Native American Intertribalism

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Even in the midst of its resurgence as a vital tradition, many sociologists have viewed the current form of the powwow, a ceremonial gathering of native Americans, as a sign that tribal culture is in decline. Focusing on the dances and rituals that have recently come to be shared by most tribes, they suggest that an intertribal movement is now in ascension and claim the inevitable outcome of this tendency is the eventual dissolution of tribes and the complete assimilation of native Americans into Euroamerican society. Proponents of this “Pan-Indian” theory point to the greater frequency of travel and communication between reservations, the greater urbanization of native Americans, and, most recently, their increasing politicization in response to common grievances as the chief causes of the shift toward intertribalism.

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Indeed, the rapid diffusion of dance styles, outfits, and songs from one reservation to another offers compelling evidence that intertribalism has been increasing. However, these sociologists have failed to note the concurrent revitalization of many traditions unique to individual tribes. Among the Lakota, for instance, the Sun Dance was revived, after a forty-year hiatus, during the 1950s. Similarly, the Black Legging Society of the Kiowa and the Hethuska Society of the Ponca—both traditional groups within their respective tribes—have gained new popularity. Obviously, a more complex societal shift is taking place than the theory of Pan-Indianism can account for.

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An examination of the theory’s underpinnings may be critical at this point, especially given that native Americans themselves chafe most against the Pan-Indian classification. Like other assimilationist theories with which it is associated, the Pan-Indian view is predicted upon an a priori assumption about the nature of cultural contact: that upon contact minority societies immediately begin to succumb in every respect—biologically, linguistically, and culturally—to the majority society. However, there is no evidence that this is happening to native American groups.

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Yet the fact remains that intertribal activities are a major facet of native American cultural today. Certain dances at powwows, for instance, are announced as intertribal, others as traditional. Likewise, speeches given at the beginnings of powwows are often delivered in English, while the prayer that follows is usually spoken in a native language. Cultural borrowing is, of course, old news. What is important to note is the conscious distinction native Americans make between tribal and intertribal tendencies.

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Tribalism, although greatly altered by modern history, remains a potent force among native Americans. It forms a basis for tribal identity, and aligns music and dance with other social and cultural activities important to individual tribes. Intertribal activities, on the other hand, reinforce native American identity along a broader front, where this identity is directly threatened by outside influences.

Topic and Scope:

The intertribal “movement” (line 7); specifically, the effect of intertribal tendencies on native American unity and identity.

Purpose and Main Idea:

This passage covers an extraordinary amount of ground—from a controversial theory, to evidence for it, to its philosophical underpinnings, to evidence of continued tribalism. The author needs all of that in order to counter the sociologists’ theory that the intertribal movement poses a direct threat to tribal unity and native American identity. His Main Idea is in direct contrast to that theory; he believes that both tribalism and intertribalism are healthy and can coexist fruitfully, each speaking to a different need of native Americans.

Paragraph Structure:

Paragraph 1 begins with a statement of the problem, at least as sociologists perceive it: They believe that “tribal culture is in decline” (line 4), a phenomenon that, if real and left unchecked, could lead to the dissolution of all tribes through total assimilation. The author, you’ll notice, draws a narrow distinction between two terms: “Intertribalism” means the tendency to blur tribal differences, while “Pan-Indianism” is the sociologists’ prediction of what continued intertribalism means for the future (e.g. tribal extinction). The last sentence points out various evidence that intertribalism is on the rise.

Paragraph 2 is structured around five extraordinary Keyword signals that tell us exactly what the author is doing before we even read another word:

“Indeed,”—tells us that what follows will reinforce the point made at the end of Paragraph 1 (and it does: Lines 17-20 provide more evidence of intertribalism, following up on lines 11-16).

“However,”—hints that a counter-view is about to be described (and it is: We’re told that in some ways, tribal feeling is on the rise.)

“for instance,”—Here comes an example of that increased tribal feeling.

“Similarly,”—Here comes more of the same.

“Obviously,”—Author is about to make a broader point (and in this context it has to be something along the lines of “There’s evidence both for and against the notion that the tribes are disappearing.” And that’s just what lines 27-29 represent).

Paragraph 3 announces its purpose clearly: It flat-out promises that it’s going to “[examine]...the...underpinnings” of Pan-Indianism. Those underpinnings prove to be the assumption that these sociologists seem to be making, that native Americans, like any minority society, right away begin to assimilate to the majority. But that assumption is wrong in this instance: Native Americans are not assimilating in that way, say lines 39-40. So “Pan-Indianism,” as an ominous theory of the native American future, is discredited.

Paragraph 4: Once the major assumption that underlies “Pan-Indianism” has been undermined in Paragraph 3, we are ready for a more balanced view, but that new balance is postponed for a bit. First, the author wants to acknowledge, in Paragraph 4, that intertribal tendencies do exist, that they can be perceived. And he cites them in lines 42-48. (This Paragraph , like Paragraph 2, is driven by Keywords; we’ll discuss them in detail during Q. 15, below.) Anyway, the transition sentence, lines 48-50, takes us from that acknowledgment to a broader point: He implies that native Americans are, in fact, aware of the major difference between tribal and intertribal activities—that this process is not happening unbeknownst to them...

Paragraph 5: ...and that, in turn, lays the groundwork for the final, balanced Paragraph . Tribalism, we are assured, remains strong and continues to strengthen tribal identity. Intertribalism (tendencies of which are very real) has a different role: to resist overall native American assimilation into Euroamerica. So each strain is real, and each has its place. Each has a separate and useful function.

The Big Picture:

  • When a passage’s scope ranges as widely as this one does, many students have trouble keeping their eyes on the ball. They get lost in specifics, and confused about how the details relate to the whole. The secret is to keep relating everything you read back to the first 1/3 of the passage: the questions it raises, and the promises it makes. The crucial clue as to what is happening at any given moment can more than likely be found there.
  • Here, for instance, the fact that this passage begins by raising a question, and ends by answering that question in detail, serves to unify the whole. Sure, a lot of evidence is provided and a lot of different points are made along the way, but it’s all done in the service of the author’s main purpose as announced early on. And if you keep asking yourself “What effect does each of these ideas, sentences, details have on the overall purpose?” you should always stay on track.
  • Another huge aid for staying on track is, of course, Keywords. In the days to come, study this passage’s Paragraph 2 carefully and often, as a superb example of what Keywords can do and how they can help. No matter how sharply you are working these days, you can afford to deepen your understanding and use of Reading Comprehension Keywords in order to make your work faster and more accurate.
  • Finally, you would be wise to study this passage carefully several times, to see how authors take us from one thought or point to another. By asking yourself “What is the purpose of each sentence?” and comparing your analysis to ours, you will make giant leaps forward in understanding how authors structure CAT Reading Comp. passages, which in turn will raise your score big time.

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