By Christian Dy
Indigenous peoples, as may be deduced from the definitions of the International Labor Organization, the Working Group on Indigenous Peoples (WGIP), and the World Bank, are peoples whose ancestors have been living in a certain territory prior to the arrival of other groups, who, due to their isolation, have preserved their culture, sociopolitical customs and economic system (such as subsistence-based production), and are in one way or another, distinct, if not marginalized, from the mainstream sections of a national or state structure.
Indigeneity is acquired mainly from isolation. That one community is, for a significant amount of time, free from intrusion by foreign peoples and foreign cultural influences allows it to develop distinctive customs and traditions that evolve into a cultural and social system indigenous to the territory that community occupies. In a truly globalized world, total isolation is not possible and indigenous cultures cannot proceed with an evolution that is separate from the globalized community. Indigenous cultures cannot evolve in a globalized world and remain “authentic.” They are left then with two options – they can either gradually give up their ways to integrate into mainstream culture or they can, in the name of preservation, cease evolving as cultures.
Preservation means stasis
Nations seek to preserve cultures for different, although largely sentimental, reasons. As this is the case, cultural preservation becomes nearly an exclusive privilege of wealthy, post-material states. After all, poorer nations cannot afford to prioritize the sentimental over the material.
Attached to the preservation of indigenous cultures is the discourse of economics. Prerequisite to the preservation of an indigenous culture is the conservation of natural resources on which they rely for subsistence and to which they are culturally and religiously attached. As indigenous peoples formally belong to larger state structures, the preservation of an indigenous culture requires that states set aside maximizing the economic use of some of their resources in favor of cultural preservation.
Preservation also requires members of the indigenous community to continue their practices, regardless of how incompatible they may be to changing needs and changing environments. Preservation of indigenous cultures, that is, when nations decide that they want to save for posterity entire communities of indigenous peoples, amounts to the imposition of cultural and economic stasis upon an indigenous community.
That human society is by nature evolutionary makes cultural stasis problematic. That cultural and economic stasis has to be imposed upon an indigenous population by dominant sections of the surrounding state structure makes it tyrannical.
Imposing a caste system
The total preservation of indigenous cultures requires that members of indigenous communities identify themselves as such indefinitely. There is both harm and benefit in this and this essay seeks not to elaborate on either. Nevertheless, it bears noting that when one person is for his entire life consigned to one sector of society that will never overtake, not even equal, the dominant sections, his options for social mobility are severely restricted. Imposed cultural preservation is in this sense, an imposition of a caste system.
Of course, we will be told that affirmative action has been put in place in some countries to counteract the limits on social mobility that indigenous peoples may encounter. However, indigenous peoples may only avail of these measures when they study in the schools of, or apply for jobs in mainstream society – in short, when they integrate into mainstream culture. Meanwhile, the rights of those who choose to stay in their indigenous communities are at the mercy of the society that seeks to “preserve” them. They may be represented in legislature as a separate group, or they may have exclusive rights to their land, but only because dominant sections of society grant them these benefits. As these sections of society have the power to grant them these rights, they also reserve the power to take away these rights. In this case, indigenous peoples become a resource at the disposal of dominant society.
The dignity of indigenous peoples
When preservation of indigenous cultures becomes an imposition, we begin to doubt the rectitude of its motives. Indigenous peoples’ reservations now serve as tourist spots and the practices and traditions of indigenous peoples have become mere spectacles; their cultural items, mere curiosities. In the age of globalization, everything becomes a salable item, including indigenous culture, packaged as exotica.
Sincere efforts for indigenous peoples must begin with the premise that indigenous communities are composed of human beings, individuals who may have different ideas about how to live their lives. We must understand that we need not empower indigenous peoples to become self-determining communities. Rather, we need to allow their members to become self-determining individuals. Members of indigenous communities deserve at least a free hand in choosing between integrating into mainstream culture or remaining in their communities. As most indigenous peoples have been victims of historical injustice and their resources having been appropriated by dominant sections of society, it follows that when they choose to integrate, they must be equipped with skills and given personal resources necessary to survive decently in a society that has benefited from the resources of their ancestors.
When we, as a society, choose to take into consideration affiliation with an indigenous culture in our dealings with each other, we cannot avoid a sense of paternalism, that we know what is good for indigenous peoples. There is a fine line between paternalism and authoritarianism. As should be the case elsewhere, we can proceed only with caution, discernment, and value for human dignity.
We do have the option of altogether ceasing to identify people as members of indigenous communities. Doing so, however, would be a denial of the historical and social injustices committed against them and the societal debts owed their ancestors.
Surrounded by a globalizing social and economic system, indigenous cultures will have to evolve for their members to elevate their status in broader society. We will have to let these communities evolve if their members want them to. While fulfilling our moral obligation to indigenous peoples both as a vulnerable sector of society and as descendants of victims of historical injustice, we must understand that we do not have the right to determine their individual and collective destinies. We do not even have the right to determine whether they will have a collective destiny. We must recognize that no matter how large the sentimental value of indigenous cultures are to larger society, these cultures are theirs and theirs alone to preserve or to abandon.