Malcolm's Reviews > The Politics of Indigeneity: Dialogues and Reflections on Indigenous Activism

The Politics of Indigeneity by Sita Venkateswar
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's review
Aug 21, 2012

really liked it
bookshelves: first-nations
Read from August 13 to 20, 2012

One of the great changes in global politics of the 20th century was the decolonisation of much of the world, or at least the formal withdrawal of colonising powers from their empires; in this, decolonisation joins the decline of the peasantry and the changing status of women as the three great social changes since the end of the First World War (or if we want to properly provincialise Europe, the European Great War of 1912-1918 – 1912 because the Balkan Wars of 1912-13 act as a proper and inseparable precursor to the wider conflict). Not, of course, that colonisation, women’s oppression and the marginal and exploited existence of peasantries is anywhere near over.

One of the key unexpected consequences of decolonisation was the emergence of indigenous peoples as among the great political forces of the century, with nationalist revolutions that have, for the most part, been more successful than the struggles of the working class contemporaries; post-colonial nation states remain with us, unlike nearly all the socialist attempts. One of the surprising consequences of this change, this emergence of decolonised nation-states with a residual national ideology grounded in the ideals of national liberation, was that the political demands of indigenous groups have taken on new and surprising forms. In the wake of decolonisation, the sense that there were indigenous peoples’ struggles that were still unresolved saw social justice and liberation movements emerge in, mainly British, ex-colonies of settlement – Canada, the USA, Australia and New Zealand, or Aotearoa/New Zealand as we have come to call it as that country’s indigenous movement has gained traction in the last 40 years. As a colony of settlement, South Africa/Azania occupied the enigmatic place of control by a minority settler population more like the decolonised states of the French, British, Portuguese and related European empires. Two significant things seem to changed this situation – the first is the residual power of ideologies of national liberation meaning that there are First Peoples in similar circumstances to those of the colonies of settlement in those decolonised states; the second was the collapse of the state structure of the Soviet Union that shifted the geopolitics of those decolonised states and drew attention to large numbers of indigenous peoples in the former Soviet East and in doing so increased markedly the profile of issues of indigeneity in the Circumpolar region that formerly centred on Canada, Greenland and Norway/Sweden/Finland. As a result, swathes of new peoples emerged fighting battles similar to or the same as those fought in the colonies of settlement. These changes have then prompted scholars and activists in the field to wonder if we have entered an era of ‘2nd wave’ indigenous politics; this is the question at the core of this collection.

The challenge of these indigenous peoples, however, was not just geo-political and directed at states, but it was also one of ethos, of world view, of cultural and intellectual demands that unsettled received histories, ways of seeing and knowing; settler societies were unsettled, scholarship forced to confront its assumptions. This excellent book takes us directly into those issues and problems and as a result is a significant contribution to both scholarly and activist knowledge. In the first part, only one of its cases is a conventional settler society – Aotearoa/New Zealand; in the second, it is an impressive series of dialogues that suggest (in some cases) and demonstrate (in other cases) the contingency of knowledge. The book has three principal sections – one explores ‘traditional’ settler colonies dealing with questions of indigeneity and the conditions of first nations in Paraguay by exploring the position of the Ayoreo, whose lands straddle the Paraguay/Bolivia border, and then turns to the state of indigeneity and struggles of Maori in Aotearoa/New Zealand. As in the rest of the book, these are not just scholarly and academic pieces dealing with what it means to be First People in these cases, but for the most part turns on interviews with or discussions between people active in these peoples’ struggles and their interlocutor, in the case of the Maori analysis who also happen to be inside the struggle; these are rich, nuanced, subtle explorations of what it means to be indigenous in these cases. There is then a further level of analysis where each piece is subject to a commentary by another contributor to the collection – so the Ayoreo discussion is then further explored by the ‘author’ of a later chapter dealing with the Nicobar Islands, while the Maori chapter is explored by another Maori who is part of the broader project and a non-indigenous New Zealander whose commentary then becomes a debate (given that the project is based in an Aotearoa/New Zealand university, the team has made good use of their access to local knowledges).

The second section then shifts to explorations of indigeneity in decolonised nation states – Uganda, the Egyptian/Sudanese border, northern Thailand and the Nicobar Islands. In each case, the first nations in question not only have markedly different relations with their coloniser states, but have different states of politics and struggle, including in the case of the Nuba, for instance, very different conditions on either side of the Egyptian/Sudanese border. This section repeats the dialogic and interlocutory structure and form of the previous to show the complex and richly different worlds that make up contemporary indigeneity. A key issue to emerge in this section, although hinted at in the first, is the important role that international agencies and for a play in indigenous peoples’ senses of political options, in some cases being their major access route to local governments, many of which deny their distinctive status as indigenous. The commentaries are rich and insightful – the profound differences, for instance, between the woman Nuba activist in Sudan and male Nuba academic in Egyptian make clear that the notion of a single sense of being indigenous is impossible to find; these are not distinctions based in gender, nation, class, politics or occupation, but a multifaceted and multidimensional set of markers suggesting a complexity seldom seen in discussions of this kind.

The sense of the importance of external agencies is then the focus of the third and final substantive section based in the three long interviews/discussions with leading members of international agencies – the UK-based activist group Survival International, the Danish-based lobbying, activist and research International Working Group on Indigenous Affairs, and finally a member from Denmark of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues; in each case one of the editors, Sita Venkateswar (the interlocutor in this case) considers the positions of these agencies in the light of her many years of research and advocacy work in the Andaman Islands, which like the Nicobar Islands were devastated by the tsunami of December 2004 and are now undergoing profound changes as a consequence of government and aid agency activity. The frustrating thing about this section is the absence of indigenous voices in this kind of global advocacy work, brought out powerfully by the strengths of diverse indigenous voices in the previous two sections. The conclusion then returns to issues raised in the introduction to consider whether we can be said to be in a stage of second-wave indigenousness. As with the diversity of voices in the three substantive sections, Venkateswar and Hughes do not claim the right to write but through a set of well placed and stages questions give the contributors voice leaving the conclusions open to further inquiry.

This is a fabulous book that grants space and in places primacy to the diverse ways of speaking, being and knowing that newly assertive indigenous voices are claiming in the post-colonising (as in, after decolonisation) and postcolonising (as in reflexive colonialism) world. There is much to quibble with here, but that is precisely the point and a major strength of the collection is that bring those disagreements to the fore, that it not only helps provincialise Europe but it steps round the dominance of English-speaking Fourth World movements in indigenous politics (that is North American First Nations, Maori and Australian Aboriginal peoples) – to be sure, these voices are here and are honoured, but contemporary indigeneity is shown to be a much richer, nuanced and complex world. In a context here we see groups as diverse as Scottish crofters and Afrikaners (a long standing settler group) claiming indigenous status, where the UN’s Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples is gaining standing as a political tool, where ‘new’ indigenous peoples are being recognised, such as Russia’s circumpolar and Siberian peoples, and as multiple political arrangements are emerging even in the Fourth World core of hegemonic indigeneity, including corporatized Maori peoples as a consequence of Aotearoa/New Zealand’s Treaty settlements process, regional governments such as Nunavit in the Canadian north and localised forms of autonomy such as Norway and Sweden’s different experiences of being Sámi, then the diversity of voices and the radical open-ness of this text is to be celebrated for the profound ways that it challenges not only how we understand on the world’s most pressing social justice issues, but also how we do scholarly work with marginalised and disempowered peoples.

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