This word stays right at the tip of the tongue: nasal /n/, stop /d/, affricate /dZ/, nasal /n/, fricative /s/. Ironic, really, for a word that signifies rootedness.

But it has assorted echoes and overtones that are quite suitable. For instance, igneous, which names a type of rock that has sprung new from the heart of the earth: molten, flowing like the river of life, and then settling and solidifying and becoming a durable part of the ground of its particular place.

And Indian, a term often used for the indigenous peoples of the Americas. They got it, of course, by misapplication from European invaders who at first thought they had arrived in India. The people of India in turn got the name from the river they were on the far side of (from the European perspective), the Indus – the name of which actually comes (altered) from Sanskrit for “river”. Indigenous, on the other hand, comes from Latin meaning “in-born” – as in born in the place. At base, indigenous means simply “native” – as in “born there” – though of course it tends to be used to mean “native” as in “belonging to an aboriginal people”.

Indigenous also has some taste of indignity. In fact, it has gained a considerable popular connotation of having suffered indignities and worse. The various excursions of colonialism and imperialism saw invaders from countries such as England, France, and Spain (just for example) subjugating the indigenous people of the lands they landed on and visiting all sorts of indignities on them as they stripped them of their lands, indignities that continue to have repercussions.

It’s no wonder that if one refers to the indigenous people of a given place, it tends to carry an assumption of disadvantage, since indigenous is used almost exclusively in reference to the victims of colonialism and imperialism. We see this attested in many of the most common collocations – and in the images they tend to bring to mind: indigenous peoples, indigenous culture, indigenous rights, indigenous knowledge, indigenous traditions… Oh, yes, knowledge and traditions: those rooted in the soil are often seen as having deep, true wisdom and authentic traditions. Which of course also carries implications about those not rooted in the soil.

And did you notice that indigenous also sounds a bit like and did you know? As in “And did you know that Japan also has an indigenous people?” And “Did you know that Scandinavia has an indigenous people?” And here is where we start to run into the problems with the assumptions that can be carried unstated with indigenous, and why it is much wiser to say disadvantaged when you mean “disadvantaged” and to leave indigenous to mean only “native to the location” without carrying assumptions about sociopolitical status or experience, value judgements (e.g., moral high or low ground), assumptions about wisdom or authenticity, or whatever else one may want to load unspoken on the back of this word. Allow to me look at some examples of indigenous peoples to sort out what I mean.

Let us start with Japan. Japan has an indigenous people, the Ainu, who were in north and central Japan (especially Hokkaido) before the Japanese arrived there, and who were, starting in the middle of the 19th century, subject to a policy of assimilation, which led to considerable loss of culture – and very substantial intermarriage. But, now, how about those Japanese people who assimilated the Ainus’ lands into their country? Well, current thought is that they are descended from the merger of two peoples, the Jomon, who were the first occupants of the southern part of the Japanese islands, and the Yayoi, who immigrated. (This would make them somewhat like the present-day English, who have both Germanic [immigrant] and Celtic [indigenous] ancestry, though the immigrant Germanic has prevailed linguistically.) So in fact the Japanese have some claim to indigenousness in the south of Japan. And they certainly have a strong cultural sense of belonging. But the Japanese are not disadvantaged and so have none of the pull of the underdog. If someone talks about “Japan’s indigenous people,” the odds are very high that they are meaning to say “Japan’s disadvantaged indigenous people of Hokkaido” – as though lack of disadvantage means lack of indigenousness. Yet Japan also has a disadvantaged group of people who are in fact ethnically Japanese: the burakumin. Are they less disadvantaged for not being ethnically different? No, they are not.

In northern Scandinavia, there is also a disadvantaged indigenous culture: the Saami (also spelled Sami or Sámi). You may have heard them called Lapplanders, but this is not their own word and it’s not all that well liked by them. The Saami, traditionally, are reindeer herders, and the nature of their cultural circumstances led to some resemblance to Plains Indians (e.g., Sioux tribes – Dakota, Lakota, Nakoda) in some ways: their dwellings looked like tipis, for instance (I use the past tense because generally they live in houses now, which should not be surprising), and some of their artistic output is similar, too (I recommend giving Mari Boine and some yoiks a listen to see what I mean).

