The Parliament’s Indigenous Assembly Part II: Who is "Indigenous"?

by Andras Corban Arthen

The Indigenous Assembly (and, indeed, the Parliament’s entire Indigenous program) was a success in that it met most of the goals we had set out to accomplish, particularly so in bringing together and fostering connections among a diverse international group of tradition keepers, elders and activists. But the very process of organizing such a program also brought to the fore some volatile, contentious issues that are inherent to the very concept of indigeneity, and which marred the sense of harmonious cohesion we had envisioned at the outset.

The term “Indigenous” is used in both interreligious and academic circles with a fairly specific meaning: it refers to cultures and to peoples that have had a very distinctive, long-standing historical and cultural connection with a particular land. A practical yardstick often applied to this definition is whether a given culture pre-existed, and has survived, a major colonizing event such as Christianization/Westernization.

As with any definition, the meaning of “Indigenous” is easiest to express when we give it a very specific and narrow focus. When, for instance, the term is applied exclusively to people who have been born and raised in a specifically defined geographical region and within a particular Indigenous culture, fit a certain racial/ethnic profile, speak the traditional language, practice the traditional religion, and have deep roots in the community that maintains the Indigenous culture alive, then if a person meets those criteria obviously and fully, there should be no question about his or her claim to indigeneity.

Of course, defining the term in such a specific way automatically excludes a lot of people. From a theoretical point of view, that may not matter at all; indeed, it may be desirable. But when we move from the theoretical and the analytical into the realm of actual human experience, the exclusionary quality of such a narrow definition can clash violently against an individual’s or a community’s sense of self-identity, and lead to people becoming quite angry and offended. Moreover, the scope of that exclusion can disenfranchise important claims to indigeneity that don’t necessarily fit neatly within a narrow and clear-cut definition.

For instance, there are Indigenous peoples who have been colonized to the point of losing their traditional spirituality, even though they may still live in their ancestral lands and may have managed to retain other key elements of their ethnic culture, such as language. A case in point was the Sami contingent that participated in the Assembly: there is no question that they are an Indigenous people, and are recognized as such by the U.N., the European Union, and the governments of the various countries wherein they reside. Yet, as I pointed out in an earlier article, it appears that the Sami Indigenous religion is all but dead, and that was certainly borne out by the delegates present at the Assembly – they were all Lutherans and Presbyterians, and none of the ones with whom I spoke professed to have any knowledge of their traditional religion outside of the realm of “folklore.”

In attempting to define “Indigenous,” some members of our Task Force had initially been adamant about not including in our program anyone who was Christian, feeling that the acceptance of Christianity was intrinsically at odds with an event intended to emphasize authentic Indigenous spirituality. They were persuaded to modify their views when it was pointed out that many “authentically Indigenous” people practice both their traditional religion as well as Christianity, and this middle-ground became our guideline. The Sami, being exclusively Christian, presented a dilemma for the Task Force, since they did not fit within our established criteria. (I, for one, was delighted that they were admitted to the Assembly in the end.)

On the other hand, there are Indigenous traditions which have specific procedures for accepting those who were not born and raised within them – procedures (and criteria) which can vary significantly from one tradition to another. This makes it hard to generalize, though typically such mechanisms can involve marriage, formal adoption, relocation or pilgrimages, cultural assimilation, specific training and ceremonies, etc. Once the non-native has been assimilated to the satisfaction of the elders of the community, she or he is generally accepted as a full-fledged member of that tradition, and in some cases can even attain the position of elder, leader, teacher or spokesperson (I know of several Indigenous traditions, for instance, which have official spokespeople who are not individuals born into those cultures, but who have married or been formally adopted into them).

In many (and probably most) Indigenous cultures, allowances of this sort have always been in place, because very few societies have been completely insulated from interaction with others. In some, those allowances have been relaxed or expanded in more recent times out of necessity, particularly among Indigenous traditions that are on the verge of extinction and are therefore more open to the inclusion of “fresh blood,” as it were, in order to preserve their ways. This is a slippery slope, of course, fraught with many possibilities for abuse and scams – one has only to think of the myriad self-anointed “plastic shamans” out there, or the “traditional grandfathers/grandmothers” who use this as a rationale for ostensibly teaching gullible white people in exchange for considerable sums of money. But the fact that the possibility of abuse in these circumstances is very real does not alter the fact that Indigenous peoples often define themselves in ways that are far less rigid or specific than how academics or interreligious bodies would define them.

In a nutshell, then, there are Indigenous people practicing Indigenous spiritual traditions; there are Indigenous people practicing non-Indigenous spiritual traditions; and there are non-Indigenous peoples practicing Indigenous spiritual traditions. Considering that the Indigenous cultures are the oldest remaining ones on the planet, and that many of them are on the brink of extinction, to limit the definition of “Indigenous” only to the first category because it is nice and clear-cut, amounts to turning one’s back on some of the peoples or traditions that are most endangered and in need of support.

Obviously, the Parliament’s Task Force had to adopt certain standards regarding what it considered “Indigenous” in order to select potential speakers for its slate of programs, and as much as possible we tried to choose criteria that were general enough to be applicable to most authentic Indigenous traditions. In my opinion, however, the way some of those standards were actually applied was in some cases very selective or arbitrary, and at times lacking sufficiently clear information to enable us to make well-thought-out choices.

As a member of both the Indigenous Task Force and of the Parliament’s Board of Trustees, it would be inappropriate for me to air our “dirty laundry” in public. But the way the Task Force conducted its process led to a number of problems, and several people who were very upset at the way they were treated complained about it directly to me; in my opinion, their feelings were quite justified.

For instance, some North American Indians who had proposed programs for the Parliament complained of being ignored or dismissed, and felt that they had been judged – by people who didn’t know them at all – as not being “Indian enough” despite having dedicated their lives to the welfare of their native communities, or to the protection of their civil rights, or the promotion of understanding and respect of Indian cultures by the mainstream society.

On the other hand, representatives of Central and South American Indigenous traditions complained to me, both during and after the Parliament, about their lack of inclusion at the event. Indeed, the Task Force invited only one Indigenous speaker from South America (and none from Central America) who, as it turned out, was unable to attend in the end for personal reasons. There would have been no representation at all from those regions at the Indigenous Assembly had it not been for Raúl Mamani (a Kolla Indian from Argentina) and Yoland Trevino (a Mayan from Guatemala, who resides in the U.S.) – both of whom were attending the Parliament under the auspices of the United Religious Initiative (URI), and managed to gain admittance to the Assembly at the last minute. (Rachael Watcher, an old pagan friend who is affiliated both with the URI and Covenant of the Goddess, also attended the Assembly as Raúl’s translator.)

But that was not nearly enough, and word of this unfortunate situation has clearly spread to one degree or another throughout Latin American interfaith circles and Indigenous rights groups, and I have fielded the questions and complaints of friends from México to Chile. Some of them see the Parliament – and interreligious events in general – as the exclusive playground of wealthy white people who may pay lip service to issues of economic and social justice, but, in the end, make little effort to actually include dark-skinned people from impoverished societies.

A couple of them were even more specific in their grievances, and claimed that, in addition to the above, there is also a very noticeable prejudice on the part of certain North American Indian peoples toward their counterparts south of the border. They allege that some Indians from the U.S., in particular, seem to treat Indigenous peoples from Latin America with the same dismissive attitude with which they are themselves treated by many white people in this country. And, as regards the international interreligious community, they assert that North American Indians – generally being not only better off economically than those from Central and South America, but also better connected by having the advantage of speaking English – exert a disproportionately greater influence at interfaith events than the poorer, non-English-speaking Indians from Central and South America. To underscore this claim they pointed out that, of the invited Indigenous speakers listed on the Parliament’s website, fully half were from North America alone, despite the fact that the Parliament was held more than seven thousand miles away from that continent.

I am not really in a position to be able to gauge how accurate or widespread these troubling allegations may be – if anything, I would like to hope they are not much more than the result of momentarily hurt feelings over a perceived injustice, rather than widely held, long-simmering resentments. Regardless, it is clearly important that the various people involved in this process be mindful that, to one extent or another, such feelings exist.

On another front, several of the Indigenous representatives at the Assembly also noted with surprise the lack of Maori participation – given the relative proximity of Australia and New Zealand – and the fact that the only Maori delegate present, Merekaraka Caesar, actually lives in Queensland, Australia. This led some to wonder if perhaps there might be prejudice and discrimination on the part of some of the Australian Aboriginal peoples toward the Maoris. I have been assured by those who should know that this is not the case; nevertheless, the noticeable absence of a significant Indigenous community created further speculation and tension at the Assembly.

There were other complaints involving the Task Force – ranging from rudeness to racism – which bear reckoning, though I won’t go into them here, as this is already much too long. The main lesson to be learned here, it would seem, is that when it comes to interacting with Indigenous peoples – who, historically, have surely endured the evils of occupation, slavery, racism, poverty, cultural destruction and genocide the longest – organizations like the Parliament must exercise a very high degree of awareness, of sensitivity and of diplomacy, even when their motives are good and their goal is to help. The suffering many of these people have felt, and continue to feel, can intensify what most of us might brush off as nothing more than a petty slight, and turn it into a deeply painful wound.

For people who are desperately seeking aid in their struggle to save their homes and their ancestral lands, exclusion – even if it is only perceived exclusion – easily translates into hopelessness. For people who’ve had the prejudices of a foreign race forced upon them for hundreds of years, the imposed standards of outsiders, no matter how well-intentioned or intellectually reasoned, only seem like more alien judgments. And for people whose ancient cultures, subjected to attrition, ridicule, and legal proscription, are hanging by very thin and fragile threads, the questioning of their cultural identity can feel like somebody trying to steal their soul.

As the Parliament continues to reach out to Indigenous peoples around the world, it would do well to keep all this in mind.

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