What makes someone Indigenous?

~ A collection of indigenous tools from Belize ~
Photo for Recycled Minds by Marah Cabral  
Views from the ANThill
by douglas reeser on August 15, 2013
I'm one of the lucky ones. This evening I got in my car, drove to a restaurant, ate a nice meal, drank a couple craft brewed beers, and enjoyed some good conversation. It wasn't an expensive night out by U.S. standards, but taken in a global context, it certainly falls in the realm of the privileged. I might not even mention such a night, let alone write about it, if not for the conversation I had while eating.

As is lately the norm for me during my social outings, the conversation eventually turned to Belize. As an anthropologist, I am often engaged for my insights on various aspects of the human condition. In this case, the topics of gender, farming, and indigenous knowledge kind of came together from a few different tangents, and I found myself having to explain and defend indigenous knowledge.

It all started when the conversation turned to sexism, and the fact that women continue to struggle with not only abuse, but just the day-to-day experience of inequality and being taken advantage of. I mentioned that in indigenous communities in Belize, violence against women remains a serious issue.

"Why do we glorify these indigenous cultures?" my dinner partner asked. "In some respects, they are almost backwards, and didn't they sacrifice children in Central America?"

I was faced with an interesting conflation - the thought that modern indigenous cultures are the same as the ancient cultures from the same region. This conflation speaks to the problem with the term or concept of indigenous.

"Well," I began, "some ancient cultures did practice child sacrifice, and you may be thinking of the Inca, and the ice-mummy of the young girl who was sacrificed that was recently in the news. But the ancient cultures like the Inca, and modern indigenous peoples are two different things. Your comparison would be like looking back on today from 500 years in the future, and saying of the Amish that they were war mongers because they were bombing Afghanistan. They are U.S. citizens, right?"

This argument made sense to my dinner partner, and he recognized that there are all kinds of people in every culture, and that hierarchies can distort the picture of the whole. However, one thing remained unclear.

"What makes someone indigenous anyway?" he asked. "A family on a farm around here in Pennsylvania may have been there for generations, a couple hundred years even, yet they aren't considered indigenous. What's the difference?"

This was more difficult to talk through, and I recognized that: "Well, this is why the term is somewhat contested and unclear. Indigenous people are typically seen as having a connection to a certain place that stretches back many generations. But some Maya families in Belize, for instance, have only been there for a generation or two. Others have been there longer, but still, they are all Maya, and they are all seen as indigenous. So it's not only about the long-term connection to the land."

"Right," my friend responded, "people move, and have been moving forever and for all different reasons. So even if we don't glorify indigenous people, what is it about them that has our attention? Why does someone like you go to study and work with them?"

Here, I was standing on firmer ground. "Indigenous peoples are unique in this world," I started. "Whether or not they have been in one place for generations, they are drawing on cultural traditions that stretch back to a different era, from the time before Europeans invaded. These cultures were not perfect back then, they have changed over time, and they are not perfect today. What makes them special is that they are based in a distinctly non-western worldview. Their point of view, the way they see the world, address problems, survive and live their lives - the way they do these things is rooted in a different model of the world. These traditions enabled life to prosper around the globe for thousands of years, and we have done our best to obliterate them over the last 500 years. Indigenous knowledge represents a successful means of survival, that may very well offer us some clues as such becomes more challenging in the future."

I continued, "All of this is not to mention that indigenous people have been persecuted, killed, marginalized, ignored, moved off their land, manipulated, and worse for the last 500 years. In the eyes of indigenous peoples, European expansionism never stopped. It's still happening. Again, in Belize, just last month, Maya communities were finally granted land rights to lands they have been farming for generations. However, there is one caveat: the government has no responsibility to protect those rights. And guess what? The government has gone ahead and granted a U.S. oil company drilling rights on those very lands that it has no responsibility to protect."

I had made my point, and our conversation drifted elsewhere after getting interrupted by our server. But the greater point remains: in today's world, the concept of indigenous continues to carry weight because it needs to. In a sense, we are all indigenous people to somewhere. For many of us, that somewhere no longer exists, and those connections have been long severed. For some, however, new connections to place are being made. And I dream of the day when we are all indigenous. A time when we are all people of this earth, working together for the benefit of the greater good. But as long as there remain us and thems, others, less-developed, backwards, and those less worthy - as long as these divisions remain between us, we'll continue along in turmoil, squandering the opportunities for growth and learning that our ancient traditions can offer.
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