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

Author Replies # Posted on April 15, 2014 at 13:19

Having been raised in Canada and taken courses in archaeology, notions of First Nation and Metis (“indigenous” Canadian) identity and how it relates to land ownership (using the term land not landscape in this context) are never far from my mind. Contemporary anthropological notions of indigenous are intrinsically associated with resistance towards dispossession, unequal access to resources and arenas of decision-making, and violations of human rights. Indigenous status in many countries (Canada included) is legally bestowed based on kinship and descent, and I find this practice troublesome as it ignores the agency of individuals to construct their own identity. Land claim discourse and associations of land ownership with indigenous identity and belonging is a phenomena that unfolds in and out of courts of law and has intense and visceral effects on peoples lives and community relations. Indigenous land claims are based on assertions of the need for recognition of historical differences and inequalities that have repercussions in the present, and the route of restitution is acknowledgment of equal or stronger belonging to a contested landscape based on indigenous identity.
Tim Ingold discusses how proclaiming indigenous identity based on arbitrary notions of descent and the conflation of the longevity of land occupation with culture contributes to concepts of essentialist indigenous categorizations and ultimately discrimination and exclusion (though he does not really explain how this is a universal truth). For whatever reason Ingold also chooses to discuss indigenous people as hunter-gatherers, and contrasts them with agriculturalists and pastoralists, a distinction which I find unneccesary. Ingold calls for a relational model and discusses identity being associated with constituting a place on land, a locus where personal growth and development occur, thus people and identity are created in spheres of nurture, and kinship is geography. Ingold argues that “the genealogical model fundamentally misrepresents the ways in which the peoples who we class as indigenous – that is, who are regarded from a sympathetic, anthropologically informed perspective – actually constitute their identify, knowledgeability, and the environments in which they live” (133).
Yet, these same concepts of genealogical kinship and descent are also the legal tools that some indigenous groups use to challenge inequalities and define their own identities. Ingold recognizes this as well as “it is in confronting the need to articulate their experience in an idiom compatible with the dominant discourses of the state that people are led to lay claim to indigenous status, in terms that nevertheless systematically invert their own understandings” (133). Does this lay out the argument that ‘the understandings’ of all indigenous people are intrinsically not attuned to the dominant discourses of the state?
I am really unsatisfied with the amount of discussion given to the very real consequences of challenging indigenous identity claims based on genealogy. He attacks the authenticity of indigenous identity and therefore land claims and other fundamental human right violation redress issues based on descent and suggests no alternative route for achieving equality and understanding between so-called settlers and indigenous people. Why isn’t the formation of identity through political exclusion, marginalization, and racism more explicitly addressed? I think it is irksome to engage in this discourse, particularly to criticize definitions in United Nations literature, without considering the ramifications. Ingold states clearly that this chapter “is not intended as a contribution to the analysis of the relations between indigenous minorities and nation states” (133), yet it discusses issues which are fundamental to these relations.
I agree with Ingold that heavily structured legalized definitions of indigenous identity are problematic, and identity formation occurs outside of singular processes of genealogical descent, but to dismiss the legitimacy of genealogical descent in the creation of indigenous identity by indigenous people is folly. Certainly there is room for both the relational and genealogical models in the creation of indigenous identity if indigenous people so choose to use this as a tool to redress unequal power relations. I think my inability to feel fully comfortable with this chapter really boils down to the difficulty of discussing indigenous identity as some sort of homogenous concept, and also that this identity inherently contradicts ‘western’ ways of thinking. I think Ingold raises some excellent points but I also feel that a dialectical approach to this genealogical vs relational model discussion may be more insightful and inclusive.