Indigeneity, Language and Authenticity

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Monthly Archives: December 2012

Who is Indigenous?

Many people turn to official documents and definitions when they want to define something or someone, but the reality is that there is no universally agreed-upon definition of Indigeneity. What is more – a contemporary approach to Indigeneity states that we should start moving away from simply defining indigenous people and instead start identifying them; in other words, it is time to stop trying to define the term and instead start talking with indigenous peoples and attack the real issues facing their communities today.

What is more, when it comes to the term ‘Indigenous’ it is important to remember that while the term is taken to be universally applicable to similar people around the world, different countries have and use their own terms alongside ‘Indigenous’.

Thus terms like Adivasi may seem more appropriate when talking about Indian indigenous groups, whereas aboriginal is used for the same thing in both Australia and Canada. Canada at the same time, however, uses the term First Nations, whereas the States have gone back and forth between American Indian and Native American for many years. Tribal peoples have been used to refer to certain stratospheres of the pan-indigenous community and some post-colonial critics use the term original people, as they compare the use of ab- in front of original with the use of ab in words like abnormal.

At the same time, however, a number of criteria exist that are, if not universally agreed upon, then at least more or less taken for granted as guide lines when trying to establish who is and who is not indigenous.

  • To be indigenous one has to both self-identify as such and at the same time be accepted by the indigenous community as one of their members. In other words, being indigenous means both identifying as such on an individual level, but also, much more importantly, to be accepted as such by other members of the indigenous community. This is the reason as to why not everyone who claims to have a Cherokee princess nanny are considered to be indigenous, but this is also the reason as to why many indigenous peoples who, as an effect of both the Western mind’s five commodities of indigenous identity representation as well as governmental historical and contemporary processes have been ostracised from their communities, despite being indigenous by blood.
  • Which leads us to the next point; blood. Some indigenous communities use blood as a basis of belonging, some don’t; among the Saami, cultural family ties are far more important than mere blood – being married or adopted into a respected Saami family and thus accepted as one of the community holds more power than being Saami by blood but without any true participation in the culture. Among many Native American tribes, because of the American government’s betrayal of the nation’s indigenous peoples, however, blood quantum is essential to who is and who isn’t considered to be indigenous.
  • Being indigenous equals being a member of a culture with a historical continuity with pre-colonial  and/or pre-settler societies. In other words, being a white European does not make one an indigenous person, lest one happens to be either Saami, any of a number of Russian tribal peoples or, arguably, Basque – all examples of pre-colonial, distinct cultures who continue to flourish today. This is also the reason as to why white British people can’t and shouldn’t refer to themselves as ‘indigenous Britons’ without upsetting the entire world.
  • Being indigenous also means having strong link to territories and surrounding natural resources. When we talk of the land, we’re not just thinking of it as something to own, but rather as something that makes us human and defines us as a people. This link to territories has also, which is an important point, absolutely nothing to do with the idea of a nation state – as stereotypical as it may sound, we do not own the land, the land is what makes us exist. This connection to the land may be more or less pronounced, but it is virtually always there in indigenous communities.
  • Indigenous peoples also have distinct social, economic or political systems. Now, this is an interesting point, because almost all over the world, the social systems of indigenous peoples have been oppressed and more or less destroyed by colonialism, but it is still always there, in particular among tribal peoples.
  • Again, while indigenous peoples in theory have distinct languages, cultures and beliefs it is of utmost importance to remember that to use these distinctions exclusively is to neglect the damage colonialism has done to these things. Most indigenous languages are dying and most traditional beliefs are hidden or covered up with colonial religious expressions instead.
  • Finally, indigenous peoples form non-dominant groups of society and theyresolve to maintain and reproduce their ancestral environments and systems as distinctive peoples and communities.

