Know Thyself - Beyond Cultural Constructs

This is an anthropology paper I wrote in Nov 2013

We are not born knowing who we are. Individual identity is made up of a myriad of interactions and experiences stemming from our social environment ; the variables that make up these social constructs differ greatly between societies.

There are four key-aspects of understanding identity; the first being that the notion of self is learned. Who then, are we learning from and how do we develop an identity, an understanding of selfhood? This question leads us to the second and third aspects of identity, that our concept of selfhood is a collection of social identities and therefore, the notion of self always stands in relation to the “other”. We are taught who we are not, as often as we are taught who we are. The final key aspect of identity is that the notion of self is not static. Identity is ever changing as a result of transitions and growth, our experiences and choices. I will explore these four key aspects of self-identity and provide cross-cultural examples of how individuals communicate who they are through use of names, family relations, and Rite of Passage rituals which celebrate identity change.

We all experience birth and death, and if we are lucky we experience being young and growing old. But how we view these universal aspects of life varies from culture to culture. What is understood to be “young” in one society may not be considered young in another. An example of how we view age differently across cultures is to compare the predominant view in Western culture— that marriage should take place in adulthood, generally between 25-35 years of age. This view is not shared by many other cultures who marry girls soon after the onset of their menses, in a female’s early-mid teens. So, even the most universal experiences shared by humans, such as aging and marriage, are interpreted in varying ways based on our social and cultural constructs.

With the multitude of ways of being in the world how do we express who we are? In all cultures we use names, but what those names represent differs between cultural groups. In Western culture, an individual’s first name is given by parents and a family name that we inherit from the father; whereas in other less individualistic cultures, the family name is more important and so it comes first. Names often include the geographic place from which they live.

In my cultural tradition, the Haida pass all names--as well as crest/clan affiliations--through the mother’s lineage. My brother and uncle passed their Haida names to my two sons. Being the first born granddaughter, I was given my Nuni’s (Grandmother) name Gaulk’a J’aad (Pearl Girl/Woman of Ice). This tradition was the reason I kept my maiden name and passed it to my children (in hyphenated form). When I was a child, I asked my Nuni why this tradition was so, and she replied, “Well, you always know who your mother is.” For me, this tradition is sensible within its cultural context because it acknowledges who the child is most connected to. In fact, it was my fathers’ complete absence of involvement in our lives that led my brother and I to change our name to my mother’s as soon as we were legally able. It was important for me to change my name, as well as to keep my name after marriage; as this demonstrates not only my cultural identity, but also honours the strong connection to my maternal family who are the only familial influence that have shaped who I am.

The documentary film “My name is Kahentiosta”, offers insight into how an individual’s name is of great importance to identity; particularly in this case, when culture is being challenged by outside forces. Kahentiosta, a Mohawk woman, faced court charges for protesting land rights and was held in jail for an extended time because she refused to give the judge her Canadian name (Obomsawin 1995). Kahentiosta’s statement was that the court of Canada does not recognize Mohawk sovereignty over her land; therefore she will not recognize federal court authority over her (Obomsawin 1995). Her steadfast resistance to the colonizing system led her to reject the prevailing cultural impositions on her culture. By recognizing her Mohawk name alone, and not allowing the lawyers to sway her from her convictions, the courts finally relented and she was released (Obomsawin 1995). In this example, we see how Kahentiosta’s name is symbolic of so much more than a personal identifier. Her name represented her tribe, her territory, as well as all the other aboriginal peoples who have suffered the consequences of colonialism; all of which make up her identity. To relate this back to our key aspects of identity, Kahentiosta’s name is a reflection of who she is in relation to her culture as well as who she is not in relation to Canadian culture.

To understand how the notion of self and identity is ever-changing, we must explore how cultures mark particular transitions, such as the one from childhood to adulthood. While in Western culture we may celebrate a sweet sixteen, getting a drivers-license, or going off to college; we don’t often emphasise or ritualize the transition from child to adult. But many cultures all over the world practice Rite of Passage ceremonies, events that hold significant insight into the importance of declaring and celebrating this evolution.

For the Mosuo tribe in China, the skirt ceremony marks a girl’s transition into womanhood (Namu 2003:118). What I find remarkable about this ceremony was that the girl is stripped of her clothing of childhood, which is burned in the fire, marking the definitive end of childhood (Namu 2003:116). She then stands naked in front of her entire village; her body is praised and complimented giving her a sense of pride in her womanhood (Namu 2003:116). Then, she is dressed in the clothes specific to women in her tribe: a white skirt, a colored tunic and a belt and is presented to the community as a woman from that moment forward (Namu 2003:118). From that day on she no longer sleeps with her grandmother or siblings as a girl would; she is given a Flower Room, her own private bedroom for which every woman in Mosuo tradition has (Namu 2003:118). Because the notion of self is not static, every person in the community will respect this transition and will treat her as a woman and she too, will act accordingly.

