It’s Time to Rethink the Idea of the “Indigenous”

The U.N., in its 2021 report on the “State of the World’s Indigenous Peoples,” determined that eighty-six per cent of them live in Asia, Africa, and the Pacific. Who’s entitled to the status remains a subject of contention. Hmong people living in Minnesota send delegates to the U.N. Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, in New York; Dalits in India, the Roma in Eastern Europe, and Christians in Saudi Arabia remain, for the most part, outside the circle of indigeneity. Identifying which criteria are at play is tricky, but anthropologists and social theorists like Adam Kuper and André Béteille argue that our concept of indigeneity is bound up with outdated ideas about so-called primitive peoples. The tropes persist; we have merely replaced one set of terms for another. Even if you are not aboriginal, you can count as Indigenous if you come across as simple, egalitarian, culturally encapsulated, spiritually attuned to nature, and somehow isolated from history and civilization.

When Parkipuny appeared in Geneva, the Maasai were well established as emblems of “primitive” Africa. With spears, shields, and stretched earlobes, they adorned postcards, documentaries, travelogues, and coffee-table books. You’d see a stoic, ochre-coated man wearing an ostrich-feather headdress like a lion’s mane, or a woman with a shaved head staring at the camera, her neck lost amid beaded necklaces. Almost always, the Maasai were pictured draped in bold red fabric, a shocking burst of fire in landscapes of brown and green. (Photographers relieve them of their sunglasses and watches.)

For decades, the Tanzanian government exploited this imagery. As tourism and big-game hunting flourished, photographs of the Maasai decorated brochures and guidebooks: human scenery garnishing Africa’s untamed wilderness. At the same time, government officials sought to justify the expropriation of Maasai land for more lucrative projects, like wildlife tourism. Pastoralism and conservation were incompatible, the party line suggested; maintaining one image of wildness (the pristine, wildebeest-filled grassland) justified an attack on the other (the Stone Age cattle herder).

Parkipuny reclaimed the imagery of primitivism using the language of indigeneity. Soon after returning from Geneva, he co-founded the first Maasai N.G.O., calling it Korongoro Integrated People Oriented to Conservation, or KIPOC, which means “we will recover” in the Maasai language. In a document for donors, the organization explained that the “indigenous minority nationalities” in Tanzania had “maintained the fabric of their culture.” Rather than being respected, however, they were “looked down at, as backward and evolutionary relics,” and denied access to services like education. The Maasai crusade was thus “part of the global struggle of indigenous peoples to restore respect to their rights, cultural identity and to the land of their birth.”

The rhetoric was effective. Two Dutch organizations promptly sent money for facilities, salaries, and operating expenses. In 1994, Parkipuny helped establish an umbrella organization, PINGOs (Pastoralists and Indigenous Peoples N.G.O.s) Forum, that advocated for Tanzania’s pastoralists and hunter-gatherers as Indigenous Africans. Yet, even as international groups rallied behind him, Parkipuny found growing resistance, sometimes violent, from his fellow-Tanzanians. The reason was not just his role as an advocate of Maasai interests. In the book “Becoming Maasai, Becoming Indigenous” (2011), Hodgson showed that another Maasai organization, Inyuat e Maa, aroused far less resistance. The domestic opposition that Parkipuny encountered partly reflected his style, which many Maasai found combative. But it also likely stemmed from his insistence on indigeneity, which was seen as promoting “tribalism”—something Tanzania wanted to avoid. Aware of events in neighboring countries like Kenya, the government feared that ethnic mobilization could invite insurgent violence and economic instability.

Organizing on the basis of indigeneity hindered interethnic coalition-building, too. Other ethnic groups saw indigeneity as something the Maasai exploited to funnel money and attention toward themselves. At a PINGOs meeting in 2000, there were impassioned complaints that PINGOs, supposedly acting for all of Tanzania’s pastoralists and hunter-gatherers, was really a Maasai oligarchy. As a Maasai activist and lawyer admitted to Hodgson half a decade later, “One problem with ‘indigenous’ is that everyone who hears it thinks ‘Maasai.’ So it worked at the national level to limit rather than expand our possible alliances and collaborations.” By the time he spoke to Hodgson, he and many other Maasai activists had largely dropped the rhetoric of indigeneity: “Now we focus on building alliances with the nation, not with international actors.”

