The Environment in Anthropology: A Reader in Ecology, Culture, and Sustainable Living

By Nora Haenn; Richard R. Wilk | Go to book overview

Section Six
Indigenous Groups

Although anthropologists debate the utility and meaning of the word “indigenous,” the discipline has its origins in the study of small, usually marginalized groups. Researchers operating within a Stewardian tradition often focus on how relatively restricted groups of people relate to a circumscribed environment. The enduring appeal of this framework is evident, for example, in Haenn's writing (Section 4). However, as anthropological ideas about isolated communities have changed, anthropologists consider indigenous people and their environments as located in complex, multilayered social processes. Still, during disputes over land and natural resources, the word “indigenous” continues to hold power. As the authors describe, the precise importance of what it means to be indigenous in a given setting requires close examination.

This section continues earlier authors' discussions of how cultural orientations act as a lens through which people see the world. The authors in this section consider how people identified as indigenous often carry a burden of having their cultural perspectives romanticized or denigrated. Indigenous people are often depicted as either inherently inclined toward environmental protection or incapable of grasping how their actions might be environmentally detrimental. Rarely are indigenous peoples seen as normal human beings, with all the complexity that human existence entails. Disempowered indigenous groups may be unable to argue against how their images and resources are exploited. At the same time, through today's globalized media and institutions, some indigenous groups are finding new sources of empowerment though not always in ways that please environmentalists.

The section begins with Kay Milton's theorizing about the relevance of cultural diversity in environmental management. Additionally, Berkes et al. outline the qualities of common property management regimes, a tenure system closely identified with indigenous land management. Suzanna Sawyer reports on the implications for indigenous sovereignty of oil exploitation in Ecuador. In Ecuador, indigenous people have formed a potent political force, in part, because of their association with multinational environmental groups. J. Peter Brosius takes a closer look at these connections, questioning how ideas of “indigenous” get appropriated and transformed by environmental campaigns for rain forest protection. In this section's polemical piece, Will Anderson counters indigenous claims to whaling rights in the United States. Anderson opposed a request by the Micah group, to the International Whaling Commission, for permission to kill one whale for ritual purposes. Finally, this section's ethical reflection includes David Maybury-Lewis's thoughts on the continuing importance of indigenous identities. Maybury-Lewis is a member of Cultural Survival, a group that defends indigenous groups throughout the world.

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