‘Indigenous’ can have a number of different meanings, even within anthropology. When we say that the human species is indigenous to Africa (since that is where the species evolved), or that fishing peoples in Indonesia possess indigenous fishing skills or knowledge, or that the people of Japan are indigenous to their country, we are talking about a number of quite different things. The concept of ‘indigenous peoples’ is more complex still. That concept, once taken for granted as an object of anthropological study, became one of intense and vehement debate in the first decade of the twenty-first century. This followed directly from the publication of Adam Kuper’s article ‘The Return of the Native’ (Kuper 2003), which so strongly put the case against use of the term.
The traditional understanding of ‘indigenous peoples’ is of relatively isolated, small-scale, often hunting-and-gathering, groups who wish to maintain an identity separate from that of surrounding, dominant populations. Classic examples include virtually all hunter-gatherers, plus native populations of South America, North America and the Arctic. Some difficulties in defining indigenous peoples are related to the fact that some groups or individuals have made the transition to ‘modern’ life, and therefore do not fit the stereotype. If that transition entails the acquisition of power or wealth, or simply implies assimilation with a majority population, the definition of such people as indigenous may also problematic. As the concept is often related to ‘race’, there is also the problem of how to classify individuals who might be considered part indigenous and part non-indigenous. How many pure ‘indigenous’ grandparents are necessary before one may call oneself ‘indigenous’? Finally, the essence of indigenousness is difficult, at best, to identify. There is seemingly very little that is shared, for example, by relatively well-off Saami reindeer herders, poor and dispossessed Pygmies in the forests of Central Africa, and the urban Australian Aborigines of Sydney or Brisbane.
Sidsel Saugestad (2001: 43) has suggested a precise, but polythetic and relational definition which gets around some of these problems. She cites four criteria: first-come, non-dominance, cultural difference, and self-ascription. All these criteria may be problematic, but she emphasizes the relational or processual aspect of ‘indigeneity’ through an analogy with ‘ethnicity’, as in the work of Fredrik Barth (e.g. 1969). According to this view, the aspect that most defines an ‘indigenous people’ is the relation of dominance of one group over another, and especially the relation of different groups to the state. The state is perceived as protecting the values of non-indigenous over indigenous peoples, and it is the non-indigenous group which, by definition, is dominant over the indigenous one.
On the other side, Kuper (2003) questions both the theoretical soundness and the utility of the concept. Irrespective of perceived dominance of one group over another, he argues that it is unfair to classify some people as indigenous, and give them special privileges, and classify other people as non-indigenous, and give them no such privileges. This, he points out, is reminiscent of the South African government’s classification system under apartheid. And where does it stop? If the original inhabitants of Australia or Canada should have special rights, then why not the original inhabitants of the different parts of Europe? More specifically, Kuper (2003: 395) challenges the idea of an ‘indigenous people’ as being ‘essentialist’ and relying ‘on obsolete anthropological notions and on a romantic and false ethnographic vision’. In his view, ‘indigenous’ is simply a new word for ‘primitive’. If Kuper’s objections to the concept of indigeneity are largely theoretical, James Suzman’s objections stem from practical rather than academic concerns. Writing two years before Kuper’s paper, Suzman (2001) argued that the emphasis on the difference between Bushman or San and surrounding peoples in southern Africa may in fact reinforce the structures of domination that indigenous-rights activists alike so strongly contest.
Barnard (2006) suggests that there are similarities between this debate and the Kalahari Debate – in which traditionalists saw Bushmen or San as relatively isolated and autonomous, and revisionists saw them as disempowered participants in a larger political economy of precolonial, colonial and post-colonial southern Africa. He also likens ‘indigenous’ status to problematic, diffusionist notions of ‘primal culture’. Barnard argues that this status is not theoretically sound for present-day anthropologists, but that we are nevertheless stuck with it. Whatever its theoretical problems, the status of being ‘indigenous people’ is often one that is preferred by those with whom anthropologists sympathize politically, and one which enables such people to achieve their legitimate political goals. In an ideal world, people should perhaps not be granted land rights on the grounds that they are an ‘indigenous people’. Yet International Labour Organization Convention 169 on ‘Indigenous Peoples’ does state: ‘Rights of ownership and possession of the peoples concerned over the lands which they traditionally occupy shall be recognised’ (ILO 1989: article 14). The problem is that nation states generally do not recognize ownership as defined in ‘indigenous’ worldviews.
What is missing on both sides of the anthropological debate on ‘indigenous peoples’ is the potential contribution of anthropology itself in highlighting the relevance of truly indigenous concepts, for example, of land ownership, or for that matter of the very concept of indigenously defined ‘indigenousness’.
See also: ethnicity, indigenous knowledge
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