‘Eco-friendly’ is far too often a synonym of ‘harms indigenous peoples’

The fact that climate change is happening all around the world is evident to everyone in possession of a working brain, and indigenous people have reported this for decades. Especially indigenous communities in circumpolar areas have warned of the devastating effects of global warming for over 40 years. As Larisa Pavlovna Adjedeva, the director of the Saami Cultural Centre in Lovozero said to the Snowchange Cooperative in 2009;

When we ask the Elders and reindeer herders for example what kind of summer it will be, how much berries to expect or what kind of fish and how much to expect they answer us that they cannot predict anything because our Sámi calendar of yearly cycle has collapsed completely because of the changes that have taken place in the nature. They cannot foresee accurately and with precision. Before we would ask the reindeer herders and the answers would be right to the mark but now the predicted times keep on moving and changing. 

At the same time, however, the fact that the ones who have done the least to cause climate change in the first place, and who are hit the hardest by climate change are now also being harmed by misguided attempts to stop it is more often than not completely ignored.

The idea pervading Western society at the moment is that nature has to be saved, but what Western society seems to forget at the same time is that as the very society that brought about the biggest climate change in millions of years perhaps need to get its head out of its arse and listen to communities that have lived sustainably for millennia when it comes to the issue of ‘saving our nature’.

Indeed, what very few people know is that two of Western societies most common measures taken to halt climate change, the production of biofuels and the building of hydroelectric dams, are directly hurting indigenous peoples around the world.

While using biofuels, often produced from sugar canes, does diminish the emission of greenhouse gases, it does at the same time contribute directly to the destruction of indigenous peoples’ ancestral homelands and the diversity of floras and faunas around the world. As Amilton Lopez stated in 2008,

The big sugar cane plantations are now occupying our land. Sugar cane is polluting our rivers and killing our fish. [It is increasing] suicides, mainly among young people, alcoholism and murder

In other words, while the measures taken serve to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to a certain extent, the growing of plants to create biofuels harms nature and completely ignores the right to land and life held by the indigenous peoples living in the areas turned into massive biofuel plants. The Guarani was one of the first tribes to make contact with Europeans, they still constitute the largest tribe in Brazil and now, thanks to biofuels, the majority of them are driven from their ancestral homelands and forced to live in make-shift camps next to plantation roads, where people starve to death.

Another big threat to indigenous peoples and indeed nature is the building of hydroelectric dams; in an attempt to reduce our carbon footprint and bring down our dependency on non-renewable energy sources, hydroelectric dams, which use ‘the never-ending source of water and rivers’, thus naïvely deemed clean and safe, are hailed as a massive step forward in the fight to stop climate change. What is completely ignored, however, is the massive impact dams have on indigenous peoples around the world. To this day, the building of hydroelectric dams have forcibly displaced between 40-80 million indigenous peoples and minorities from their ancestral homelands, leaving these people, to quote International Rivers, ‘economically, culturally and psychologically devastated’. From the Ethiopian Gibe III dam to the building of the Murum and Bakun in Indonesia and Malaysia, hydroelectric dams destroy indigenous peoples lives, while being hailed as great investments for ‘nature’.

Any attempt to halt climate change has to involve indigenous peoples; without drawing on and using the centuries of knowledge held by indigenous peoples with regards to the areas they inhabit, we cannot ‘save the planet’. Western activism tries to turn itself into false custodians of nature, while completely ignoring the fact that indigenous people, by virtue of relying on their ancestral homelands for their survival, already make great custodians of the same.

Western climate activism also has a troubling tendency of turning the ‘saving of the planet’ into a capitalist project. One obvious example of this was the creation of the UN REDD (Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) schemes. Rather than listening to the valid concerns raised by indigenous communities inhabiting forests faced by deforestation, these schemes turn indigenous ancestral homelands into cash cows for the world’s states, if they can prove that their forests are free from human presence. In other words, in order to get UN funding to protect forests already in the custody of indigenous communities, many states forcibly evict indigenous communities from their homes, thereby using ‘green rhetoric’ to justify the violation of indigenous peoples’ human rights.

Before the 2009 Copenhagen meeting, the International Forum of Indigenous Peoples on Climate Change stated that

‘REDD will increase the violation of our human rights, our rights to our lands, territories and resources, steal our land, cause forced evictions, prevent access and threaten indigenous agriculture practices, destroy biodiversity and culture diversity and cause social conflicts,’

but few if any people recognised these valid points at the time and to this day, REDD does not recognise indigenous peoples’ rights.

