Indigeneity, Language and Authenticity

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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.
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