A politics built around indigeneity, many organizers fear, can reify ethnic boundaries. It encourages people to justify why their ethnic group, and not another, deserves particular resources and accommodations. It weakens domestic ties, which are otherwise critical for oppressed minorities. But it also contributes to one of the stranger consequences arising from a rhetoric of indigeneity: its co-option by far-right nationalists. As peoples like the Maasai have lost confidence in the rhetoric, ethnic nationalists worldwide have come to embrace it. Writing for a Hindu Right propaganda Web site in 2020, a columnist observed, “In the game of woke, we Hindus actually hold all possible cards. We are people of color. We come from an indigenous culture that is different from the organized religions. . . . How could we not be winning every argument?”

In 1987, two years before Parkipuny’s historic speech at the U.N. Working Group on Indigenous Populations, five delegates from India landed in Geneva for the group’s annual meeting. They represented the newly established Indian Council of Indigenous and Tribal Peoples, and were led by figures such as Professor Ram Dayal Munda, a linguist with a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago. Their goal was to establish the indigeneity of India’s “tribal” communities, also known as Adivasis.

The delegates’ arguments followed a decades-long discussion about Adivasi identity. At the time of India’s independence, in 1947, people disagreed on how to think about the communities inhabiting the country’s hills and forests. The Indian sociologist G. S. Ghurye declared them to be “backward Hindus.” Mahatma Gandhi considered them a peasant caste to be integrated into the nation. Yet the English-born anthropologist Verrier Elwin, starting in the nineteen-thirties and forties, favored an account that was both idealized and soaked in primitivist imagery. He imagined Adivasis to be the inverse of modernity: free, primordial, attuned to the rhythms of nature. The image appealed to Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first Prime Minister, and the conception has stuck. To this day, the Indian government defines “Scheduled Tribes”—an official designation that, for many Indians, is largely equivalent to the Sanskrit-derived term Adivasi—based on five criteria: “(i) indications of primitive traits, (ii) distinctive culture, (iii) geographical isolation, (iv) shyness of contact with the community at large, and (v) backwardness.”

Given these associations, it is not surprising that the international community, including the U.N. and the International Labor Organization, has embraced the Adivasis as Indigenous. In some instances, indigeneity has paid off. In 2014, with the help of Amnesty International and Survival International, the Dongria Kondh community, in eastern India, temporarily blocked the U.K.-based company Vedanta Resources from mining the Niyamgiri hills for bauxite.

Yet there is also what the anthropologist Alpa Shah calls a “dark side of indigeneity.” Between 1999 and 2008, she spent some thirty months living with Adivasis, mostly of the Munda ethnic group, in the Indian state of Jharkhand. Her book “In the Shadows of the State” (2010) offers a sobering picture of how activism organized around indigeneity can trap the communities it is supposed to liberate.

Many of the problems start with image management. To secure their status as Indigenous, Adivasis have needed to look tribal and non-modern. Urban activists necessarily endorse images of them as children of the forest. The resulting policies can be a boost for activists, intent on building domestic and international platforms. But they can also lead to what Shah calls “eco-incarceration,” reinforcing Adivasis’ marginalization. Consider their elephant issue. In one year, in a village of about five hundred and fifty people, Shah saw elephants destroy five houses. They devoured crops. They kicked a woman, leaving her with serious back injuries. Nearby villages were similarly terrorized, with nine people trampled to death.

The Mundas were not happy. They told Shah they wanted to chop down trees to stop the elephant incursion, but government policy, ostensibly aimed at helping them preserve their traditions, prohibited them from doing so. When she asked how they could survive without the jungle, many Mundas told her that she had it backward. They remembered a past when they cleared the trees rather than living surrounded by them. “After all, not so long ago there were no elephants here because there was no forest,” one villager told her.

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