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Beyond mosaics and matryoshkas. Thinking about indigeneity and decolonisation in the Circumpolar North. And beyond.

Some thoughts on indigeneity and decolonisation in the Circumpolar North, from an inspiring workshop at the Universität Hamburg.

Postcolonialism is a misleading term. It pretends that colonial relations belong to the pasts. But obviously the configurations of racism, exploitation, subjugation and inequality did not end with the establishment of independent countries. In the successor states of British settler colonies like Australia, Canada and the USA, a multidimensional set of discussions has emerged that engages with some of the fundamental, unresolved questions that these ongoing colonial relations imply politically, philosophically and in legal terms. These questions go beyond the standard concerns of liberal justice, economic (re-)distribution, and appropriate policy tools. Indeed, they involve the radical rethinking of many of the assumptions, on which such concerns are based. 

Should indigenous people fight for recognition of their identities, histories and legal traditions? Or does recognition involve an implicit subjugation under the authority of the colonial state, and therefore defeats its purpose? Is the appropriate strategy the outright refusal of the colonial state’s governance conventions? Should colonial subjects strive for sovereignty to achieve equal status with the colonizer’s claim to sovereignty? Or is sovereignty a concept specific to European political history and incompatible with indigenous political traditions? What are the potentials and pitfalls of concepts like territory, pluralism and nation in these political debates?

A recent workshop at the Universität Hamburg set out to discuss some of these questions and their implications for anthropological research with indigenous people. The workshop was organized by Andreas Womelsdorf, Gertrude Saxinger and the local host Otto Habeck in the name of the German Anthropology Association (DGSKA)’s Regional Working Group "Circumpolar and Siberia". In two days of dense discussion, we attempted to understand the key debates, concepts and relations of a collection of readings and thinkers (masterfully selected by Andreas Womelsdorf), mostly from a North American context, but with some forays also into discussions relating to Siberia and Fennoscandia. Without aiming at summarizing the readings, let alone the discussions, I will reflect on some of my take-home messages from this workshop. 

What makes research with indigenous people different?

In anthropological research, we must treat all research participants with respect, no matter whether or not they are indigenous. Whoever we work with, who share their time and knowledge with us, and whose lives we strive to understand – we owe them gratitude as well as a fair and uncompromising representation. Ethnographic knowledge is necessarily co-produced, so that research participants have a right to claim ownership or control over some of our research output. The respect we owe to our research participants also implies that we must consider our projects in the context of specific colonial histories, and experiences of marginalization and dispossession. These contexts, which habitually structure the lifeworlds of indigenous people today, do require different research than work with people who do not share these current and historical predicaments.

Who and what defines indigeneity?

Indigeneity is often treated as a taken-for-grated term. But in fact both its meanings and attribution are highly diverse. In different national contexts, indigeneity is defined differently, confers different legal status, and has different political implications. Our brief look into Russian and Finnish indigeneity discourses alongside the North American ones already made this very clear; and we didn’t even begin to consider related concepts from other parts of the world, including ethnicity, autochthony and tribalism. The main parallel in most definitions of indigeneity seems to be that all conceive it in relation to a state that is understood as external to the indigenous population.

In Russia, as we learned from Donahoe and colleagues, the equivalent of “indigenous group” is an administrative, state-sanctioned category based on the combination of four attributes: “small” population size (of less than 50 000 members), peripheral place (in relation to the Russian centres of power), traditional livelihoods (like hunting), and a self-identification as a particular group. People who tick all these boxes are eligible to receive particular social benefits. Indigenous people who move to an urban centre or pursue professional careers lose their eligibility. The “smallness” in the designation of indigenous groups reflects the state’s overall paternalistic framing of indigenous groups; and the kinds of eligible livelihood reflects an evolutionist ordering of people. 

In Finland, as Junka-Aikio writes, Saami people find their indigenous status endangered through the academic and political practice of deconstruction that may point to continuities between Saami and Finnish populations to a detriment of their distinctiveness. Therefore the Saami employ a “strategic essentialism” to emphasise their distinctiveness from the mainstream population. This means claiming certain intrinsic properties of particular people’s Saaminess that they know might well be deconstructed away, but must be maintained for the greater good of articulating their specific history of the Saami as a people, and addressing historical and ongoing injustices.

