Reply To: Mon 14 Apr: The Perception of the Environment

Author Replies
Markus # Posted on December 22, 2014 at 12:38

Reflection, Markus Nyström

Reading Ingold, I feel the need to restate the basics of colonial discourses. Colonial discourses are not only “ways of speaking and therefore understand the world” about colonized people – the power, or potency, of such discourses comes when they are internalized, when the colonized people think that they should be servants to the colonizers. When the worldview of the colonizers is accepted as true by the colonized, that is when colonial discourses reach their full potential.

In chapter 8, Ingold criticizes the current and, in some sense the universal, genealogical way of defining indigenous peoples, saying that it “fundamentally misrepresents” how indigenous people “actually constitute their identity […]” (p. 133). The way I see it, knowing a little bit of the history of archaeology and anthropology, this seems to me like wellmeant but ultimately counterproductive attempt to make amends for older atrocities of the disciplines. Let me explain. In the early days of anthropology and archaeology, the disciplines were fueled by much of the time’s nationalism and colonialism. Very roughly, the goal of archaeology was to establish a “common past” of the nation states’ people (ignoring diversity), and the goal of anthropology was to understand and better subjugate foreign peoples. The categorizations of anthropology – a discipline sided by social darwinism and racial biology – were many times wrong and harmful (the history of the Swedish state’s view and categorization of sámi is a case in point). To make amends for the historical wrongdoings of these disciplines, it seems almost like the disciplines have flipped over to the other, postmodern, relativistic side. I read Ingold in that vein.

The deconstuction of rigid categories is the hallmark of postmodern research, in my view, and deconstructing the definition(s) of inigeneity, as Ingold is doing, fits in that tradition. Even if wellmeant, this deconstruction is potentially dangerous for the indigenous themselves as the “geneaological model” is the only thing they have got against the onslaught of (neo)colonial forces. If the genealogical model is removed without a clear, legally functioning system in place, the result will undoubtedly be an extented dispossession by the already dispossessed, which I am sure is not what Ingold is after. That is why his standpoint can potentially be counterproductive.

I further regard this as a rather academic endevour. Go to these places, talk to these peoples, and it is usually quite clear to them who is who and what is what. Their categorization may – just like the academic dito – not hold under the relentless deconstructing scrutiny of postmodernity, but they are in effect, they are real. As I am writing this in late december 2014, there was recently a political scandal where an member of the Swedish parliament said that sámi are not swedes. The mainstream media went berserk, and colleagues demanded the MP’s resignation from office. But in sámi media, instead, there were people agreeing with the MP – sámi are not swedes, they argued, and that is the reason why the sámi have other rights to land and water than swedes. Furthermore, it is commonplace within Sápmi for people to refer to different persons as “swedes” or “sámi”. In this context, saying that sámi are not swedes are like saying that a man is not a woman, or a rich person is not poor – it fits perfectly with an already existing, and incredibly old, local way of distinguishing between the two different groups. Nothing spectacular. What I mean by these examples is that there are many times layman definitions that work quite well in practice even though they may or may not work under academic scrutiny.

With all this said, I do believe the Swedish legal framework for whom is allowed to vote in the elections to the sámi parliament to be rather good. There are two criteria: 1) that you yourself primerily identify yourself as sámi (in contrast to swede!), and 2) that you, your grandparents or grand grand parent, speak or spoke sámi in the household. No proof of genealogical connections are needed, even though the language requirement works as a kind of proxy for establishing genealogical connections. Theoretically, a swede can partake in sámi culture, learn the language, raise his/her children in the sámi culture and identity, and that person’s children can then be allowed to vote in the sámi parliament, thus being granted the formal identity of sámi. In other words, the sámi identity is not per definition locked in “blood lines” but cultural and language. Furthermore, the definition does not lock the sámi identity to certain qualities (like they used to do, when reindeer herding and nomadic way of life was part of the definition). Of course, being allowed to vote for the parliament does not give you any special rights to land and water, there the legal framework is still tied up with reindeer herding, which is one reason why there are plenty of internal friction within the sámi community.

I salute Ingold for having the guts to lead an academic discussion on the subject, but I do believe he has to more clearly work out an alternative system – a system that works legally and that makes sense to the people he is actually refering to. Whether the current on-the-ground way of categorization is a result of internalized colonial discourses is another, important discussion. But if an alternative categorization is suggested, like the one Ingold suggests, is not that a new infuence of top-down ambition to categorize?