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The Problem with Indigeneity
Some thoughts on St George's Day
Almost every day on Twitter, and elsewhere, the tedious conversation about British demographics and indigeneity goes back and forth without any breakthrough. The oft-repeated claim by the British liberal-left is that Britain does not have any indigenous people, therefore nobody can be upset by immigration levels or changing populations within major cities.
Not only is this just boring, it becomes a semantic battle over the term ‘indigenous’, which really has no proper definition. I wrote an article a few years ago now, for Countere Magazine, about how and why the term came about, and in whose interests it serves. A few choice quotes:
Legally this term has led to all manner of thorny and difficult problems. Many nation-states have their own definitions of the term. The United Nations, World Bank and the International Labour Organization also have their own legal understandings of indigenous. These aren’t merely an academic exercise, but reflect a wielding of power with effects on billions of people. Just as a small example—the Brazilian state has allowed its indigenous tribes to have “permanent possession” of the territories they “traditionally occupy.” This amounts in practice to a huge 13% of the country’s landmass for just 0.4% of its population. Whether or not this is a good thing, it's a reminder of how material reality is affected by these legal categories and definitions.
The commonalities to these definitions of indigenous include: a group of people who lived in a territory before the occupation of a colonial power; their separation from the main bulk of the population, both culturally and politically; people who have an ethnic and territorial distinction from the dominant social power and a lack of political power at the state level. Prior to all understanding of indigenous, and the main action upon which it rests, is the act of colonization. Indigenous legal scholars and tradition almost exclusively focus on “Western” colonization, broadly meaning the contact and settlement period between 1492 and the mid-20th century
In a similar vein, indigenous legal scholar Robert Williams describes the colonial mindset as: “The West’s religion, civilization, and knowledge are superior to the religions, civilizations, and knowledge of non-Western peoples.” What should be obvious then, to the tradition of indigenous law, is the exclusive and total equation of colonialism with western colonialism. This leaves open and unexplored the question of how indigenous law impacts upon ethnic minorities within the historical purview of China, Japan, and the Ottoman and Russian Empires, to name just a few. It also creates a historical severance at the point of European contact with the Americas at the dawn of the 16th century. Conveniently this misses out the surviving Khanates, the Mugal, Ming, Safavid and Ottoman Empires, as well as the kaleidoscope of African kingdoms. Each of these was violent, expansionist and dominating, each in its own way, but they are all discounted from the legal framework of indigeneity.
Ronald Niezen, in his 2003 book, The Origins of Indigenism: Human Rights and the Politics of Identity, remarks on the historical oddity of an entire political category of people being effectively created out of thin air by some diplomats and NGO workers in a room at the United Nations. These elites somehow bypassed their usual distaste for ethnicity and ethnonationalism, and an entirely new class of people was immediately tied into a vision of ecological harmony and “wildness,” drawing on an imperial tradition that requires anthropologists to determine the exact nature and type of each indigenous community.
In many ways at the root there was, and still is, the need for legitimate indigeneity to be exotic, unfamiliar and marginal—an ironically racist position to take. People with strange colorful clothes who live in remote and dangerous parts of the world. On the scale of human groups, ethnic minorities could no longer cut it, since they could be assimilated and become part of the dominant power structure. It has become crucial for the definition of indigenous that these people remain powerless and dependent on a technocratic body like the UN to arbitrate and mediate on their behalf. A country like China, which asserts its sovereignty over all its territory, would rightly see any claim that the Tibetans were indigenous as an enormous challenge, since it opens the door to a flurry of international legal disputes, with the UN standing between the State and the Indigenous.
I think this stands up pretty well, and I still think the term should be avoided where possible, to prevent the kinds of arguments that go around and around. But - where people insist that European nations have no indigenous people (except the Saami), then the question should be put back to them. What qualifies as indigenous? If its a question of ‘first-come, first-served’, then practically nobody on earth comes out with clean hands, if its a case of chronology then many ‘indigenous’ nations have been around for far less time than the English or French. When it comes down to it, there is no good criteria for indigenous other than the ridiculous and contradictory definition of ‘pre-colonial’ societies. Ultimately, as I argue in the article, majority populations shouldn’t need to beg for their existence, their nations and lands belong to them through conquest, defence, pride, love and kinship.
Maybe it would be worth doing a full article which provides clear counter-examples to the indigenous category, to give people ammunition in debates. I’ll add it to the ever-growing list of future topics.