In Canada, indigeneity is defined differently for First Nations, Inuit and Metis people. Until 1985, the state considered only those people as “Indians” who were descendants of other men with “Indian status”. Women lost their Indian status if they married a man without status. This rule paid no heed to indigenous people’s kinship systems. Moreover, once this rule was finally repealed, it continued to cause rifts among indigenous people, some of whom had adopted the colonial logic of indigenous membership into their sense of authenticity. In the Mackenzie Delta, the state definition of “status Indians” continues to cause confusion and grief, as the children of mixed Dene-Inuit ancestry run the risk of losing their membership in the treaty community. 

These sketches of three different renderings of “indigenous” illustrate the tensions between, on the one hand, indigenous subjectivities and self-identification and, on the other, indigeneity as a state-sanctioned category. They also indicate that colonial indigeneity definitions are likely to support particular elites and to undermine political participation for other indigenous people. Finally, this overview demonstrates the possibility that state understandings of indigeneity may seep into those of some indigenous people themselves, which displaces the confrontations between indigenous group and colonial state to internal tensions within the group.

Since its inception in the 1970s, the United Nations’ definitions of Indigenous Peoples has added yet another layer to the various national definitions and practices of indigeneity. Sometimes, this has helped indigenous people to assert themselves vis-à-vis the state, but in other cases, the alliance with an international organisation has been held against the indigenous groups. In Russia, for example, funding from sources abroad makes the receiving organizations into suspect “foreign agents”. 

Another interesting observation was that while in the US context, indigeneity is primarily a legal category, which evolves through laws and court decisions, in Russia, indigeneity is mostly a policy category and the subjects of programs and administration. This implies that the political content of the category can be changed much more easily in the Russian context, where it depends to a large degree solely on the ruling government.

Is the Canadian North a settler colony?

Colonialism is not a singular process, but takes many different forms. The colonialisms of European origins differ from those of other geographical and historical origins; and Spanish colonialism differs from French colonialism, which in turn differs from British colonialism. In the North American context, it is evident how the British (including Canadian and US), French, Spanish and Russian colonialisms implied rather different relations with peoples and territories. The phenomenon that we call settler colonialism today seems to be predominantly a British tradition. 

Settler colonialism, unlike other colonial practices like mercantile colonialism, is based on the systematic replacement of indigenous populations by incoming populations. This replacement can take many forms, from assimilation, legal marginalization to other kinds of structural violence and elimination, including genocide. These processes are not a matter of the past, but are perpetuated today, as settler colonialism is a structure rather than an event, as Wolfe and Sturm remind us.

At first glance, the Canadian North, where there has not been a major and permanent influx of settlers, and where indigenous people constitute the majority of the population, does not look like a settler colony. Taking a closer look, however, it becomes clear that this region must still be considered a settler colony for two reasons. First of all, simply because it is part of a larger state that is, indeed, a settler colony in the strict sense. The laws and regulations in Canada are that of a settler state, and they affect people in the North just as much as in the rest of the country. Second, the extractivist projects that characterise a large part of the region’s economic history – gold rushes and whaling booms, fur trade and hydrocarbon industries – have created landscapes that displace and eliminate indigenous livelihoods in a very settler colonial manner.

Are indigenous peoples sovereign polities? 

The idea that indigenous peoples have political sovereignty has a long history in Canada, at least since the Royal Proclamation in the 18th century. Here, the colonial government refers to indigenous people explicitly as nations, and confirms the idea that colonial and indigenous leaders are to negotiate “nation to nation”. 

