From an Original Free Existence to an ‘Indigenous’ Existence

Steven Newcomb

The word “indigenous” has become ever present in the way that most people now tend to speak, think, and write about the nations and peoples that were living in this hemisphere when the monarchs of Western Christendom first made their invasive landfalls in the 15th and later centuries. Today, the average person tends to believe she is saying “the original” or “first” by using the word “Indigenous.” Many people will probably say, “We chose that word back in the day, in the 1970s, so now it’s ‘our’ word for ourselves.”

It is important, however, to be mindful that in the context of, and for the purposes of the United Nations, the word “indigenous” does not mean “original” or “first.” Given that the UN and the international arena are where a great deal of interpretive work regarding nations and peoples called “Indigenous” occurs, it is important to deeply focus on the fact that the word “Indigenous” is accurately interpreted in the international context to mean “dominated peoples.”

Interpretation is greatly dependent on context and purpose. Thus, words or terms may be interpreted one way in a given context, and for a particular purpose, but interpreted in an altogether different manner in another context and when used for a different purpose.

When, for example, peoples in Africa interpreted their peoples as being held under the dominating and dehumanizing system of Apartheid, they did not respond by working toward a “UN Declaration on the Rights of Apartheid Peoples,” which would have merely enumerated their rights under Apartheid. Instead, they called for an end to Apartheid. It may be disconcerting for those accustomed to working in the international arena to realize it, but the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples is synonymous with “the UN Declaration on the Rights of Dominated Peoples,” it enumerates rights under and within a seemingly invisible semantic framework of domination.

Evidence of this is found in “Human Rights Fact Sheet No. 9,” “The Rights of Indigenous Peoples,” published by the United Nations Human Rights Centre. The Fact Sheet tells us that: “Indigenous or aboriginal peoples are so called because they were living on their lands before settlers came from elsewhere.” The applicable definition of the term “settler” is “one that settles esp. in a new region or a colony: colonist.” Thus, an accurate rewrite of the above sentence from Fact Sheet No. 9 is: “Indigenous or aboriginal peoples are so called because they were living on their lands before colonists came from elsewhere.” Of course “colonists” are colonizers.

The word “aboriginal,” as in the above phrase “aboriginal peoples are so called,” is also telling. The word traces to “aborigine,” which is defined by Webster’s Third New International Dictionary as, “one of the native people esp. as contrasted with an invading or colonizing people.” This is consistent with the verb sense of the term “settle,” some meanings of which include, “to reduce in height or to a lower level”; “to clear of dregs and impurities by causing them to sink.”

Thus, we have a scenario in which peoples (with an ‘s’) “were living on their lands” when, suddenly, other colonizing peoples came to “settle.” It is accurate to say that the second incoming group of peoples (with an ‘s’) are invading and colonizing strangers who have come to overrun and seize the lands of the original and free peoples already living in that place. It is in this context that the meaning of the term “indigenous” emerges.

At some point in time "intruders" or "invaders" showed up fully intending to take over by war, conquest, or some other means. And they intended to do so in order to exploit and benefit from the lands and resources where our Peoples and Nations were already living. In other words, what we have is a context in which invading intruders have “arrived” fully intending to empower and enrich themselves by dominating and reducing the free and independent peoples and nations already living in that place.

Fact Sheet No. 9 also tells us that the peoples who end up on the receiving end of these dominating and dehumanizing patterns are called “Indigenous” because “according to one definition,” “they are…those who inhabited a country or geographic region at the time when peoples of different cultures or ethnic origins arrived, the new arrivals later becoming dominant through conquest, settlement, or other means.” (emphasis added) We see, then, that the UN pamphlet euphemistically frames the strangers as “new arrivals” rather than as “invaders,” and dominators.

Then we have the working definition of the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Problem of Discrimination against Indigenous Populations for the United Nations Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities:

Indigenous populations are composed of the existing descendants of the peoples who inhabited the present territory of a country wholly or partially at the time when persons of a different culture or ethnic origin arrived there from other part of the world, overcame them and, by conquest, settlement or other means, reduced them to a non-dominant or colonial situation…

(In Sadruddin Aga Khan and Hassan bin Talal, Indigenous Peoples: A Global Quest for Justice, 1987)

In short, Peoples termed “Indigenous” in the international arena are defined as, “Dominated Peoples” or, “Peoples under Dominance or Domination.” The above words and phrases that disclose this meaning are: “overcame them” “conquest,” “settlement,” “reduced them,” “non-dominant,” and “colonial.” These are all different ways of expressing domination. The meaning is clear: Free Nations and Peoples have been reduced down from their original stature to an “indigenous” stature or existence.

