What Constitutes Cultural Assimilation?

Cultural Assimilation

We only touched briefly on the issue of cultural assimilation in class today, but it is something that is really interesting to me, and that I would like to think about further

First, it’s important to think about what cultural assimilation is exactly. Wikipedia defines cultural assimilation as: the process by which a person or a group’s language and/ or culture comes to resemble those of another group.

I pretty much can agree with that definition, but find it to be a bit too broad. What parts of the culture change to resemble other groups? Does one small change of culture constitute cultural assimilation, or does it have to be a significant part of the culture changed to constitute cultural assimilation?

These questions are hard to answer, and I think the answers vary greatly based on what certain people believe to be true about what is necessary for a culture to remain intact. However, for me, our visit to Pine Ridge helped me understand this issue better.

When we arrived at Pine Ridge, all of the Native Americans lived in houses, and Big Mike made a joke about people thinking they must live in teepees. During the class, I heard a few classmates express disappointment about not seeing any teepees. Is the fact that they live in houses, instead of their historic teepees, a form of cultural appropriation? Did they abandon their culture by living in such modern housing? In my opinion, not even a little bit. Living in houses is not abandoning culture; it’s a necessary adaptation to the times, and simply a survival factor. Especially in a place like Pine Ridge where people freeze to death every winter, I would say living in houses is necessary, and not an abandonment of culture.

Little Mike talked to us about this very issue of cultural assimilation one day, although he did not use those exact words. He talked about the issue of his hair, and how it was cut short. In traditional Lakota culture, men have long hair, however he felt he couldn’t have long hair himself. His reasoning was that, in this modern day, he has to always look presentable for the public, especially when he leaves the reservation. As such a powerful medicine man, and someone who leaves the reservation to work with others, he feels he can’t have really long hair and “typical” Native American dress, while still maintaining a sense of respect from others. He says the choice he made has upset some members of his tribe, who feel that he is putting his Lakota culture unfairly to the side.

Is this cultural assimilation? One could say so. However, I think it’s important to look at not just the result, but also the intention. Yes, he cut his hair short to appear “presentable” to the modern world. However, he didn’t make this change so that he could abandon his culture. In fact, it was probably the opposite. He changed his appearance so that he himself could feel presentable to others, and in turn, he could further the needs of his tribe as a tribe leader.

I don’t think cutting your hair short or dressing differently really compromises the ideals of a culture, and that to me, is what cultural assimilation is. To me, changing yourself so much that it is hard to even recognize an aspect of your original culture is cultural assimilation. I think you culturally assimilate in order to disregard your own culture, which is not in any way what Little Mike was doing.

Little Mike had modern clothing and short hair, yes. However, I don’t think anyone can say that he wasn’t devoted to his culture. His culture was not a part of life; his culture was life itself, so much so that he devoted a week to educate 25 outsiders about it. He participated in sweat daily, made prayer a part of every day, and instilled these values in the future Lakota generation.

Just because modernization happens does not necessarily mean that cultural assimilation is by its side. In every religion, there are necessary changes, and that does not always mean cultural assimilation. In Judaism, men don’t always wear yamakas anymore, and married women don’t always cover their hair, which are traditional values. Does that mean that they are compromising their culture? I would say no. I think it is possible to adapt without compromising culture completely, which is what Little Mike did.

-Becca Manning

About Becca Manning '14

Hi, I'm Becca and I am a religion major and Spanish minor from Cape Elizabeth, Maine. I enjoy spending time with friends and family (and my dog), traveling, baking, reading, and enjoying the nice Colorado sunshine.
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