Wade Davis is a writer and National Geographic explorer. His most recent book is Magdalena: River of Dreams.
There are words that, through overuse, lose their power and authority, causing the eyes to glaze over. Sustainability is surely one. Indigenous may be another.
As both a construct and a category, the term “Indigenous” first gained wide acceptance in the early 1970s, elevated by anthropologists no longer comfortable with the language of their discipline. Referring to living peoples and cultures as “Indigenous” was certainly a step up from “primitive” and “savage” – words that appeared without shame in the early ethnographic literature.
Those for whom the concept was conceived embraced it as an essential part of their identity. The designation is today universally accepted, having been codified by national and international bodies, most notably in the 2007 United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which recognizes as Indigenous those “having a historical continuity with pre-colonial societies that developed on their territories,” and who consider themselves distinct from the “societies now prevailing on those territories.”
Indigenous, by this definition, embraces the myriad of cultures that have a shared history of subjugation and subservience, and whose traditional homelands are today encompassed by the web of boundaries that mark the arbitrary limits of nation-states forged for the most part from the wreckage of 19th-century colonialism.
With power in all these new nations invariably consolidated in the hands of political elites, backed by militaries serving at the behest of the state, there is every reason for ethnic groups under threat to rally around a shared identity. As both a legal designation and a political declaration, the term Indigenous emerged as an essential expression of solidarity, eminently worthy of support and respect.
Still, the word is problematic. For one, it implies that some of us are, and others are not, indigenous to the planet, which is both incorrect and the wrong message to send to our children. Nurturing a spirit of place, displaying fidelity to land and water, and embracing with conviction the obligations of stewardship, ought surely to be aspirational imperatives for all people and all human societies. As the poet Gary Snyder wrote, “We must all become Native Americans, whatever our ethnic background, if there’s to be any hope for ecological and cultural vitality on our shared Turtle Island.” Mr. Snyder did not have in mind cultural appropriation; he was talking about the urgent need to change the way that we as humans inhabit this planet.
There is another issue. The vast majority of the world’s 7,000 languages – some 6,500 or more – are spoken by those deemed by academic convention to be Indigenous. But to wrap the lion’s share of the world’s cultural diversity in a single category, slapping upon it a word as if a convenient label, suggests a uniformity to culture that ethnography vehemently denies.
Every culture is the product of its own history. The Nenets reindeer herders of Siberia, the Barasana living in the forests of the Colombian Amazon, and the Dogon dwelling in the cliffs of the Bandiagara Escarpment in Mali, have no more in common culturally than the French, Russians and Chinese. Associating the former as “Indigenous peoples” is as arbitrary and ultimately meaningless as subsuming the latter into a contrived category of “Industrial peoples.”
That such a bucket approach to culture also serves to reinforce a tired colonial stereotype goes largely unnoticed, oddly enough, even among those most earnest in their efforts to decolonize our thinking. To suggest that only some cultures are Indigenous implies, as noted, that there is another cohort of humanity that is something else. The astonishing sweep of the human spirit made manifest in thousands of cultures and expressed in the 7,000 voices of humanity is thus reduced to a single dichotomy; Indigenous and non-Indigenous, a dualistic opposition that has no more foundation in culture and history than the odious and deeply flawed distinction drawn throughout the 19th century between the “primitive” and the ”civilized.”
The cultures of the world are not anonymous, as if lost in a fog of indigeneity. Every culture is a unique and ever-changing constellation of ideas and intuitions, myths, memories, insights and innovations, all coming together to inspire an original vision of life itself. Each is its own response to a fundamental question: What does it mean to be human and alive? To compress this vast cultural repertoire into a single rubric ultimately diminishes all, denying to each culture its distinction – what it alone has distilled from the human imagination and our shared genius as a species.
If not Indigenous, what language or terminology should we use? Why not expand our concept of nations? Or reference ethnicities by name, with the respect that is due: Penan, Tuareg, Samburu, just three of the many hundreds of extant cultures with legitimate claims of sovereignty based on language and myth, traditional law and deep histories of occupancy. Their voices are not vestigial. To the contrary, these are dynamic living peoples, fighting not only for their cultural survival, but also to take part in the continuing global dialogue that may well determine the fate of life on Earth.
If a language is but a dialect equipped with an army, then surely a nation is but a designation secured through diplomatic wrangling and the exercise of power. Geographical extent is as irrelevant as population size. A nation is what we declare it to be. Why not reimagine our concept of the state for a new era of respect and pluralism, environmental justice and stewardship, reciprocity and responsibility?
Though embedded in the province of British Columbia, the unceded territory of the Tahltan First Nation (which covers 93,500 square kilometres) encompasses more of the Earth’s surface than any one of some 85 countries permanently represented in the General Assembly of the United Nations, among them Israel, Austria, Panama, Switzerland and Kuwait.
The Inuit in Canada alone – just part of a cultural realm that spans the Arctic from Greenland to Alaska and beyond – number more than the national populations of nine countries of the United Nations.
The geographical integrity of Haida Gwaii as the political and spiritual homeland of the Haida has been defined and delimited for at least 6,000 years. Among the United Nations there are 97 that did not exist before 1960. At 69, I am older than more than a hundred countries recognized as such by the global community.
Within British Columbia alone, a family driving north from Vancouver to Prince George, a distance of 800 kilometres, passes through more distinct languages than would be encountered by a traveller moving overland from Moscow to Madrid.
In the face of such astonishing cultural diversity, the word Indigenous, general to the point of inutility, loses all meaning and purpose; a well-intentioned rhetorical convenience that serves only to extend and augment historical efforts to erase identity. Were I to be among those so keen to decolonize the English language, this word would have to go.