But while there are cultural differences between them and other Scandinavians, they don’t actually look different. That, however, has not spared them bad treatment. And who has treated them badly, historically? Other Scandinavians – on the one hand, Finns, and on the other, Norwegians and Swedes (oh, and on the third hand, northern Russians). But here again we have the problem that the Finns have been in their part of Scandinavia quite possibly for as long as the Saami were in their part – since the last ice age. And the Norwegians are indigenous to parts of Scandinavia too, though they may only have been there for a couple of millennia. And they are not indigenous to the parts the Saami are indigenous to – and in their national dominance they haven’t always been very nice to the Saami, either.

You will see that when it comes to who’s indigenous, it’s more a question of who was there first rather than how long they were there. For instance, the Maori are the indigenous people of New Zealand. But the Maori have themselves only been in New Zealand for less than a millennium. (Nor do they have a cultural tradition of having always been there; rather, there is a knowledge of having arrived there in canoes.) Before they were there there were indigenous fauna and flora (some of which are now extinct due to human activity). But the Maori are the indigenous people; they were the first people there. And, yes, they certainly were overrun by the British Empire, with all that comes with that.

Now let me ask you: Who is indigenous in South Africa? Well, not Europeans, we know that (though it’s very important for some parts of the white population that they are descended from the first whites who got there, just as it’s important for some in my own family to have been descended from people who arrived on the first boats from Europe to America and from people who fought for American independence). But not all African people are the same, either.

The first people living where South African now is were the Khoi and San, the “Bushmen” and “Hottentots.” They’re still there, of course. About 1500 years ago, other African peoples from the north (often called Bantu as a group, from which came the Zulu, Xhosa, Sotho, and others) arrived and colonized and grew their own empire. The Zulu empire was not an indigenous empire; they had come from elsewhere on the continent, though there was considerable intermarriage with the indigenous peoples (and some marked linguistic influence). But of course when the Europeans arrived, the Zulu were in turn defeated and subjugated. But does it make it more excusable since they weren’t indigenous? Were they less subjugated, or are they less authentic? Or have they become indigenous because from the European perspective they were “the natives” (you know, “the natives are restless”)? …Or should we be loading all this on the word indigenous? Would it not be better to examine issues directly and name them explicitly? Say that people A were conquered and subjugated by people B? Say that in the modern society of country X, people A are at a disadvantage simply by fact of belonging to people A?

It’s not simply that the assumptions many people carry with indigenous imply that colonial peoples are rootless and without valid traditions or homelands, or that it is the way of the world that people who belong to a place will be subjugated by people who come from elsewhere. It’s also the implication that there is something inherently superior to being there first. Such an implication would make slaves stolen from other parts of the world less deserving than the people who stole them and took them to their homelands. Such implications have also fuelled aggression and hostility. There are certainly places in the world where people have fought long and viciously over who was there first.

And even the linking of indigenousness to subjugation has its dangers. Consider a country that found itself in economic dire straits. Some among its indigenous people chose to blame some other people who also lived in the country – and had for centuries, but were not indigenous. They claimed that these “interlopers” were controlling their economy and subjugating them, and that the way to return to dignity was to purge themselves of them and return to the purity of the sons of the land. Well, we know what happened when that idea took hold of the country – I’m talking about the Nazis in Germany and their persecution of the Jews.

It’s very obvious that the case in Germany was vastly different from the case with colonized peoples such as Canada’s First Nations, or other disadvantaged indigenous peoples such as the Saami, or even disadvantaged non-indigenous people, even if they happen to “run the country”, as in Haiti. But the point I wish to make is that these different cases need to be looked at, and referred to, on the basis of what’s really going on: domination, subjugation, assimilation, slavery… The question of indigenousness is a dimension that should be named and addressed on its own and not be made to carry assumptions and implications. Remember, too: what is at one time an unstated assumption can easily become not just unstated but forgotten at another time. We have the words to speak clearly; let us use them.

This is, admittedly, more of a soapbox than I usually climb onto with my word tasting notes. And let me be clear: I grew up on an Indian Reserve, though I am of European descent (my parents worked for the tribe), and I have a very clear sense of what has often befallen indigenous peoples who have not managed to fight off invaders. (So, for that matter, do the Irish, for instance, who are also an indigenous people subjugated by the English – but those Irish who came to Canada became part of the colonizers.) I am not trying to erase anything. Just the opposite. I am saying we should name it. Be clear. And be careful about the implications and assumptions we make.

Indigenous also carries echoes in its sounds of ingenious, ingenuous, and ignorant. Let us try to be the first of these and not the second or third.

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