Until fairly recently, the people we depended on lived nearby. Most human beings never traveled more than a few miles from their home. We lived and died in the same small group of people, typically, with one set of traditions and one language.
Among aboriginal societies it’s very common for the name of a tribe to be the equivalent of “the human beings” or “the people” in that tribe’s language. Out of almost 100 tribes listed on the native-languages.org website, more than 30 define the name of their tribe in more or less that way — “the people,” “the original people,” “the best people,” (the “best people,” the Illiniwek from which the state of Illinois takes its name, now call themselves the Peoria, which means “backpack people”), or “the true people.”
Until recently we could afford the luxury of seeing our personal tribes as God’s chosen people. The Judeo-Christian Bible is, of course, full of these declarations. We consistently and systematically considered our local, tribal interests superior to the needs and interests of other people who spoke a different language and wore a different style of footwear.
To a surprising degree, our modern wars have been tribal wars. The Nazi movement, which catalyzed World War II, was explicitly a tribal movement designed to distinguish the Aryan race from other Europeans. Predictably, the people trying to distinguish themselves defined the “Aryans” as the original speakers of Indo-European languages and therefore, in their opinion, the “original people” of Europe. The First World War’s proximate cause was the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand, monarch of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, by Gavrilo Princip, a Serbian student inspired by the annexation of Bosnia by the Austro-Hungarians. A lot of Serbs lived in Bosnia-Herzegovina at the time. Princip evidently believed he was defending his ethnic heritage. The ethnic divisions of the Balkan States, including Bosnia Herzegovina, are cultural fault lines along which violence has often erupted. Like World War II, the First World War germinated in a tribal mindset.
A strong tribal identity must have been important to our survival. Durable ethnic divisions characterize human history in every part of the world. As our territories filled up and our communities grew closer together, though, we found ourselves trading with the strangers over the hill. Then our children began marrying within other communities. The next thing you know, it was hard to tell which tribe our grandchildren belonged to. Those grandchildren constituted the common interest between neighboring peoples.
As I write this my father and I are trying to heal a cultural rift in our own relationship. Day before yesterday he included me in a group e-mail to his siblings and several of my cousins. The email was a reprint of an open letter to President Obama written by a retired Proctor & Gamble sales executive named Lou Pritchett. In it, Pritchett repeatedly says to the president, “You scare me,” for a variety of reason, almost none of them directly related to actual public policy. The reasons Barack Obama scares Lou Pritchett — like my dad, a white guy in his 70s — range from the allegation that the administration wants to turn the United States into a “European-style country,” to the assertion that the president is, “culturally, not an American,” because he lived in his stepfather’s home country of Indonesia from age 6 to age 10. For better or for worse, I responded to all the recipients and suggested that my upbringing on the Mexican border and my subsequent Ivy-league education gave me a powerful sense of connection with the President, and that I resented the implication that either of us is “not an American,” culturally, ethnically, psychologically or otherwise.
After hurting my dad’s feelings and then — too late — considering his perspective, it occurred to me that Pritchett and my father were experiencing the anxiety of not recognizing their own culture. To my eyes, Barack Obama personifies the greatest virtues of our diverse, progressive country. But they cannot see him in that way. They see him as an alien presence.
President Obama’s mother married outside her tribe. The world saw the photos of the nation’s first “African American” president standing next to his grandmother, a tiny, elderly white woman from Kansas. Barack Obama’s Kenyan father was from a very different world than the one my father grew up in. Still, the president fits in today’s America, which more than ever is a “melting pot” of ethnicities and cultures. It may be hard for some Americans to see him that way, but on any city street in the nation he would blend right in, just another middle-aged African American professional in a suit. Americans, as a whole, identified with him sufficiently that they elected him. Today, he’s not only a member of the mainstream American “tribe,” he leads it.
Photo by Bryan Welch
 Mish, Frederic C., Editor in Chief Webster’s Tenth New Collegiate Dictionary Springfield, Massachuetts, U.S.A.:1994; Merriam-Webster. See original definition (definition No. 1) of “Aryan” in English, Page 66