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.

5 Replies to “What does “indigenous” mean?”

  1. dorothy webster, an onondaga clan mother who passed this year – i couldn’t bring myself to go to indian village at the fair without her there – used to talk about the physical relief … joy, really … she felt whenever she got back to the borders of the territory. her little house was her favorite place in the world; she lived on land that had been passed down, mother to daughter, for generations … she had no wish, zero, to be anyplace else, and she loved the seasons and the land under her feet in a way that i think went beyond our definition, although undoubtedly she knew a word for it in onondaga. try as we might, stay for generations in one spot, and i don’t know if could feel that. in that place, amid their way, that was her spot … unthreatened, eternal, it is and was. whatever word speaks to that surely must be beautiful.

  2. In terms of the Adirondacks, there’s a subtle division – “natives,” “locals,” “summer people,” and “tourists.” “Natives” refer to the people whose families have been here for generations, locals refer to people who are not natives, but live here year-round, and summer people and tourists are self-explanatory. I’m both a native (5’th generation) and a local. What has caused much of the friction is the attitude of many of the external groups – and “locals” – in terms of dictating to the natives what they think should be done, regardless of ground reality, history, or needs. I can attest from personal experience that they can put your back up in a hurry. An elderly relative of mine said “we’ve kept this area nice for over a century, and they come in telling us that we don’t know what we’re doing.”

  3. Ellen,
    Sorry for the off-topic comment, but saw your Twitter comment re: the Brockway Tavern on W Genesee. What more can you tell me about it?

    Thanks,
    Don Argus AIA

  4. This may be good news – the woman who answered the phone at the Camillus Town Clerk’s office tells me that they are planning to reuse the building at 3700 W Genesee, not demolish it – “just spiff it up a bit,” she said.

  5. Excellent, Don! This is good news! I saw them doing some surveying outside around it the other day…

    That building has been “spiffed up” many times over the years… probably a reason why people don’t consider it “historic.” I guess this is just another chapter. I would be surprised if anyone wanted to demolish it as I understand it underwent some serious renovations around 1990 or so.

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