Wednesday, December 19, 2007

The Category of Indigenous Peoples

Our understanding of indigenous peoples as consisting of separate groups of people each with their own unique "culture" can largely be traced back to the 18th century. Although many Enlightenment writers played a part in defining "culture" and "cultures" as distinct peoples, it is possible to turn to Herder and his philosophy about human differences that was the start of our present-day understanding of indigenous peoples (I've talked about this on several other posts, as well as my friend Victor over on Music 000001).

Consider the following passage from his Yet Another Philosophy of History (1774):

"How much depth there is in the character of a single people, which, no matter how often observed (and gazed at with curiosity and wonder), nevertheless escapes the word which attempts to capture it, and, even with the word to catch it, is seldom so recognizable as to be universally understood and felt. If this is so, what happens when one tries to master an entire ocean of peoples, times, cultures, countries, with one glance, one sentiment, by means of one single word! Words, pale shadow-play! An entire living picture of ways of life, or habits, wants, characteristics of land and sky, must be added, or provided in advance; one must start by feeling sympathy with a nation if one is to feel a single one of its inclinations or acts, or all of them together." [Herder in Berlin 1776: 188]

Here we can begin to see the development of our present-day understanding of "culture" and "cultures." First, there is the interchangeability of words like "people," "culture," and above all "nation" in his writing. Second, there is his celebration of the irreducible plurality of human societies: we cannot and should not judge members of one people or culture by the standards of another, nor should we require people of one culture to adapt to the demands of another alien culture. This emphasis on the need for internal cultural purity, or integrity, in any human group provided Herder with the fuel for fierce denunciations of European rule of non-European peoples (i.e., imperialism), and provided the basis for our formation of the concept of "cultures."

The link between Herder's early pluralistic vision and our modern understanding of this concept is provided by Franz Boas, who was by education steeped in the German tradition of which Herder was a part, and who in his own work accommodated himself to the emerging empirical requirements of Euroamerican anthropology. Boas was alone among American social scientists of his generation in his references to "cultures" rather than "culture," even if his usage was neither systematic nor consistent.

Boas emphasized contingency in both the choice of components within a culture, as well as that these components are brought together in a specific way according to the "genius of the people." In other words cultures need to be seen as wholes, each with its distinctive genius, as well as assemblages of apparently random elements, each with its different history.

It is here that we find the foundations for our present-day understanding of indigenous peoples and their culture. The category "indigenous peoples" is the result of "assemblages of apparently random elements, each with its different history," as well as our process of describing "wholes." That is, today's understanding of indigenous peoples is largely a construct built on the idiosyncratic histories of people, time, and space.

There are several important points that need to be emphasized in this discussion. One is that culture, like multiculturalism, was - and still is by many - a key term in what the philosopher Charles Taylor called the "politics of recognition," and what others called the "politics of identity": that kind of politics based on arguments for the recognition of particular categories (African Americans, women, gays and lesbians, etc.) in Euroamerican society. Much of these arguments concern who, if anyone, has the "right" to represent another culture. Social scientists have been especially vulnerable given the discipline's long involvement with colonialism, and the arguments which linked academic representation of non-Euroamerican peoples to Euroamerican political domination of those people. This blog hopefully is a step in the direction away from such representations and processes.

The other important point, however, is that because indigenous peoples (the category, not the individuals themselves) are largely a modern construction based on Euroamerican values and norms, they are often not given the respect and recognition deserved. As Herder and Boas both noted, irregardless of the historical processes that resulted in the category of indigenous peoples, it is our responsibility to recognize that there are distinct groups of people, and that these groups need to be given equal voice and rights. We cannot judge members of one people or culture by the standards of another, nor should we require people of one culture to adapt to the demands of another alien culture.

Indigenous peoples exist, they have a history, and they should also have a future.

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