The following remarks respond to points made in Tom Hall's thought
provoking notes about the concept of "indigenous". Pressing the links
will take readers to his text so I shall not reproduce his remarks here.
For an overview of the discourse embedding this conversation, please see
our Discourse Links
#1. Fuzzy phenomena -- I agree that the real world in which we live is extraordinarily complex and every situation, every dog and cat, is unique and differs from all others -- as does a fingerprint or DNA. At the same time, we have to use concepts based on criteria that help us distinguish one type of phenomena from another -- these criteria keep changing in response to our needs and what's known. We've know about fingerprints for quite some time, but not since ancient times; and DNA is so recent you entries for it only in very new dictionaries. New as it may be, DNA is precise enough to help experts pinpoint the perpetrators of crimes. Specialists in any field, including that of ethnic nationalism and minorities at risk, need concepts that help them identify comparable phenomena and develop theories that will explain and predict their causes and consequences.
In order to use any concept we need names for them -- e.g. terms like DNA or indigenous. Unfortunately, terms are only symbols, words, or phrases most of which can have a variety of meanings. Dictionary entries show how many meanings (senses) are linked to most of the words we use. That makes terms fuzzy and our discussion of "indigenous" shows how many different meanings are associated with this word. Precisely because the concepts required for scholarly analysis in different disciplines are so numerous and our vocabulary so limited, we often use the same word to mean different things in the various disciplines or sub-fields in which we work, and social scientists also rely heavily on ordinary languages and political terms which already have fuzzy and overlapping meanings in non-academic contexts. Indigenous is such a word, and its use by ethnic communities and their enemies, as well as by state and UN agencies, has given it a wide range of meanings. If academics choose to use the same word in scholarly discourse, they have to explain just what they have in mind because the word can mean different things.
When they find that a term is so fuzzy that it can only be used ambiguously, provoking endless disputes, a good solution can be found by substituting other terms that are not so familiar, perhaps even coining neologisms, so that we can have precise tools of analysis. Even so, the terms may be clear enough but if the concepts they designate are fuzzy, it becomes difficult to operationalize them and analysis may still be faulty. Most of our discussion of indigenous peoples has floated around a variety of criteria that have been used to describe the concept -- actually, a set of related and overlapping concepts. As noted above, I think all phenomena are terribly complicated and each case is unique -- we can never create a faithful picture of reality in our minds or words. However, we can learn about selected aspects of reality if we use concepts that are clear enough to enable us to identify and agree on things, processes, properties, etc. that help us understand what exists. The processes and techniques useful for this purpose are studied by specialists who call themselves Terminologists. Unfortunately, this word also refers to set of terms and concepts, the phenomena Terminologists study. All of us use terms but most of us know little about Terminology as a specialized discipline. Without at least some basic knowledge in this field, it is as difficult for us to understand a terminological discourse as it is for laymen to grasp the significance of a statistical analysis if they know nothing about Statistics. I say this because for some years I have myself worked with Terminologists and developed an approach that focuses on how new concepts become established and acquire terms -- readers may find more information about this on my Web Page under Onomantics , the term I use for this sub-field .
#2. Negative Connotations. Tom Hall does well to call attention to the harmful effect of pejorative terms on scholarly analysis. Even if a term can precisely designate a particular concept, its utility for this purpose vanishes when strongly positive or negative connotations become associated with it. The use of tribe to characterize a community as "backward," "uncivilized" or "inferior" is a good reason to avoid the word. I have the same feeling about race which usually refers to a misconception when it implies genetic influences on behavior, but also typically reflects prejudices better spoken of as racism . Most of the names (ethnonyms) used by outsiders to refer to an ethnic community are pejorative and we do try to avoid them. The origins of "to gyp" is not as widely known as "to jew" or to be "scotch," but there will be no dissent here on the need to avoid such expressions. However, that does not mean that we should embrace the words with favorable connotations members of a community use for themselves when they carry negative connotations against non-members. We need, somehow, to take care when discussing ethnicity to find terms that are not only precise designators of the concepts we need but also neutral (objective) in their connotations.
