Indigeneity, Language and Authenticity

Home » Uncategorized » Representing the Indigenous Voice

Representing the Indigenous Voice

Within post-colonial writings on indigeneity, the question of authenticity seems to reign supreme. Among post-colonial scholars, the idea of the fourth world as the ultimate colonised group, the absolute victims of imperialism, has simultaneously created an all together destructive essentialist framework, within which the indigenous finds himself.

In other words, where a group is consistently marginalised, and presented as a marginalised group which has somehow given up the fight, for whatever reason, concepts of authenticity become destructive tools which, rather than giving the indigenous people of the world a voice to freely shape in order to represent themselves, gives them a restrictive voice which is loaded with ideas of a correct way of being indigenous.

Let me show exactly how this discourse is construed by quoting the director of Avatar, Cameron, who by exotifying the indigenous, and seeing modern-day indigenous communities in America as failed, exemplifies aforementioned point in a most horrid way. Gentlemen and gentlewomen, I give you the director of Pocahontas on drugs in space talking about a visit to what he considers a more ‘genuine’ indigenous group in the Amazon, currently threatened by the building of a dam that would flood their lands;

I felt like I was 130 years back in time watching what the Lakota Sioux might have been saying at a point when they were being pushed and they were being killed and they were being asked to displace and they were being given some form of compensationThis was a driving force for me in the writing of Avatar–I couldn’t help but think that if they [the Lakota Sioux] had had a time-window and they could see the future… and they could see their kids committing suicide at the highest suicide rates in the nation… because they were hopeless and they were a dead-end society–which is what is happening now–they would have fought a lot harder.

In other words, because the Lakota of today have adapted to a lifestyle forced upon them, they seem inauthentic and failed to him.


Closely linked with the question of authenticity, is the question of representation; when authenticity is mentioned as the key to someone’s indigenous status, we suddenly find ourselves faced with the question of who is authentic enough to represent a community, without being accused of being an outsider misrepresenting the Other. And questions of authenticity affect most minority writers. The Gaelic poet and scholar Iàin Crichton Smith proposed that even the exile in his attempts to represent his culture construes an unrealistic picture of the same – thereby effectively linking authenticity with the community in a way which many indigenous people of today simply can’t live up to.

In questioning someone’s authenticity, we simultaneously create set ideas of what it means to be native; to the closed colonial mind an indigenous person speaks her people’s language, is of unmixed origin and is deeply involved in her people’s spiritual and cultural practices. The fact that this closed reading of indigeneity excludes the majority of all indigenous people from their own peoples is of secondary meaning to the colonial discourse.

Let me show how a perceived idea of authentic indigeneity strips the subaltern people the colonial subjects claims to be giving a voice by referring to three often stated criterions of authenticity, namely;

a) language
b) pure blood
c) attachment to an authentic representation of what the colonial mind sees as indigenous culture.

If language is the defining factor of an indigenous person, than Witi Ihimaera, the most famous of all Mäori writers is suddenly stripped of his indigenous status, as he, as many other Mäori has had to reclaim his language as an adult; if the indigenous person needs to be of unmixed origin, then suddenly the entire Stolen Generation becomes erased from the stage, and if someone has to be brought up in what the colonial discourse deems an authentic representation of the culture, i.e. most often on a reserve, then suddenly those children who were forced to attend boarding schools in the States, or indigenous people living in cities of the reserves are no longer indigenous.

On the other hand we must not take this to mean that anyone who feels indigenous automatically is indigenous – while self-definition is of great importance, it is simultaneously up to the indigenous community as a whole to accept someone’s claims to indigeneity as authentic or not, making the issue even more complicated.

If we stay away from the definition of authenticity as voiced by the indigenous voice, and instead focus on the way in which authenticity is used by the colonial force, we will see that it rather than helping the subaltern people strips it even further of a voice. The problematic in using authenticity as a defining factor of indigeneity becomes particularly obvious in questions dealing with traditional land ownership; here authenticity is used as a tool by the state to dismiss an indigenous group’s right to the land they have always inhabited. By forcing an indigenous group, as have been the case with e.g. the Saami in Sweden, to prove to the state that their land was in fact invaded, and that their ancestors lived in the areas the people now use for reindeer herding, a society which has stripped many people of their right to their own culture — as no written accounts have been produced proving their right to the land — has been created. At the same time the focus on reindeer herding as an authentic part of Saami culture has effectively dismissed the majority of Saami as inauthentic, as only 10% of the Saami practice reindeer husbandry today.

This is not to say that the societies we live in are unaware of the oppression the world’s indigenous peoples are subject to; as Griffiths write, ‘we know that subaltern people are oppressed, but how do we know?’ The problem here is the fact that when authenticity is employed as a defining factor of indigeneity, we find ourselves in a situation where the subaltern voice we claim we can hear in fact is far more the voice ‘being spoken by the subject position they occupy within the larger discursive economy’. To clarify, when the indigenous person is given a voice, she is only given a voice when she lives up to a discourse where she is suppressed and only visible when she adorns the physical attributes the neo-colonial discourse has ascribed her with.

Thus, when a Native American talks of the oppression of her people, she is denied the right to express her opinions if she does not simultaneously lives on a reservation, and dress in a way which corresponds with the ideas of a Native American in the Colonial Subject’s mind.

A further problem here is the way in which indigenous has been used as a collective word to describe an immense diversity – by classifying someone as indigenous the colonial discourse denotes her as someone who lives up to a set of very restrictive and limiting rules; thus Indians (the ones in India) are not indigenous, nor are the Gaels of Ireland or Scotland, while on the other hand the Basque are classified as indigenous, while the reality is that as minorities the Basque have in many ways more in common with the Gaels, than an indigenous group in the Amazon rainforest. Indigenous has in many ways come to be used as an insult – to be indigenous is to be primitive, and ultimately stripped of a voice.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: