The word "indigenous"

John Stevens (8859jstev@UMBSKY.CC.UMB.EDU)
Fri, 21 Apr 1995 11:50:41 EDT

To Nick Corduan and other interested parties:

This word is important to me, since I'm hoping to specialize in areas
where such terms as "indigenous peoples" and "indigenous rights" are often
bandied about. Nick's post made me think about the word, which I have never
sought to quantify or question, and its philological roots. So, I of course
made a beeline for the OED, that bastion of Western Civ wordlore. I'll give
y'all the definition, and then discuss two points: one, where the word comes
from, a few observations on its historical use and cognates, etc., and then
put in my two cents about the whole of "who is indigenous?"

First, la definition. In volume VII, p. 867 of OED 2nd edition, it
gives the root as late Latin *indigen-us*, "born in a country." Definition
#1 is "[b]orn or produced naturally in a land or region; native or belonging
naturally *to* (the soil, region, etc.). (Used primarily of aboriginal
inhabitants or natural products." Also figurative "inborn, innate, native."
Definition #2 is "[o]f, pertaining to, or intended for the natives; 'native,'
vernacular." The word "indigene" seems to be the anchor words for indigenous
indigenity, etc; from the Latin "indigena" meaning "lit[erally] 'in-born'
person." Thus, someone who is indigenous is literally "born there" or a
"natural" resident.

The history of this concept is probably quite involved, but I can
make a few observations from the OED notes and my own experience. Thomas
Hakluyt in 1598, in speaking of Indians, said "They were Indigene, or
people bred upon that very soyle [sic]." In 1646 a man named Sir T.
Browne used it in a discussion of African slaves: "they are all transported
There are also several examples of its use in regards to plants and animals,
thus the "natural" aspect of the definition.

There are several interesting things here. One, the fact that it covers
plants, animals, and "natives," especially Native Americans. The natural
history conflation of "natives" with "nature" is evident here: they are "more
tied to the land" primarily because they weren't as expansionist as the Euros.
Also, the term indigenous is used to set off groups from one another. Granted,
it is also used in an essentialist sense (i.e., one author in 1864 saying that
"[j]oy and hope are emotions indigenous to the human mind") separate from de-
fining natives, but that's the general use: as a category to separate the
home team from the away team. We also have to keep in mind that until a
hundred or so years ago we have a pretty unsophisticated view of where people
came from, and didn't know much about migratory patterns and all that. If
they were there, they had always been there.

But was also used to mean "came from there," as in "The Goths were
indigenes of Scandia" (1807). Today, I think it has a more limited usage,
more like "from an original point of origin" although we know that folks
have been moving around since we came down outta the trees. Please note my
doubled use of origin; this idea that indigenous peoples not only come from
somewhere but from one particular and definite somewhere, which reflects the
prevalence of the "sense of place" many indigenous peoples have, but which
also replicates the perception of them as being "natural," as if they had
sprouted there like some mutated daisies or something.

So what the heck does this all mean? It means that, in today's pomo
swirl of peoples and nations, that the word has less value than it used to
when Europeans were on one side of the pond and the "others" were on the other.
Also, as distinctions of supremacy have broken down, and as the term "native"
has become more ambiguous (I was born in the US, but I don't consider myself
a "native American" as some non-Indians do), and as nation-groups gain legal
protections, using a word that means "naturally born in" is becoming less
workable, if for no other reason than Nick's point about the fluidity of past
movements. One could argue (pretty untenably, but one could *try*!) that none
of us are indigenous, if we see the starting point of the human race as a gorge
in Africa. or, we could say that as soon as you have a kid in a location, he
is indigenous to that place. Neither is a good option, so we must navigate a
middle road.

To me, the current term "indigenous" refers to a culture or consti-
tuency whose basis for continuance is threatened, either by historical wrongs
or current social/economic/political trials, and who do not feel it appropriate
to respond to such pressures or travails by wholesale mainstreaming into a
culture. Problematic? A bit, but I'm trying to think of how to separate, say,
the Cuna struggle for a degree of self-determination from the African-American
struggle for civil rights. There are obvious differences between displaced
enslaved peoples and people who are oppressed in their current homeland. But
many Native American groups for example have had to suffer relocation, and what
sort of distinction (if any) should be made between Australian Aborigines and
Mundurucus? The indigenous blanket is convenient in legal jargon, but obviously
does not cover real life situations so well.

My question to the assemblage is, how can we better define "indigenous

Comments, questions, and tirades are welcome.


John Stevens