#3.Process. Tom's protest against the essentialist use of terms that imply static entities is well founded. We have to remind ourselves that what appears to be as solid as a rock is, in fact, a mass of swirling atoms. All social action and structures are merely repetitive patterns of behavior. I like to think of the definition of a river as a stream of water flowing in a channel -- the Mississippi has no doubt lasted a long time but it is threatened today, and vulnerable to flooding. In this sense, rivers and rocks and rebels and refugees are all reifications born of our conceptualizations. No matter how real the "things" may be, the ways we use to talk and think of them are products of our own imagination.
Even the most stable of our social constructions are better understood as processes than as things. Keeping this in mind, I think, will help us avoid stereotypes of ethnic communities that imply long-term continuities -- perhaps a "tribe" can become a "nation," or several communities can evolve into one community, and sometimes groups dissolve and vanish. If we could use verbs instead of nouns to talk about the "structures" that are "processes" we might better visualize the phenomena we seek to understand. As for "self-organizing systems," I'm not quite sure about this notion -- are not all systems both self-organizing and maintaining while also responsive to external influences. To see any whole without its parts is as inadequate as to examine any part without considering its context. They are in continuously active interaction and always, therefore, vulnerable to change, within wide ranges of variation..
#4. Ethnicity. Actually, I don't think there is any difference between Tom's perception of "ethnicity" and mine, but there is a difference in our terminology. Most ancient processes and phenomena have evolved so that what is contemporary differs in many ways from what is ancient. When we focus on modern things we are likely to forget that they are often not really modern, even though they have changed radically over time. There has always been technology since the first humans learned how to start a fire, but when a modern Institute of Technology teaches technology, we may assume it is about techniques that require complex machinery and power sources, that it links technics and science, and that it has global implications. By contrast, an anthropologist discussing technology might be more interested in how humans learned to make spears or domesticate cows. The same word is used correctly for something that is both the same yet different, depending on context.
In the same way, my understanding of ethnicity is that it began with cross-cultural contacts in the most ancient of cities and civilizations. Mono-cultural societies, if they ever existed, must have prevailed in isolated bands or villages. Modernity, in my opinion, has re-shaped ethnicity by bringing it into the forefront of human consciousness as an organizing principle, based on the role of the state, technology, democracy, and nationalism in social organization. Among the options available to modern ethnic communities is acceptance or rejection of the state in which their members live. Those we call "ethnic nations" demand a state of their own, whereas "state nations" by contrast, seek to integrate their multi-cultural citizens as members of a single nation. Discussions of contemporary ethnic patterns or processes are now a preoccupation, but they do not eliminate the reality that cross-cultural contacts have been ubiquitous since ancient times.
A point Tom and I have discussed before is whether or not it is appropriate to use multi-ethnic to refer to ancient cross-cultural relations. Since the definition of ethnicity is based on cross-cultural contact, I see all ethnicity, ancient and modern, as a product of multi-cultural processes. Ethnicity is not a synonym for culture. It reflects consciousness of others who differ from us. This makes the expression, 'multi-ethnic' an oxymoron -- it is impossible to be mono-ethnic. Multi-culturalism is historically ubiquitous, but why call it "multi-ethnic"?. What has changed as a result of modernity is not the prevalence of cross-cultural relationships but the salience of ethnicity, not as a cause but as a sign of socio-political processes generated by the global forces of modernity.
#5.First Peoples. Two questions come to mind here: one is historical precedence. I do like first better than native because it avoids the pejorative connotations discussed above in #2. However, 'first' also has some problems. Were the Chechins the first to inhabit the area where they now live? I don't know the answer but many of the colonized peoples were surely not the first inhabitants -- consider the Aztecs and the Incas who were, we know, conquerors of more ancient peoples.
#6. Autochthonous. A more technical term might be useful, autochthonous. Almost a synonym for "first," or "aboriginal," it has few unintended connotations and could be defined as the survivors of those who lived in a place that was conquered by someone else, or as Tom writes, "were in that place when some others came in..." . In the context of our panel, how important is it to authenticate historical ancestry? When thinking of modern ethnicity, I think the important question is whether the members of any given cultural community are content to become integrated as citizens of the state where they live, or whether they seek autonomy or independence as an ethnic nation. No doubt, ancestry and prior status, including sovereignty as a self-governing polity, seriously affect how contemporaries look upon themselves and their fate. How they are treated and how well they are doing in the state where they are living today may be much more important. Should we not, therefore, view "firstness" as one of the important factors affecting the present situation, but not as the object of our attention. Scottish nationalism is important for us to know about whether or not the Scots lived there before the Picts or anyone else.
