Guest Library
Essays by other authors
Nothing Posted Here Yet

Sort by

Books by other authors
Nothing Posted Here Yet

Sort by

About Myself

A Brief Autobiographical Sketch

Email address

August 2001: Indigenism Printer Friendly Version
by James Herod
August, 2001

      This is actually the same issue as the nationalities question and the identity question, but it might be worthwhile to treat it separately because there is an outstanding Native-American writer, Ward Churchill, who develops and advocates this theory. It is a theory, of native or indigenous peoples, which tends to replace class analysis, and generates a view of the history of the last five hundred years of world history which is quite at odds with an understanding of capitalism. I have never seen a critique of the idea (although surely some marxist journal has published one).

      It is quite erroneous to identify the enemy as Western Civilization, Europeans, or White People and to attribute the world's problems to these false abstractions. The rise and spread of capitalism was not only massively resisted by peoples all over the world, generating brilliant articulations of this resistance by writers and leaders like Fanon, James, Cabral, Nkrumah, Gandhi, Magon, Mandela, and Cesaire. It was also resisted by Europeans themselves. The European peasants were among the first so-called indigenous or native peoples to be dispossessed and colonized by the emerging capitalist ruling class. They were driven off their lands and forced into wage-slavery. Their villages were destroyed, and their local cultures, as were their unique languages.

      European resistance to capitalism was vigorous and long lasting. It gave rise to massive movements: the labor movement, the cooperative movement, communism, socialism, anarchism, syndicalism. It resulted in revolutions: the revolutions of 1848, the Paris Commune, the failed revolutions in Central Europe in 1919, the Spanish Civil War, the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, Polish Solidarity, and so forth. There was a worldwide upsurge of anti-capitalist resistance in 1968, and this took place also throughout Europe and the West. Recently there has been another such wave of global opposition to capitalism, but which has appeared also in Seattle, Quebec City, and Genoa. Thus I believe that Indigenism mis-identifies the enemy, and is therefore incompatible with an Association of Free Peoples (anarchism, communism).

      Actually, we are just now witnessing a still basically peasant population in Europe, in the Balkans, being hit with an improved, strengthened, new, enclosures movement. Are the peasants in twenty-first century Eastern Europe indigenous peoples who are being attacked by Western Civilization or are they being dispossessed by the neoliberal offensive of late capitalism? Indigenists I think will have to be double-jointed to apply their theory to recent events in Eastern Europe, because peasants there are White, European, a part of Western Civilization, and are Indigenous, if by that term we mean that they have lived there for eons (although most of them moved there from elsewhere in some distant past, as have all so-called Indigenous peoples on earth). So I guess they are attacking themselves, if we follow Indigenism.

      Thus, rejection of and resistance to capitalism, imperialism, and colonialism has been going on in Europe too, not just in the world outside Europe. It distorts the picture to deny this. Marx himself wrote some of the earliest analyses of colonialism in his essays on India and Ireland. Western Civilization thus includes not only capitalism, but also the critique of capitalism. If we use the term at all it should include both these movements, the evil of capitalism and the good of anti-capitalism. It includes not only White Europeans who fought to impose capitalism on the world, but White Europeans who fought to stop this and to get free from capitalism completely. The terms European and White are false abstractions, in that it is only some Europeans and only some Whites that have colonized the world. Just as it was wrong for some radical feminists to see all men as the enemy, or for some black nationalists to see all whites as the enemy, so also it is wrong for Native Americans to see all non-indigenous people as the enemy, and for Indigenists to blame all Europeans and all Whites for imperialism.

      Thus I can no longer accept the notion of indigenous versus nonindigenous people. I much prefer to think in terms of oppressors and the oppressed, exploiters and the exploited, criminals and victims, rulers and the ruled, rather than in terms of western civilization versus the rest of the world, and certainly rather than Whites versus People of Color. Ireland, one of the first countries to be colonized, was a nation of white people.

      In Africa, the ruling classes are Africans, in the Middle East they are Arabs, Turks, Persians, or Jews, in Asia they are Asians. Local ruling classes, generally speaking, are of the race and ethnicity of their nations, and yet are intimately tied into the world capitalist system, vigorously defend it, and use it to exploit their peoples, for their own enrichment. Japanese exploit Japanese in Japan, Chinese exploit Chinese in China, Indians exploit Indians in India, Haitians exploit Haitians in Haiti. So how can it be claimed that oppressors are all European and White?

