What about ‘indigenous’?

All of us know what the word ‘indigenous’ refers to – as used in the expression ‘indigenous peoples’ – to those people that researchers, invaders or colonizers found to already be in the land which they entered. Its general meaning is however not restricted to that literality of being already in the land. When we say ‘indigenous’ we want to say close to nature, living in an original, non-alienated, or whatever you wish to call it, state. Indigenous people live of the animals and plants that are around them, in a sustainable way, using old, proven techniques, using nature’s medicine in contact with the spirits that told them how. That’s also in the word ‘indigenous’. And, when they lost their traditional way of life, under pressure of the ‘civilizing’ efforts of colonizers, they often sit helpless and jobless in their reservations, drinking and gambling. Indigenous peoples, it is commonly thought, are stuck in some earlier phase of human development, which is their problem, or which is their promise for the crisis of modernity – you can look at it either way.

There is, however, more to be said about the word ‘indigenous’, as with the ways it is used. A problem shows from etymology. Indigenous in its Latin original version means what has sprung from the earth or from the land (the same goes for the ancient Greek word often used in the Netherlands to signify those who are no recent immigrants: the ‘autochtones’). This is troubling in two ways: first, it seems to say that some peoples were not migrants, originally, which seems to me false. Humans migrate, that’s what they do (at least when we take a somewhat wider historical perspective). Secondly it suggests, in a darker way, that these peoples are not human in the ordinary way – whereas normally humans are born from other humans, they ‘spring from the earth’. Like plants. Of course no one would think this literally, but old meanings resonate in words used, and have an effect on how we see the world. The romantic approach, for instance, that some peoples are indigenous – in the sense that they are connected with the earth, and not alienated like the rest, floats on this old meaning of springing from the earth.

The resonating old meaning of ‘indigenous’ however also supports the acceptance of negative treatment of peoples. As those who consider themselves modern can not fully appreciate what those ‘indigenous’ peoples, those close to the earth peoples, could attribute to the common human endeauvour to take care of the world we live in. An example: in the United Nations ‘indigenous’ people have been meeting to discuss the common problems of our world, with respect to our relations to nature/the environment. They have a lot of sensible things to say, worthy to be heard by the rest of humanity. Media however have no interest in what went on there. Which is a great loss in the common dialogue on the future of human presence on earth.

The loss of important input in this discussion could only be countered if ‘modern’ peoples started to think of the ‘indigenous’ as fully the same – as migrants who found their lands and took care of them in ways that hold interesting answers for all. As humans who are not stuck in some backward phase of development, or as living in an original connection to the earth which has gone lost for the others. But who are fully aware of what they are doing. They don’t have backward ideas, nor the only good solutions for human problems, they have however been trying out ways to relate to their environment which should be taken as at least equally viable as modern ones, and perhaps in many ways more so.

As the primary problem is one of recognition of partners in dialogue, there is of course a use of the word ‘indigenous’ that can be fully supported: its use by those who designate themselves as such. When, as is now happening, peoples in Brazil are claiming their landrights over against predatory large companies and farmers (who destroy ‘their’ forests and pollute ‘their’ rivers) – these peoples use it as an argument that they are ‘indigenous’ – meaning that they were there first. This use makes sense for a political reason. Although I think it is not the best of arguments – their care for the environment is a much better one – it is intended for the discourse of those (post)colonials who live in a world of documented rights and rules, rights and rules that are being used to take possession of a place and use it for your benefit. ‘Indigenous’ is a colonial word being used against the (post)colonials. I hope with enough effect to stop the destruction and pollution of more forests and rivers.

This post was inspired by watching the documentary Earth wisdom in a world of Crisis, to be seen here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=viGUoY9KNfY

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2 comments
  1. onesis said:

    I like this post very much as a conversation opener. What Angela writes here makes a great deal of sense. Many people termed “indigenous” in Australia prefer the word “aboriginal”, which refers to their identity as original inhabitants rather than those who sprang directly from the earth. In any case aboriginal people have their own mythology about how they came into being on the earth.

    It is of great interest to me personally to discover people of aboriginal origin who had been subjected to genocide (both physically and culturally) and who have managed to survive and still practice, and hold the memory of, language and culture in connection with traditional lands. I believe people from colonialist origins have a duty towards these people, to facilitate this ongoing connection, by way of accepting the claims of such people to remain in contact with those parts of the earth that afford them recognition of their ongoing traditional identity. For example where aboriginal people are actively engaged in protecting forests and wilderness areas, and are protecting the knowledge they have of those places, particularly where there are sites of cultural significance to them, we all have a duty to ensure that such activities go on unhindered.

    Our connection with such aboriginal people is an occupational one. I mean by occupation, any sort of meaningful and purposeful activity. We might be people who wish to visit such places out of wanting to reconnect with natural environments, for recreation or renewal. The connection we should make, is first to inquire who are the original inhabitants and what protocols have they put in place for our enjoyment or appreciation of places they may well deem sacred. This I take to be a first and foremost duty of an occupational ethics, that all of us have towards aboriginal people.

    David Turnbull

    • I second your contribution to my post, David, and am particularly interested in your notion of ‘occupational ethics’ – could you refer to a text or a post of your own, perhaps, which elucidated this concept?

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