#7. Shatterbelt I like this term, although it sounds a bit more violent than necessary. How about crazy quilt? Whatever we call it, succeeding conquests and migrations have probably placed and replaced peoples in any given location many times in the past. What we see today is not the contemporary survivors of ancient cultures but the result of continuous cultural contact and mixing over the millennia. If so, how important is it for us to determine ancestral lines and historical sequences? If what matters is the present day, one of the factors at work is historical memories, legends and myths more than hard historical fact. It's how contemporaries understand their past and use it to help them shape or re-shape the future that counts. One reason that Southeast Asia is more of a crazy quilt than, say, China, is because all the many predecessors of the Chinese have been assimilated over the centuries by bureaucratized empires, whereas the many valleys and hills of Southeast Asia became niches in which ancient cultures could survive, and maintain their own independent royal or chiefly polities. DNA testing would probably show that the Chinese are as racially hybrid as the Burmese or the Kachin but their cultural mixing has been shaped by quite different geo-political dynamics.
#8. Cleavage. What does it mean to be at risk? Tom suggests "Indians ought to be vanishing," but they are not -- they may even be multiplying. "On sheer weight of political and military power nonstate peoples should be gone," he writes. Why, therefore, are they mobilizing and growing in numbers? The answer to this important question should be, I think, a focus of our inquiry.
My opinion is that modernity confronts all minority peoples in the world today with an increasingly urgent dilemma based on globalization, the proliferation of states, the impact of industrialism, and the ideology of (secularized) nationalism as a substitute for (sacred) monarchic authority. In this context, conquered peoples living outside their metropoles have been able to break away from their imperial masters during the past half century, establish a host of new states. An even larger multitude of minority peoples enclosed within the boundaries of states -- both old and new -- now confront a dilemma: should they integrate with the majority populations of the states where they live or should they rebel and seek to establish their own even newer states? Members of any given community may be torn between these options, or may teeter between them. The forces of modernity give them the information, organizational skills, weapons, and ideological motives to make the choices realistic and attractive, for a variety of reasons.
If this be true, then what we see is not something that comes at the end of an age, but something that heralds a new time, a time of crisis and chaos, perhaps, but a new beginning. Increasingly in a moment of globalization and localization -- individuals, groups, and communities struggle to survive, to establish their own identity and even to flourish in an environment that presents them with horrendous challenges and fascinating opportunities. Forgive the rhetoric -- my point is that to understand the present we need not only some perspective on the past, but increasingly an understanding of the options and dangers confronting us in the future.
#9. Levels of Discourse. Years ago I attended an international anthropological congress in Vancouver at which a panel of "indigenous" peoples charged a large crowd of participants with having sold them out -- with having betrayed the trust shown by field trip hospitality through arming their oppressors with the information they needed to dominate them. Audience response was ambivalent, some admitting the justice of the charges and others protesting they were doing their best but also had to reward those who paid their expenses. One conclusion seemed to be that if the first peoples would fund the field trips, anthropologists would become their active advocates.
My personal opinion is that the attitude of "native peoples" toward scholars is not so much based on the terms and theories they offer as on the positions they take -- are they with us or against us is the top question on their minds. However, insofar as scholars wish to become objective analysts of social processes rather than the tools of contending forces, they may need to develop an analytic vocabulary that is not bound to the everyday discourse of those who are being studied.
Moreover, the peoples of Chiapas, Chechnya, Tibet, Kurdistan, Quebec and Scotland use quite different words to talk about themselves and their situation. Yet all of them share a sense of deep discontent with the status quo and a feeling that if they could control their own destiny through a state or autonomous zone of their own, they would do better and their own ancient cultures would thrive. As scholars, regardless of disciplinary orientation, do we not want to develop a vocabulary and basic notions that will enable us to understand the many interests and points of view of the peoples involved? Hopefully, the knowledge that is the fruit of this effort will be helpful to everyone involved in the modern global situation which has generated the problems that attract our attention. At least, I hope that our panel can contribute toward this goal.
See linked pages: Hall's Comments || Hall's Paper || Discourse Links contains an overview of the discourse embedding this conversation.