Political Tribes, Political Identity


Native American Tribes and Language Groups

An Apache friend related a story this week that he gave me permission to repeat here. That and recent experiences got me thinking about tribe and identity.

My friend met a young Apache guy who had done some prison time. The young man met others in prison from the Native American church. He’d been adopted, and from them he learned a lot about a heritage he never knew growing up. In prison, the older men had given him a medicine name, Dancing Bear. He asked my friend to translate it into Apache.

My friend asked, “What kind of bear? What kind of dance?”

Apache doesn’t have generic words for bear or dance, he told me. It has words for black bears and grizzlies and mama bears with cubs, etc. Names of dances are associated with rituals and occasions, each with a different purpose and cultural meaning. It’s hard for English speakers to grasp.

He said, “We finally settled on “bak’u ishteh.” Black bear does his victory dance.

He once tried to translate his own name into English, he told me, and stopped after a half a page. Even then, he was missing layers of meaning and nuance.

In native culture, language, dress, style of weapons and tools, body decoration, folk art are all tribal identifiers by which an Apache can spot a Navajo or a Cheyenne can identify a Sioux. Tribe was integral to one’s identity. Even then, there was room for individual variation and creativity. Outside the drugstore, there were no generic “Indians.”

The idea of a Native American identifying as an “independent,” went against upbringing. Being without a people, an outcast, was a form of punishment, and so hard to bear that mixed-heritage tribes formed in the northern plains, the Métis Nation, from children with French, Huron and other ancestry. Rejected by their own tribes, they formed their own. I try to imagine what sort of clothes a Native American without a tribe would wear, what tools and weapons he would use to rebrand himself in the eyes of others.

Tribe is a much deeper concept than our political parties, my friend says. Still, as Digby regularly observes, there is a tribal aspect to our national politics. Considering oneself independent, even fiercely so, is a badge of honor rather the mark of an outcast. It is largely a mavericky thing, an Enlightenment rejection of accepted orthodoxies. “A plague o’ both your houses!” as Shakespeare wrote.

But alongside that exists for many a desire for more ideological purity than is present among the major political tribes, a desire not to be “contaminated” by compromise and cronyism found in traditional politics. It comes, perhaps, from the same impulse for ideological/biological purity behind vegetarianism or veganism, or for ideological/cultural purity among Tea Party members and fundamentalists who reject mainstream churches as corruptions of their own “true” faith.

Until a few years ago, I followed the independent path, nominally anyway. I was never much of a joiner. Then came President George W. Bush, the push to privatize Social Security, the Iraq War and Abu Ghraib. Seeing what he and his enablers were doing to the country, I had to do something. For that, I needed allies. So I went to where I figured I could find a concentration of natural allies, the Democratic Party. Not that all the people I found there were natural allies. Some are not. If close proximity to people you don’t always agree with bothers you, party politics is not for you.

During political combat, rhetoric sometimes flattens an opposing tribe to appear as a featureless monoculture, yet the terms Republican and Democrat are not as generic and flat as “bear” or “dance.” An old Budweiser slogan went, “When you say Budweiser, you’ve said it all.” And for many independents, Democrats and Republicans, being a member of an opposing tribe probably says it all, too. Except it doesn’t.

In 1998, the Washington Post described five kinds of Democrats and four kinds of Republicans. There are probably more of each now. Some kinds have fed for so long at the same troughs of corporate money, they begin to resemble each other. They are tough to dislodge, even more so from the outside.

Last week, I was in a room full of Democrats in Durham to elect new state party officers, starting with Chair. Half the room (plus a few) voted for Randy Voller, the mayor of Pittsboro (of German extraction and from Indiana), who vowed he wasn’t running to lead the Republican-lite party. The other half of the room voted for a familiar North Carolina face and name with Capital Hill connections, but who wasn’t a candidate, didn’t want the job, and wasn’t even in the building. (After dropping by the meeting, he’d left to see his grandson play basketball.) But he had an accent and manner that identified him as a member of the local tribe, while the other candidate comes from distant, northern cousins.

This tribe is hardly monolithic, not all this or that, and prone to some of the same foibles as our opponents. Still, I work inside the Democratic Party as well as outside because I find enough allies and enough leverage to feel as if change is not just possible, but actually happening, even if more slowly than I’d like. This week, David Dayen described how, one step at a time, progressive Democratic reformers balanced California’s books in a feat one consultant described as being “as likely as President Obama winning Alabama.” The next phase may be “legislative Democrats and progressives outside the system” challenging Democratic Governor Jerry Brown on his budget priorities. Sometimes it’s a plague on your own house.

Do left-leaning mavericks find greater purity and more political success among independents hailing from the far right to the far left than do activists working on the inside?


  1. TJ says:

    Great question! Can’t wait to see responses. I imagine the level of response will vary with the level of honesty we are able to have within ourselves. Admittedly, I come from far right leaning roots, and, some of my ideas are deeply rooted from those ideas. However, for reasons too complex and numerous for this thread, I am more to the left now.

