native American tribes continued and intensified. A great deal of attention was focused on cultural, subsistence, and especially land losses. While the extent of the looting was sunstantial, by modern standards, this is not the only loss that the Natives suffered. Their culture and their languages were also taken away from them.

The Struggle to Save Native American Culture

The Numbers

The U.S. census reports that in 2010, there were 5.2 million people who identified themselves as Native American. Half of this number said that they were solely of Native American heritage. Although the number of people of Native American descent was around 2% of the U.S. population, what is significant is that this number showed an almost 40% rise from the number of people claiming Native American heritage in the 2000 census. This increase cannot be due to immigration and so it must come from either high birth rates or more people claiming Native American heritage. Of the two, the major increase probably comes from their claim of heritage. This welcome growth shows a regenerated pride in the Native heritage with more people asserting their ancestry instead of hiding it.

The Loss

In recent years, a lot of attention has been given to the looting of Native land and wealth. While this did happen, what is often overlooked is the loss of Native culture. After gaining independence, the U.S. government followed the British practice of signing treaties with the Native American tribes on a government-to-government basis. As the migration to the West progressed, the policy was changed, treaties were abrogated and people who were “inconveniently located” were forcibly removed onto reservations. The once sovereign Native land was sold to settlers. On the reservations, the land was divided into small individual plots which the Natives, who were happier with communal land ownership, could be pressurized into selling.

Culture Could Not Survive

With the backbone of tribal strength now broken, it was easy for the government by 1882 to outlaw cultural and religious ceremonies. Parents were forced to send their children to schools that were only English-speaking. Native history and culture were denigrated and the children were taught that the only way of life was that of the White men. The future was, the children were taught to be laborers and domestics, going to be for those who accepted the White man’s way of life, and to hold on to the traditional cultural values would mean being left out of the “American success story”. Only those who integrated into the White man’s lifestyle would be eligible to share in the American dream.

In recent years, there has been a movement by many of the tribes to reclaim their cultural roots and revitalize their cultures, languages, beliefs and values. The movement is gaining ground and while there is a long way to go, the efforts of tribes like the Muwekma Ohlone are beginning to bear fruit. A look at the Muwekma Ohlone map will show how much they had, in terms of both land and a rich culture.


Summary: The loss that the Native American tribes suffered over the centuries has been huge, but the focus has been one-dimensional. The loss of land and material wealth is undeniable, but that is only part of the picture. The loss of culture, much of it thousands of years old, is, in some ways as great, if not greater than the loss of material wealth. Today, Native Americans are striving to regain both their rightful wealth as well as their cultures.