On the meaning of \”indigenous\”

Over at CiF we\’ve got someone telling us what \”indigenous\” means.

As with most such things, it\’s difficult to offer perfect definitions … however the term is generally used to describe the original inhabitants of a territory prior to its colonization during the last 500 years or so. You see, a lot of the world (all of the Americas, all of Africa, all of Australasia and Oceania, etc.) have been conquered and ruled by Europeans at some point during the last few centuries. This process resulted in the death, displacement and marginalization of many of these conquered peoples. Even after these countries gained independence from the European powers, the original inhabitants still remained within a marginal social and economic position. Thus Quechua-speakers in Peru are often poorer and politically weaker than Spanish-speakers and people of a European ancestry.

These people are what is meant when we talk about the \”indigenous\” peoples of the world. It therefore doesn\’t apply to Britain because it relates specifically to the experience of having been colonized, which did not happen to Britain or its people.

My response:

If the definition of \”indigenous\” is to have been subjected to colonisation then certainly England was in 1066 (and perhaps before that, in the North at least, around 800 with the Vikings, the whole country again around 400/500 with the Angles, Saxons and Jutes etc).

And Wales was colonised by the English from 12 th cent to 15th, Scotland could arguably be said to have been colonised again and Ireland most certainly was: Cromwell in Wexford and Drogheda is difficult to describe in any manner other than as a violent colonisation: to say nothing of the Plantation of the North.

Entirely possible to extend this over other parts of Europe as well: the suppression of Occidan and Breton as languages, Madrid\’s relationship with certain parts of what is now Spain like Cataluna etc etc etc. Prussia\’s creation of Germany anyone? The Soviet actions in the Baltic States?

Neither colonisation, and therefore \”indignous\”, are events or words that should be reserved for what Europeans did to non-Europeans.

13 thoughts on “On the meaning of \”indigenous\””

  1. The article is garbage on so many levels. By his reckoning the Dutch, having been colonised by the Spanish, should be considered indigenous.

    Plus, as Jared Diamond showed in Guns, Germs, and Steel the “original” inhabitants were conquering and displacing each other and shaping their language and fortunes long before whitey showed up.

  2. Ah, thank God for slow days at the office.

    Indigenous is a term of art, a word with a purpose. You win something by qualifying. Under UN conventions indigenous people are entitled to special care or protection compared to the other/dominant population in the same territory.

    So you go from “native”, which covers all of us somewhere, to native and having suffered colonization in the past, such as the Irish, or the Indians – but you have to go a step further. when the “indigenous” population is everyone or are themselves the dominant population, they don’t need anything in the way of special protection. It’s only when you have past colonization and present discrimination by a post-colonial majority or elite, that the word starts to have any use. So yes, the Lapps, the Roma, the peruvian indians, maybe arguably the Welsh, but not the Irish or the poor 1066-victimized Brits. You also have to be able to tell who is who, which makes the Brits in particular, mutts as we are, poor candidates. (And I recall Colin Powell’s line on reparations to the descendants of slaves: “am I paying or receiving?”

  3. He was a nasty bugger, Cromwell, but the Drogheda massacre apparently didn’t happen. (I first learnt this from a BBC documentary, while hooting with laughter at their decision to hire a historian with a foin Oirish accent to break the news.)

    As for the Plantation of the North, quite so. But is is noteable that the earlier English plantations by Bloody Mary get written out of history. I suppose the reason is so obvious as to be hardly worth mentioning.

    Irish historical legends have it that the Gaels aren’t the indigenous people either, of course. Nor were the Cruithne, I suppose. Who could possibly know?

  4. It’s also worth remembering that Quechua-speakers weren’t the original inhabitants of much of Peru; they became dominant by conquering and in some cases virtually wiping out (as with the Huancas) peoples who lived there before them. So to use an anthropological or ethnographic term the man’s talking shite.

  5. Brian, follower of Deornoth

    Plantation of the North! Why haven’t the inhabitants been celebrating diversity ever since?

  6. This dopey definition makes the Aztecs indigenous and dispossessed – and for anyone who has looked into how they built and ruled their empire it’s hard not to conclude that, as bad as the conquistadors were, that the Aztecs deserved it for being some of the biggest arseholes of all time.

  7. Mmmm. Wonder how the displacement and (possible) genocide of the orginal Khoi of Southern Africa by the Bantus stands up to that measure.

    Bantu culture had certainly taken over large areas of eastern and northern South Africa before the whites came, but in the far south (in the western Cape and up to the borders of Xhosa territory somewhere around the Cei river) the Hottentots (a bad name for the Khoi) were still the predominant native people when Jan van Riebeck first came ashore in 1652.

    Indeed the Khoi were once the main people throughout what is now the Western Cape and Southern Namibia. Strange how nobody is demanding the Bantus give them back their land.

    Tim adds: Is the Cei River what used to be called the Fish River? There’s a reason for that. The Bantu crop package, originally derived from West Africa (umm, groundnuts, cassava maybe?) won’t grow the other side (the Cape/Khoi side) of the Fish River. It’s the demarcation line between the subtropical and mediterranean climates. So, for agriculture to be possible there (as the area is much to small to evolve it’s own agricultural crops) it needed someone to bring in the mediterranean food crops: the Dutch.

    The Bantu’s didn#’t cross that line because their agriculture wouldn’t work the other side of it. Only Khoi style pasturage or hunter gatherer would…

  8. Strange how nobody is demanding the Bantus give them back their land.

    Idiots like the original commenter are very black and white, and I mean that literally – to them, all black people are the same and all white people are the same. How they get away with this “they all look the same to me” attitude bemuses me, but it seems to work for them.

  9. to them, all black people are the same and all white people are the same

    Erm, no.

    I was pointing out that the Bantus (classically “black” africans if you will) are quite different from the lighter skinned, smaller framed khoi people. Indeed during the bantu migration their attitude toward the weaker khoi was remarkably “european” as well. KhoiSan, bushmen, hottentots, whatever one calls them still fear and dislike “blacks” because of the memories they have of the bantus.

    To give a concrete example of this, back in the bad old days a chum of mine worked with 31 Battalion, The Bushmen. They rarely worked as a formed unit rather providing specialised tracker teams to work with larger patrols from other battalions. According to my chum, the bushies generally had few problems working with “white” units (PF, NS or CF) aside from their terrible bush skills (by Bushman standards). But they would frequently request a white officer or NCO to go with them when they worked with black troops. This tendency was especially marked in the early days of the border war or when the men hadn’t worked with a particular unit before. Basically their collective folk memory was so strong it took them a long time to trust “big black men”. Particularly if they had guns.

    Funily enough, in my experience it’s the lovies and ethno huggers who tend to make the same mistakes about people of other races as the racists. To them it’s all “the blacks” this and “the blacks” that when actually “black” people display all the same glorious diversity as us wicked whiteys. They have done throughout history.

  10. If they had bothered to consult The Devil’s Dictionary by Ambrose Bierce, they would surely have found a suitable definition –

    Aborigines,n. Persons of little worth found cumbering the soil of a newly discovered country. They soon cease to cumber; they fertilise.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *