Identity   /   Fall 1999   /    Articles

The Rise and Decline of Ethnicity: Native American Ethnic Renewal

Joane Nagel

Awaiting examination, Ellis Island. (1915)

Racial and ethnic identities remain important individual and collective characteristics in contemporary societies. The expectations of early post-Second-World-War social theorists that race and ethnicity would recede in favor of national identities in Western countries have not been met. The expectation was that as immigrant and indigenous groups participated in national institutions (churches, schools, voluntary associations) and the national economy, they would assimilate and adopt the dominant culture. Interestingly, there is indeed clear evidence of assimilation among second, third, and subsequent generations of immigrants in many Western countries, like the U.S., Canada, Australia, the United Kingdom, and France, to mention a few. As measured by such indicators as native language loss and national language acquisition, intermarriage, decline in traditional religious practices, the children and grandchildren of immigrants do seem to be integrating. However, during the past few decades, despite these signs of assimilation, we have also seen resurgences in racial, ethnic, and national identity, new organizational formation, and ethnic movements in most states around the world.

What can account for this apparent paradox of simultaneous declining and increasing ethnic identification and community? There have been several social, political, economic, and cultural processes at work during the post-war period that have combined with the processes and pressures for assimilation not only to maintain ethnic differences, but actually to increase ethnic diversity in many countries.

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