    It is true, we tend to find groupings for personal/social comfort/survival. I honestly am never fully content with either grouping. I see this as just being human, and, the fact that my preference is to have folks talking WITH each other, not ABOUT each other.

    Without such communication, we will never see a lasting resolution to ANY societal ills we encounter.

  2. Ascend of Asheville says:

    One thing that has bothered me for a while. The Socialists hold a big meeting, all five of them show up and its always the same arguments, the same problems and the same insulated, superior, non-engagement that goes nowhere.

    Purity, yes. Success is irrelevant.

    Same thing happens with the Tea Baggers. They have a built-in failure mechanism because no one in the real world is good enough, long enough to keep their fealty.

    Unfortunately though, it’s more a problem of the Left than the Right.

    There seems to be something in our modern incarnation of political tribalism that is self-destructive, as if the hopeless plotting, as in the far right vigilante groups, and the hopeless talk of capital “R” revolution from the Socialist/Communist/Freedom Road types, are a kind of sacrifice – perhaps honorable, perhaps just foolish and selfish – That allows the members the luxury of placing their personal identity in something that never has to actually be proven, because it will never come to be.

    It’s a failure of perfectionism. Under the guise of taking a principled stand, they can remain apart from the actual struggles, criticize everyone for everything, pontificate in the public square about how great their particular point of view is, and then sit back and be completely inconsequential to the process.

    The White Power revolution will not happen. The Communist revolution will not happen either. That “ghost dance” does not work. We should all know that by now. Yet across America there are people meeting in basements, talking in coded language about those very things, and pledging themselves to the tribal struggle, each pointing to their own Wounded Knee legend and plotting.

  3. TJ says:

    And, Jeff, a few of us still stand atop bridges and on roadways, with signs that show we oppose dirty energy sources, and, promote folks peering deeper into various issues, etc. At times, I wonder if we’re just plugging the dam, but, “just talking” no longer feels good enough.

    Personally, I wouldn’t care if all the Tea Party folks served us in sterling silver, if they joined forces with a measure of sanity, I’d happily welcome them to walk alongside the anarchist folks I’ve become friends with.

    Still, you won’t hear me cheering the idea of overthrowing our government, OR, of arming folks to keep “those people” out of our yards.

    My only pledge:

    Speak the truth I know, ask for truth when I don’t, question every “truth” someone offers me, and, look for ways to challenge others to question those “truths” they cling to, just because they were told by someone else.

  4. Andrew Dahm says:

    To describe America’s politics these days as “tribal” may be an insult to tribal peoples.

    Preliterate peoples were serious empiricists, and the willingness of one of our political parties to ignore real-life experience (the President was born in the USA, and trickle-down economics/austerity has never caused economic growth, for example) pretty much disqualifies them from that label.

    It is true that tribal life often involves myth – a set of empirically-derived truths set to the music of epic fiction to enhance memorization in a preliterate society – but many of our comforting lies don’t make the cut.

    Nigeria has the same problem as we do, and they call it tribalism, too. But it differs from tribal thinking there as well, mainly as a result of oil companies telling the government who to hang. Like America, “truth” in Nigeria is something monied interests spend a great deal to establish.

    I’m reading a lot of Gilded Age history lately, which is pretty much like reading the newspaper.

  5. TJ says:

    Sue, what you stated was reflected in the latest Lincoln movie.

    Sacrifices should never have to come in the form of human lives.

    And, yes, there ARE terrible choices.

    However, some choices are only considered “terrible” because an elite few don’t think it’s “fair” that everything isn’t done without a whisper of an effect on their lives.

    Too bad we can’t do a “swap” of sorts, like some of the crazy “reality” shows, with some of those, with some of us.

    I think it would traumatize them, tho’… Who knows? Maybe us, as well.

  6. Tom Sullivan says:

    “… if you are a progressive democrat, you can have some success on a few social issues, but at the cost of either supporting or remaining silent in the face of increased authoritarianism and corporatism by the government that is granting those incremental social victories to you. … What a terrible choice to have to make”

    So one should eschew the successes one can achieve on certain issues working on the inside because of the perceived hit to one’s purity from not being able to affect change in all others? Isn’t that “cost” (if it is one) or “choice” up to you?

    Granted, party politics is not for everybody. It requires a lot of patience and persistence, as well as give-and-take. But in my experience, participating in party politics isn’t a black-and-white, take-it-or-leave-it proposition. It’s a tool, a vehicle for success in some areas and not others. Use the tool for what it can get you and push for change outside the system where that yields better results. That’s not a “terrible choice,” just a pragmatic one. A hammer is not terrible because it’s not a Swiss Army knife, and vice versa.

    The Democratic Party would be better for it if more talented people were willing to both pull from the inside and push from the outside.