But I guess to Western society it looks great on paper; kill the indigene and save the forest.

Minorities and Art

One of the things that upset me the most about the way mainstream media approach minorities, is the belief that we, as members of a minority or indigenous culture, or as speakers of an endangered language, have to work as stereotypical representatives of a culture which isn’t our own entirely, but rather a Western reinterpretation, based on misunderstandings and romantic ideals in the first place.

As speakers of an endangered language, we are rarely asked what we’re doing to enrich, challenge and reinvent our language, we are instead asked what we are doing to protect and save our language. Seeing as, to the majority, our language is already dead, it cannot be vibrant, it can only be clawing its way back to a more or less boring existence.

As minority writers, indigenous artists and musicians, our work is next to always interpreted as something that comes directly from a mythical link to our heritage and that, rather than being art as any other form of art, is a manifestation of e.g. Saaminess, Gaelicness and so on.

An English artist is never asked if a painting of a mountain is a manifestation of their Englishness, but have an indigenous artist paint a car and its a critique of colonialism, have them paint a spoon and the damn spoon will, according to the critics, still be connected to the indigenous person’s indigeneity in some way or another. The spoon is never just a spoon, or a symbol of something non-indigenous, it is always a representation of the minority.

So the critics.

A Western artist is an individual, an indigenous artist, however, is interpreted as a mouthpiece for a culture and nothing else.

Those looking at our art or listening to our languages are too blind to see that not everything we do has to be a political statement; just like anyone else, we, too, are quite capable of being influenced by the things around us that aren’t necessarily ‘traditionally’ Gaelic or Saami, to use myself as an example.

And even more importantly, as members of minorities or indigenous groups, we have reached a point where we are denied the right to call the things that we produce, be it poetry, music, art or clothes, e.g. Saami, lest they live up to a perceived idea of what a Saami is, not to other Saami, but to the majority.

Forgive me, but I have never been a reindeer herder – as much as the reindeer is an important part of mainstream Saaminess, only 10% of all Saami work as reindeer herders and my ancestors were forced to give up reindeer husbandry by the state in order to become small-scale hunters and farmers and thus it would, to me, be rather odd to use the reindeer as the most prominent feature in my art.

And yet, ask anyone outside of the Saami community what a Saami is and what Saami art looks like, and we’re back to a reindeer herding, gåhtoe dwelling and gaeptie wearing person who spends his evenings in front of an open fire, where he yoiks and drinks coffee.

In other words, a romantic misrepresentation of a people who is just as modern as any other people.

Idle No More, the UK and the Queen

A little more than three weeks ago, Chief Theresa Spence, leader of the Attawapiskat First Nations community in Ontario commenced a hunger strike in a traditional teepee on Victoria Island, just in front of the Canadian Parliament, in an attempt to bring about a meeting between the Prime Minister Stephen Harper, the Crown and leaders of First Nations across the country to discuss the unlawful parts of the PM’s omnibus bill C-45, which is set to break treaties with First Nations and strip them of many basic human rights guaranteed to them both by international conventions and agreements made between Canadian aboriginal communities and the state in the past.

Her choice to keep up her hunger strike, even if it translates into having to sacrifice her life for her people – she has vowed to starve herself until the PM agrees to a meeting with her – is noble, and indicates that something indeed is rotten in the State of Canada at the moment. However, many uninformed and prejudiced, racist people, believe that Canada’s First Nations are over-reacting, and over the last couple of weeks, indigenous peaceful protests in Canada and elsewhere have been described as the actions of greedy, lazy, indigenous bastards on the front-pages of newspapers and in comment sections alike.

What is so telling of the racist hegemony it draws upon is that the language employed by the majority of non-indigenous people to describe the protests – colloquially known as the Idle No More movement, a movement which brings together Native Americans across the Americas in what could be referred to as the biggest decolonisation movement in decades – is that it draws upon a colonial discourse that has been around since 1492, showing how far away indeed Canada is from being a post-colonial state.

