What is “Indigenous”?

In a recent article in the New Yorker, Manvir Singh traces the origin and evolution of the concept of Indigenous from its colonial roots to its present use to cover disempowered people more generally. Without doubt, “Indigenous” has been a powerful concept. Its successes in shining a light on to issues of land and sovereignty have been many and far flung. As Singh states,

Indigeneity is powerful. It can give a platform to the oppressed. It can turn local David-vs.-Goliath struggles into international campaigns. Yet there’s also something troubling about categorizing a wildly diverse array of peoples around the world within a single identity—particularly one born of an ideology of social evolutionism, crafted in white-settler states, and burdened with colonialist baggage. Can the status of “Indigenous” really be globalized without harming the people it is supposed to protect?

Singh argues that as individuals and groups found success in using indigeneity, lots of well-meaning international groups jumped on the bandwagon. In so doing, they resurrected the trope linking indigenous with primitiveness, coopting the concept of “Indigenous” in their more general fight against modernity. Singh’s article is an important reminder that as archaeologists work to find meaningful ways to engage descendant communities, we do not appropriate what is not ours.

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1 thought on “What is “Indigenous”?”

  1. Taking Singh’s critique about the conceptual link to settler states and colonialism on step further, there is another troubling side of some connotations of “indigeneity” and that is the links between territory and ethnic/cultural identity, history, and governance that is often evoked in these discussions. It is deeply problematic that the Nazis used similar links in their racial ideology and their legitimation for occupation and war in the 1930s and 40s, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blood_and_soil .


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