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What is a Cultural Identity?

In Australia, aboriginal cultures are spread throughout the continent. A true cultural identity definition is one that relates how a person identifies with their culture and how that relationship, in turn, impacts their lives. Each person identifies with some aspect of culture. The Aboriginal peoples of Australia and New Zealand take great pride in their culture and continually fight to maintain the integrity of their culture and belief system. This article will consider notions of cultural identity, using Aboriginals as an example.


A Definition of Cultural Identity

The definition of cultural identity, in its most basic form, is a sense of belonging. This includes a shared sense of companionship, beliefs, interests and basic principles of living. When a person identifies with their culture, they often embrace traditions that have been passed down through the years. The cultural identity links a person to their heritage can help them to identify with others who have the same traditions and basic belief systems.

Some people claim that a person’s cultural identity is the foundation or groundwork on which every other aspect of their being is built. It is the cornerstone of what makes them who they are. Embracing one’s culture often means practicing a specific religion, wearing a certain type of clothing or something else that represents their culture. It creates an outward, visible means of identifying that person as part of a particular culture or nationality.

The Aboriginal tribes of Australia and New Zealand are excellent examples of this. Many tribes still live and behave as they did when they first encountered white civilization. They hunt, dress, celebrate and live their lives as if no one has ever attempted to influence them. They follow a tribal form of government and also adhere to a strict code of ethics both in tribal and family life. Traditions are often passed down from generation to generation and have been in existence for hundreds of years.


What is a Subculture?

A subculture is a smaller group, that belongs to a larger, cultural entity. While they belong to a larger group, their beliefs, mannerisms and basic behavioural patterns may vary slightly from the larger group. An example of this is the Aborigine culture known throughout New Zealand and Australia as the original inhabitants of the land. The different tribes and families that make up the entire group of indigenous peoples would be considered subcultures of the wider cultural identity.

Subcultures that can be found in within larger cultural groups are similar to the larger group. However, they have key differences that make them unique in some way. Their dress may be slightly different, or their belief system may be somewhat different from that of the larger group. While they still retain the main cultural identity, the subculture is used to define them at a much deeper level.

Subcultures add depth and diversity to the larger cultural group. One way of viewing the culture/subculture concept is to think of Christianity and its generalized belief system. If Christianity were the culture, the sects that fall under its generalized definition would be the subcultures. Baptist, Lutheran, Anglican, Presbyterian and Methodist would all be considered subcultures. As offshoots of the main culture, each subculture still believes in the main concepts of the large group. While each group has slightly different beliefs than the others, the main concept and belief structure remain intact.


Cultural Identity Examples

There are several examples that are used to identify a person as part of a culture. These can include:


  • Belief structure or religion – While the white people who live in Australia are commonly more Christian, the aborigines of the area practicing their own religion.
  • Dress – Every culture has a particular style of dress. For example, some prefer headdresses, while others choose to wear nothing over their head.
  • Hair – How a person wears their hair can also be an indicator of their cultural identity.
  • Type of foods eaten – Tribes that are gatherers mainly look for natural food sources. Hunters bring meat to the table. Ethnic groups that live along the coast may gain the majority of their nutrients from seafood or shellfish.

Examples of cultural identity can include anything that offers testament or validation that a person is associated with a particular group, religion or race. Many times, the ways a person dresses and behaves in public are distinct examples of cultural identity and belief patterns.


Cultural Identity

Cultural identity theory involves several aspects of a person’s being. Their race, nationality, gender, location, age, gender, sexuality, history and religious beliefs are put together to form a cultural identity. By combining each of these elements, a theory is created as to why a person acts and behaves the way they do.

When asked to define cultural identity, many people respond to the question by comparing it to a lifestyle. Culture and identity go hand in hand when describing a person’s background, religious persuasion, and sexual orientation.¬†A person’s true identity includes their cultural and heritage as two of the most integral pieces of the puzzle.


Why Is Culture Important

Why is culture important and how does it answer the question “What is cultural identity?” Culture is the underlying foundation of traditions and beliefs that help a person relate to the world around them. It is the basis for any superstitions they may have. It is the aversion to specific types of meat, or which days you can work on. Culture gives us a definite starting point when beginning to search for our roots. Knowing where a person comes from will help to define how they look at their family obligations as well as how they celebrate important milestones in life.

Culture is extremely important if a tribe or ethnic group intends to continue living in the same fashion as their ancestors. The aboriginal tribes of New Zealand, Australia, and other countries across the world often struggle to keep their traditions alive. Conquering nations try to assimilate indigenous people into mainstream society urging them to give up their centuries-old traditions. Most adamantly refuse, while the ones who agree to become more modernized, often struggle as time passes.

Once a person has given up their heritage, traditional beliefs and other aspects of their native culture, they begin to lose their sense of self. They no longer can identify themselves with the things that were once the most important things in their lives. They lose direction. As time passes and they continue to forget about their past and their natural traditions, their identity becomes less and less pronounced.


Ways that Cultures are Maintained

There are several ways people can maintain and control their cultural integrity. One of the most important ways is to continue to speak their language. By speaking their native tongue in their home, they maintain a sense of pride. This also gives the advantage of being bilingual, which has many cognitive benefits throughout life.

Hold fast to religious ceremonies and belief patterns is another way to maintain cultural identity. Passing religious traditions down to children will help to ensure they do not die out or become lost over time. Aboriginal tribes who have had little contact with other ethnic groups have most of their beliefs and lifestyle habits still intact. In order for the history, tradition, and cultures of the tribe to survive, they must be kept separate and distinct, apart from other religious influences.

When a culture dies, it is extremely hard to re-establish it. Unless there are ancestors available to help rebuild lost stores of information, many of the concepts and traditions will be lost forever. Preserving a culture does not just benefit a people. It has immense historical value as well. Unless the ancestors have passed down their teachings to shaman or healers, the traditions of the past will more than likely die with them.


Do you come from a cultural tradition that is being lost over time? How do you feel about the challenges that tribes face in the modern world? We’d love to hear from you, so please join in the discussion in the comments section!

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