We need to call for an end to the Domination of our Original Free Nations and Peoples, and not simply advocate for or say we have "rights" "under" a Global Framework of Domination. Here’s an innovative thought: Let’s call for an International Convention on the Elimination of Domination and Dehumanization.

Steven Newcomb (Shawnee, Lenape) is co-founder and co-director of the Indigenous Law Institute, and author of Pagans in the Promised Land: Decoding the Doctrine of Christian Discovery (Fulcrum, 2008). He has been studying federal law, international law, and the patterns of domination since the early 1980s.

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hesutu's picture
Indigenous means originating in a particular place, and it has meant that for a long time. The UN's definition is nonsense. You are arguing that we should not use a perfectly good word because some fraudulent white colonialist controlled agency is playing the redefinition game. To always be reacting and running scared and abandoning words like redskin and indigenous and indians and all the other things we are because some colonialist redefines it gives the power and control to them, not with us. This is ceding control and letting them frame the terms of the discussion. There's nothing stopping the UN from adding "aboriginal" to their list of words meaning dominated peoples in their game. Then what? Run to yet another term? Colonialists sure like when we call ourselves mere natives, only born here - just like them. Then they win that debate in their mind as well. "Hey I was born here too!" I have experienced that gambit a lot. Why do we always have to run away. Why don't we confront this? Point out that their definition of indigenous is total BS, a political redefinition game, and contrary to long established practice. Running away from terms and letting them get away with redefinitions makes them always in control.
piqua's picture
Hesutu: You may judge the UN's working definition as "nonsense" but that does not change the UN's continuing and active use of what you consider a nonsensical working definition. The "meaning" of a concept or category is always a matter of context and purpose, because context and purpose are a dimension of every category. This means that you have to examine who is using a given category (such as "Indigenous"), as well as why and in what what context. There is not One True definition of "Indigenous." There are various interpretations from different perspectives. If you or anyone else chooses to use "Indigenous" that is your prerogative, but you ought to know how, why, and in what context you are using it. You ought to also identify how, why, and in what context others, such as the state governments of the world, are using that term, very likely as a means and tool of subordination. If it turns out that they are using the word "Indigenous" in that manner and we remain oblivious to that fact and fail to call attention to and challenge what they are doing, then how can that be a beneficial approach to the political use of terminology? Also, I'm glad you brought up the term "aboriginal," which is an adjective base on the noun "aborigine." An "aborigine" is defined in the Third Webster's International Unabridged Dictionary as "A native people as distinguished from an invading colonizing people," or, as re-expressed in my preferred terminology, "A native people as distinguished from a dominating people." Aboriginal title is therefore the title of the Original Nations and Peoples as distinguished from the claimed title of an invading colonizing people. We are the Original Nations and Peoples, meaning that our free and independent ancestors and our free and independent nations were already preexisting long before their invading and dominating ancestors ever hit our shores. The claims of a right of invasion and domination over our Original Nations and Peoples are, always have been, and always will be illegitimate so long as we explicitly refuse to accept their claim of a right of domination. My view is we ought to take them and their dominating definition of "Indigenous" at face value. Then we have the opportunity reveal to the world that their definition is nothing other than a claimed right of domination. The goal is point out to them and to the world that such a claimed right of domination is totally bogus and unacceptable. They have no legitimacy based on their claim to have created a right of domination (sovereignty) through symbolic acts. That is my way of confronting it and I invite you to join me in these efforts. We're not "running away" from their terms and their definitions. We are "running toward" their terms and definitions in a decolonizing, deconstructing, and de-legitimizing manner. This is how we are refusing to allow them to define us and subordinate us by means of their reducing and diminishing definitions. A good motto is, "Just say no to colonization and domination." Thanks for moving the conversation! - Steve Newcomb