Talking about the language used to describe the protests, it is worth noting that Chief Theresa Spence has repeatedly been described as unfeminine, too non-Native looking and above all fat, and at the start of her hunger strike, one of many commentators suggested that no-one would have to listen to her until she’d lost at least 60lb and started looking like a woman. What is more, by referring to indigenous peoples as greedy and inhumane, they’re painted as brutal savages, less civilised and more corrupt than the European, white Western conquerors currently in charge of the country, and by belittling Chief Theresa Spence’s hunger strike by colonising her body with sexist, racist language, Western hegemony is trying to once again render the Subaltern a silent on-looker, happily agreeing with its own oppression.

The undeniable truth is that the current relationship between the Settler state and Canada’s indigenous peoples is anything but on equal terms; few people remember that the majority of Canada’s First Nations never relinquished their lands to the colonialists that stayed and became settlers in Canada. In fact, the land still belongs to Canada’s indigenous peoples, and the Settler government is given the right to use the land as guests in the treaties signed between the Crown and First Nations across the country. To thus push through an omnibus bill that more or less invalidates the treaties without consulting the First Nations concerned first shows how alive and well European colonialism still is in North America.

But why should we care about all this in the UK?

By virtue of being on the other side of the pond, it is easy to believe that what is happening in Canada at the moment is something we do not have to care about – ‘it all happened so long ago’ is an argument often used, ignoring the fact that colonialism and British imperialism far from is a finished action but rather an ongoing process, supported by the Crown and the Government alike – but the truth is that it is our Queen’s ignorance and unwillingness to pressure her representative in Canada to agree to a meeting with the First Nations’ leaders of the country her former Empire colonised and stole that is currently endangering the life of Chief Theresa Spence.

By not intervening, the Queen is silently agreeing to letting the Canadian right-wing PM to violate the treaties that were signed between the British monarch and Canada’s indigenous communities. The Crown has legal obligations to consult with First Nations with regards to any changes to the constitutionally agreed treaty rights, but at the moment nothing is happening.

Some Monolingual Myths about Bilingualism

  • Bilingual children speak both languages equally well

Wrong. Definitely wrong. Most bilingual children develop their two languages differently, so that someone who grew up in e.g. a Spanish family in an English community might feel comfortable talking about family related matters, emotions and love in Spanish, while they would find it hard to discuss politics, educational matters or do maths in anything but English. The truth is that there are few if any balanced bilinguals in the world, and even within one family one child might speak the minority language better than his or her siblings.

  • Bilingual children always sound like natives

While many bilingual children do sound native-like, it is far more common that their accent is influenced by their majority language, especially if they grow up in a country where the minority language isn’t spoken outside of the family.

  • Bilinguals have to translate from their weaker to their stronger language.

No, we don’t, most of us can think in both of our languages, and believing that we would think in one language and only translate to the other when necessary is a rather strange assumption many monolinguals sadly do.

  • Real bilinguals never mix their languages. Those who do are confused ‘semi-linguals’

This is an often voiced concern by monolinguals with regards to bilingualism, but the truth is that most bilinguals to a certain degree mix their languages when they speak, while at the same time they are well aware of when to only use a specific language. Assuming that someone is semi-lingual because they choose to say “could you hand me boken där” is as wrong as assuming that a teenager cannot speak properly because he or she chooses to use slang.

  • Bilingualism is a charming exception, but monolingualism is of course the rule

Ha! Lo and behold the monolingual Westerner and his close-mindedness. While bilingualism is far less common in Western societies bilingualism is far more the rule than the exception, and even if no official survey has been carried out linguists estimate that over 50% of the world’s population are bilinguals or multilinguals.

  • Children who grow up bilingual will make great translators when they grow up

Oh God no, just as one can’t claim that all Americans can square dance, one can’t claim that all bilinguals turn out to be great translators.

  • Bilingual students aren’t as bright as their monolingual friends because they get confused by their two languages.

This belief stems from an old research carried out in Wales, where bilingual children from a working class background with no formal education were compared to children with a solid education from upper class families. Needless to say this research has since been disputed and proven wrong. In fact, recent research states that, when compared to monolingual children from an equal educational background, bilingual students do better on tests than children who only speak one language.