Academic journal article Oceania

Returned to Sender: Some Predicaments of Re-Indigenisation

Academic journal article Oceania

Returned to Sender: Some Predicaments of Re-Indigenisation

Article excerpt

In Australia, as elsewhere in the world's settler colonies, the peoples identified as indigenous have in recent years almost all enjoyed some kind of recognition as indigenes, internationally, nationally, and in varying degrees from individuals of settler descent. Often coming after a period in which authorities implemented policies such as assimilation as citizens (or perhaps apprentice citizens) this recognition has amounted to a re-indigenisation in which acceptable difference is incorporated into a notional multicultural nanon. (1) However, as Povinelli has argued, while Australians might recognise a certain common situation, 'an indigenous identity would not be considered the same as an ethnic identity because traditional indigenous culture has a different relationship to national time and space' (2002: 48)

Various kinds of difference have defined indigeneity since European settlement-historical, economic, and cultural--but in the contemporary ideological formation it is the cultural difference that has salience, both in defining indigenous people for themselves, and for the non-indigenous majority. This is not, however, the culture recorded in the old style ethnography, listing traditional customs once if not still practised in some locality before the intrusion of the outside world; it is rather one of Appadurai's 'dimensions of global cultural flow' and what--adapting his spatial metaphor ((1996: 48-65) (2)--I have inelegantly called the indigeno-scape, the distinctive feature of which is to appear differently according to the vantage point from which it is viewed. I need to add that while stable boundaries may give rise to fixed vantage points, fluid situations may require people to devise a vantage point so to speak on the run.

Vantage points tend to form around key group identifications. In this connection Li writes, 'a group's self-identification as tribal or indigenous is not natural or inevitable, but neither is it simply invented, adopted or imposed. It is rather a positioning that draws upon historically sedimented practices, landscapes and repertoires of meaning, and emerges through patterns of engagement and struggle.' (2000:151). We should note that she says 'draws upon', because it makes more historical sense to see indigenous groups claiming or reclaiming the past rather than as automatic heirs to it.

With the passing of time, not all 'practices, landscapes and meanings' may still be accessible, nor in the contemporary situation may they be practicable or desirable. Those that are accessible are likely to carry a different kind of baggage in the contemporary situation, becoming reified as they are deployed in the process of 'positioning'. Some practices marked as indigenous, at least when compared with the early accounts, prove to be modelled after prior practices rather than continuations of them. Indigenous self identification is thus selective in greater or lesser degree and may--as I shall suggest in a moment--include rejection. Such cultural capital tends to be decontextualised and readily represented in language, as part of a reflexive, conscious culture.

What we are discussing here comes close to Sider and Dombrowski's indigenism, notions of which 'are not seen as something emerging entirely from those communities who would claim it. Rather indigenism is something of a political middle ground' (2001 : 200). It emerges out of the congruence of vantage points, but with a penumbra of misconceptions and disengagements.

While the 'tribal' vantage point is privileged in the discourses of indigenism as a source of authenticity, the conditions under which indigenous people are actually able to reproduce their culture are likely to reflect and refract the ways it is seen from other vantage points. There are various non-indigenous vantage points on indigenous culture: as I noted earlier, governments may wish to demonstrate their good will by recognising indigenous places or practices, albeit with certain conditions; in more entrepreneurial mode, art dealers may promote interest in indigenous art; religious movements may seek communion with indigenous spirituality. …

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