In Russia, the sovereignty of indigenous people is not an option, as the ongoing violence in the context of the Chechen struggle for independence amply illustrates. Instead, the relations between different polities and nationalities in Russia is sometimes referred to through a metaphor of the Russian dolls, the matryoshka, where one figure is contained within another, while containing yet another. In the Siberian Republic of Sakha (Yakutia), for example, Sakha people – who do not qualify as indigenous according to the state because of their large population size – are said to form their own nation within the Russian nation. Smaller indigenous groups in the Republic of Sakha, like Evenks and Yukaghir, are seen, in turn, as forming their own unit contained within the Sakha “doll”. 

Contrasting Russia and Canada may also bring out some interesting shades of the idea sovereignty, by juxtaposing it with the translation of terms used in Russia in relation to indigenous people. Especially the term “autonomy” plays an important role in Soviet administration (not only of indigenous people) and is also used by Denmark to describe the partial sovereignty of Greenland. In North America, the term autonomy does not figure prominently in relation to indigenous politics.

Whereas some see the idea of indigenous sovereignty as the key to decolonisation, others are more critical of this direction. Alfred, for example, sees the struggle for sovereignty as – at most – a means in the process towards decolonisation, but not as the end goal. On the contrary, he warns that with the wholesale adoption of the idea of sovereignty as the basis of political independence come too many European-derived institutions and expectations that may run counter to indigenous political traditions. For instance, the totalised authority that is part of the sovereignty concept, embodied in the sovereign and the monopoly of violence dictum, may have no parallel in indigenous order based on relationality and respect. Alfred cautions that operating under the banner of sovereignty may cause the replacement of indigenous political orders with foreign ideas.

What role does recognition have in decolonization?

Some discussions around indigenous people centre on recognition: the colonial state must recognise not only the existence of particular indigenous peoples, but also recognize their claims to land, water and resources, their legal traditions and their other distinguishing characteristics. However, some scholars have argued that striving for recognition not only does not go far enough, but it even inflicts harm on those hoping to be recognised. Based on Sartre’s thoughts on anti-Semitism and Fanon’s discussions on négritude, Coulthart writes that struggling for recognition is necessarily an act of submission, not only to the terms and conditions defined by the person or group by whom one tries to become recognised, but also to this person or group itself.

Therefore, recognition might be a step in a dialectic towards decolonisation, but it must not be equated with the real thing. This is similar to Alfred’s thoughts on sovereignty, noted above. Scholars like Simpson have proposed that refusal, rather than recognition, is the only viable strategy to get rid of colonial dominance. They argue that refusing to participate, to accept or to negotiate – all on terms that have proved detrimental to indigenous people time and again – may lead to more beneficial outcomes in a colonial context. 

Can indigenous legal traditions be integrated in the legal system of the colonial state?

Borrows posits that a more pluralist understanding and practice of law in Canada would enable not only the acknowledgement, but also the implementation of indigenous law where appropriate. Where current legal practice routinely marginalizes indigenous people further by denying their legal traditions any weight in court, legal pluralism would integrate these tradition into the Canadian system. In fact, Burrows claims that Canadian law already is pluralist, since common law applies in some situations and civil law in others. If Canadians can happily live with two parallel legal systems, what would keep them from living with three, including indigenous law?

For this to be realised, however, some fundamental issues need addressing, including the relationships and hierarchies between these different sets of law. For instance, if someone is found guilty in an indigenous court, can they repeal to a higher court? Under what circumstances would the Supreme Court apply indigenous law? And what difference would it make if the judges are trained in colonial jurisprudence with little understanding of the traditions that feed into indigenous law? Also, what if the formulation of indigenous law (if it can be codified at all) includes non-human legal actors like animals and spirits? 

Part of the underlying problem seems to be in the idea of pluralism itself. If Canada is popularly depicted as a mosaic of different constituent parts, is it enough to say that indigenous people are some mosaic pieces among many others? Probably not. As Turner has made very clear, many misunderstandings about indigeneity are based precisely on the liberal discourse in which many of the “problems” are formulated. A liberal discourse systematically silences colonial histories, which implies that indigenous people are seen as just another minority, that the settler state is taken as the ultimate and naturalised frame of reference, and that non-indigenous experts can make indigenous policies and laws without the participation of indigenous peoples.