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  • Navajo Cultural Identity:What Can the Navajo Nation Bring to the American Indian Identity Discussion Table?
  • Lloyd Lee (bio)

American Indian identity in the twenty-first century has become an engaging topic. Recently, discussions on Ward Churchill's racial background became a "hotbed" issue on the national scene. A few Native nations, such as the Pechanga and Isleta Pueblo, have disenrolled members. Scholars such as Circe Strum, in Blood Politics: Race, Culture, and Identity in the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, and Eva Marie Garroutte, in Real Indians: Identity and Survival of Native America, have examined American Indian identity. More attention is being devoted to understanding the implications of racial identity in Native nations. What have we learned from these studies? We have learned that an imposed enrollment system has impacted Native nations. We understand that Native nations have the inherent right to determine membership. Meanwhile, the United States government controls and manipulates funds for all Native nations and interferes with each Native nation's applications of its own laws.1 We learn that American Indian identity is interwoven with nation building and access to resources.2 We also learn that Indian identity has continued even with ethnic impersonation and blood-quantum bigotry.3 Therefore, American Indian identity studies are advancing the discussion on how each Native nation should develop and maintain self-rule.

What can the Navajo Nation bring to the discussion table on American Indian identity? In the 2000 U.S. Census, 298,197 people identified themselves as Navajo, of which 269,202 identified as only [End Page 79] Navajo and no other racial group.4 So with such a large number identifying themselves as only Navajo and no other racial identity, what perspectives do Navajo people engender on American Indian identity?

The history of the Navajo Nation documents the continuing growth and change of the people. Navajo people have adapted to their physical and social environment since creation, and the enormous amount of American influence and intrusion on the Navajo way of life is a study that cannot be ignored. As a citizen of the Navajo Nation, I contribute this article to the continuing discussion on Indian identity. I review a selection of literature on Navajo society, the historical understandings of what it meant to be Navajo and how that has changed, and call to the Navajo Nation to rethink and restructure current enrollment standards. I use textual analysis and ethnographic interviews for my approach to analyzing Navajo identity. Although this overview does not provide all the angles of Navajo identity, it will be a first step to understanding how selected citizens of the Navajo Nation view identity and how those individuals acknowledge historical cultural identity markers in their definitions of twenty-first century Navajo identity.

Navajo Identity According to Non-Navajo and Navajo Scholars

In this section, I discuss particular works of literature written by Navajo and non-Navajo scholars who have examined Navajo worldview. These selections synthesize the spectrum of Navajo worldview from the 1950s to the present and indicate the multiple complexities of Navajo identity.

It is important to note that most scholarship on Navajo culture is written by non-Navajos, but outside scholarship can observe only so much of the anthropological aspects of Navajo society. Non-Navajo scholars observed and recorded Navajo cultural practices with the belief that the Navajo would disappear and that they were salvaging what was left of a dying culture. This paternalistic relationship is problematic for several reasons, including a continued colonialist attitude by non-Navajo scholars toward Navajo culture and society, subjective judgment of Navajo cultural practices, and the many texts that provide only a superficial representation of Navajo culture and society. Nevertheless, I have chosen to include non-Navajo scholarship because the texts are starting points for discussing Navajo cultural practices and because most texts written on Navajo culture have been written by non-Navajos; I balance these texts with Navajo scholarship, and the information in texts written by non-Navajo authors provide adequate knowledge of cultural practices.

For the purposes of this essay, I have chosen to discuss texts that focus on worldview. The Navajo worldview is based on the philosophical [End Page 80] principles of Hozho...


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