One of the most common identifiers in any culture is gender. Whether you are a man or a woman has a significant impact on how you experience the world, as each culture has specific gender roles for many key aspects of life. At one time, anthropologists thought that every culture in the world practiced the custom of marriage between male and female. In fact, that is not entirely accurate although, the number of cultures that do not marry are indeed quite rare. The Mosuo are one such exception. The film “A world Without Fathers or Husbands”, documents how the Mosuo are enculturated into an entirely unique relationship between men and women. As the title suggests, there is no marriage in Mosuo culture; they have adapted their society in an effective way that doesn’t require marriage relationships in order to function well (Blavier 2000). Each household is run by a Dabu, an elder mother who lives with her children and grandchildren, and manages the family resources (Blavier 2000). The adult sons live at home with their mother and act as a kind of father figure to his nieces and nephews (Blavier 2000). Each woman, as I mentioned earlier, has a Flower Room, a private bedroom, usually with an exterior door for which her lovers can come and go. There are no rules around male/female relationships other than that these relations are never discussed with children or with members of the opposite sex (Blavier 2000). Both men and women are free to have as many lovers as they wish and can choose when they want to break off the relationship (Blavier 2000). In Mosuo culture, acting as a jealous lover is never condoned and this custom of sexual freedom works with little to no conflict or dissatisfaction (Blavier 2000). Child rearing is a shared duty between grandmother, mother, sisters and uncles; the child’s needs are well taken care of within their maternal family unit (Blavier 2000). The identity of the women in Mosuo culture is very strong, independent and empowered and these attributes are passed onto the children growing up in this particular cultural/familial experience (Blavier 2000). This socially learned aspect of identity has held strong in spite of attempts by the Chinese to force their cultural norms of “traditional” marriage. While few have turned away from the custom of non-marriage, overall this influence has been largely unsuccessful because the Mosuo women quite enjoy their freedom and elevated status within their culture and so they continue to adhere to a way of life that works well for all involved (Blavier 2000).

The four-key aspects of identity help us to know ourselves, but even more importantly, they help us to understand others. From this understanding, we can allow our minds open to the possibilities that other cultures have value, just as much as our own. There is no one right way of being in this world. By recognizing the key aspects of identity, we understand that every individual has adapted to life within their own particular family, community, society and broader culture, and therefore we do not expect that they be like us, see like us, and act like us. In a word, we can develop tolerance.

There is one aspect of identity that I feel most strongly about, and that is that identity is static. I feel that we as individuals should capitalize on this aspect of identity being ever changing, so that we can continually seek new ways of being. We have the power of choice to reject cultural norms that no longer serve us or the greater good. We also have the choice to learn from others and adopt ways of being that allow for the highest and best for all. The more we know about other ways of being in the world, the better equipped we are to rely on what works and let go of what doesn’t. We can move past the limitations of our egocentric and ethnocentric ways towards a more open and receptive way of being that allows us to become global citizens. I don’t mean this in the sense that we leave behind all traditions and become some homogenous, neutral group, rather we can become something like Carlos Castaneda’s conception of the Toltec people, (a name which means “urbanite” or “cultured person” [1]). The Toltec, once thought to be a specific culture in Mexico, were actually a collective, a gathering of like-minded individuals who came together in the pursuit of knowledge (Ruiz 1999:xi). Like the Toltec, I believe that we can use these four-key aspects of identity to evolve in the appreciation of what is of value in our own and other cultures, so that we may work towards a more harmonious way of being with each other cross-culturally and with the earth that we share.


Blavier, Eric. A world Without Husbands of Fathers. 2000. Film.

Namu, Yang Erche. Leaving Mother Lake: A Girlhood at the Edge of the World. New York, N.Y. Hatchette Book Group. 2003. Kindle version.

Obamsawin, Alanis. My Name is Kahentiosta. 1995. Film.

Ruiz, don Miguel. The Mastery of Love. Amber-Allen Publishing, Inc. San Rafael, California. 1999.

“Toltec (people).” Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Encyclopedia Britannica, n.d. Web. 23 Nov. 2013. <>.


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