Monthly Archives: September 2010

What does “indigenous” mean?

I have blogged a lot here in the past about our local indigenous people, the Haudenosaunee. But I’ve also been interested in considering “indigenousness” as it relates to other peoples living in the same space – Central New York, or upstate New York as a whole – and how people see or don’t see that concept applying to themselves or to other people. Many native peoples around the world who are called “indigenous” have not actually “always” been there (have migrated from other regions in the distant past, and so on). So, when and how do people become part of the land (indigenous) — with the implication that there are “other people” who are not?

This article about a fight between a local landowner and the Adirondack Park Agency caught my eye because the landowner used the term “indigenous” to refer to himself and his own interests. The first impulse may be to scoff at the guy for cynically co-opting the term. But while he may not be willing to go even further and identify himself as a member of an “indigenous group” living among other indigenous groups who have been here longer, I feel he is probably applying the term to himself sincerely, albeit unthinkingly.

During the NYRI controversy a couple years ago, I saw the proposed power line represented a sort of land grab directed against the land and its people, who were a different people than the downstate people who needed the power line. (Or at least, the corporate types who stood to profit from it). The people living along the proposed line – in my view – were discovering what other indigenous people discovered 200 years ago: that they were now invisible people, part of the landscape to be exploited.

People who self-identify as “indigenous” typically have difficulty communicating to the “non-indigenous” that indeed they do consider themselves part of the landscape in a way that most Americans probably don’t really grasp. Whereas Americans, particularly those living within the dominant culture, tend to see the land as being something they own or deal in. It is something that can be traded away without it affecting their sense of self. This is the tension that causes so many problems when eminent domain is invoked. Eminent domain assumes that land has no meaning or value beyond its economic value. You should be able to exchange it for fair market value without suffering any real loss. Why should you want to save that sad little house or Main Street along the power line? Just take the money, move away and place yourself and your values in some other congenial but interchangeable landscape…

I actually don’t know if the gentleman up in the Adirondack Park really feels on a gut-level that he is “indigenous” to the land beyond all conventional economic consideration. Still, the unprompted use of the word by a white man is intriguing; especially in a time when many people feel economically and socially that they have their backs up against a wall. Our portable American values are supposed to overcome any squeamishness we may have about moving elsewhere, even if coerced to move elsewhere by eminent domain. In America, you’re not supposed to have values, or a state of being, that is not portable.

So, what is an indigenous state of being, and can you become that way? Or, if you can’t “become” indigenous, can new indigenous peoples be born from older, colonizing ones? We’re used to hearing the term applied to native American tribes, but can it be plausibly applied to other groups of people as well? And is the growth of new senses of “peoplehood” (or a return to old senses) a good or bad thing?

As for my own opinion, I’m not sure that such an evolution in personal identification in America, necessarily means strife and bigotry. It could also mean the formation of new and mutually beneficial alliances between peoples who are newly realizing that they are not who they used to think they were.

A Fair day…

The State Fair has been taking its share of lumps in recent weeks — from investigations of both how Peter Cappuccilli and Dan O’Hara have been running things, to an infestation of Justin Bieber fans. My Fairgoing has become spotty over the last few years, mainly because there always seems to be something crazy happening around this time lately. But I made it there today (and what a beautiful day it was) and thoroughly enjoyed myself, and also got to finally see some of the recent changes in action.

The good:

-It seems as if purveyors of tacky goods and services have been sent packing from many of the main Fair buildings, including the Center of Progress and International Pavilion. I think they’ve been shooed down to tents near Restaurant Row. The Center of Progress building seems easier to navigate now and features more New Yorky type stuff — booths for different counties and communities trying to sell themselves, and more historical societies — not just pols bragging about their good deeds.

-The International Pavilion has gotten a pretty fab interior re-do (shame about the restaurant fire there this year though). I never had a problem with it before, but it was so hard to navigate the food court area and find seating. Now there are attractive round wooden tables with benches, and elevated seating areas including a wine and beer area. This is probably the biggest actual facelift the Fair has seen in quite some time.

-Llamas every day now.

-The horse shows in the Coliseum seem to run better and move along more quickly, with pleasant music to accompany all the cantering and trotting. I don’t know about you, but plopping down in the Coliseum for a midday snack break to watch a random horse show is one of my personal Fair traditions. (I still wish they’d bring back the jumping competitions to the main venue, but possibly there were safety reasons for that.)

-Wine flowing a bit more freely at the restaurants. I didn’t have any today, but bought a bottle like a good patriotic New Yorker.

The bad:

-Chevy Court (I still can’t stop calling it Miller Court, which severely dates me) used to be a pretty laid-back venue, but is now a deadly serious musical happening. That’s not “bad,” but I’m not sure how I feel about all acts only doing one show a day now — the wildly popular Peter Noone could have packed in a second show on Senior Day, for example. I walked through the empty Court this morning and saw crowd control gates. Whoa.

-Centro’s shuttle buses insist on traveling on 690 and slowly plowing their way through main drag traffic when they could just quickly pop over there through Solvay. (I guess Solvay is having none of it.)

-Nobody is stepping up to make the Energy building (or whatever that place is now called – where the big corporations like Time Warner hang out) very interesting. Years ago, Niagara Mohawk packed in the crowds with annual documentary presentations on their weather emergency heroics like the North Country ice storm and the Labor Day Storm. Not any more. Snooze.

-Did I see $10 parking?!?

The Fair has definitely changed since I used to go every year… and I think mostly for the better. It’s a good sign when you can’t get to the main gate at the end of the day because a huge and lively crowd has gathered around a lone juggler.

Maybe the Fair-runners should keep that in mind when they are pondering their million-dollar concert bookings. It really doesn’t take much to amuse most people.