      It has even become fashionable now to criticize anyone who talks of Capitalism as having originated in Europe and spread from there throughout the world as Eurocentric. Why anyone would want to take credit for an evil social order like capitalism is a mystery to me. But as has been recently argued brilliantly by Ellen Meiksins Wood, their anti-Eurocentrism is itself Eurocentric, in that it embraces a liberal European theory about the origins of capitalism, as having evolved naturally from trade and commerce (basically, the Pirenne thesis), which evolution would have happened elsewhere had it not been blocked by Europeans, rather than adopt the radical analysis which claims that capitalism originated in an unusual set of historical circumstances and is not a natural development at all, but an aberration. This widespread anti-Eurocentrism is on a par with the growing influence of Indigenism, and is just as misguided.

      I argue, however, that in point of fact, seen historically, there is no such thing as an indigenous people. Every people on earth originally came from somewhere else. Even Africans who are now living in the very same area where our species first appeared came from somewhere else, because those original homo sapiens are long gone, having migrated to the far corners of the earth. Those living there now moved in from elsewhere. Reports are, that of the Indians now living in Chiapas, Mexico, a lot of them moved there recently from Guatemala. All the so-called native peoples of the Americas of course originally came from somewhere else, either from Siberia (the traditional theory) or from across the seas (Cyrus Gordon). I've never heard anyone claim that homo sapiens evolved independently in the Americas.

      There have been mass migrations throughout human history – Huns moving into eastern Europe, Turks from Central Asia moving into the fertile crescent and Asia Minor, Aztecs conquering the Mayans, Vikings settling in Ireland, Normans invading England, Russians migrating into Siberia, Greeks into Asia Minor, Franks and Celts filtering south into the Roman Empire, Arabs into Spain, Chinese into Indonesia, Jews into Palestine, Africans into the Americas, Indians into South Africa, and on and on. The human race is one incredibly jumbled up affair.

      A people has always called itself something, always has had a name for itself, which is one thing we mean by ethnicity. But the more general concept of indigenous people is of more recent origin. In fact I believe it is of very recent origin, dating from the sixties. I think it is part of the Identity Politics that emerged out of the New Left in the United States. The New Left, in its determined blindness to the working class, invented a whole set of new categories, and built movements on them – women, gays and lesbians, blacks, old people, welfare mothers, youth, Latinos – and, of course, Native Americans. There was a movement here, AIM, the American Indian Movement, of which Leonard Peltier was a member. Native Americans became one of the many categories (replacing that of class) that made up Identity Politics. Fortunately, we are currently witnessing, after nearly thirty dreary years, the demise of this orientation. Not to say that there weren't positive things accomplished by this focus, but it couldn't, and didn't, overthrow capitalism.

      Obviously, the idea of an indigenous people sets up a contrast with non-indigenous peoples. And in our present historical situation we all know who that refers to – Europeans. We certainly never see it used with regard to the Japanese colonizing Southeast Asia, or the Chinese colonizing Tibet. No, it is a current, but badly misguided, attempt to conceptualize the expansion of capitalism to all corners of the earth. This is actually a mis-conceptualization, because it blames all Europeans for something that only a few of them have done. It sets up a conflict between Europeans and the rest of humanity, ignoring the fact that European peasants were among the first to be colonized, dispossessed, uprooted, and sent packing, as well as ignorning the fact that local ruling classes have helped affix the ball and chain of capitalism to every nook and cranny of the earth.

      We must remember that the great migrations of people out of Europe that have taken place under capitalism were not all composed of imperialists and colonizers. Many of those leaving were such, of course, but they were very far from being in the majority. Australia was founded as a prison colony. The ruling class of England expelled its criminals and undesirables from England and deposited them in Australia. Millions came to the United States as indentured servants. Tens of millions more came as the result of the enclosures movement in Europe. They had been forced off their lands and had to go elsewhere to live. Blacks of course were brought here as slaves (and it's interesting that Blacks are never considered, by Indigenists, as non-indigenous people, no matter where they live; this is a slur that is reserved for European whites). The great wave of Irish immigration to this country was caused by the colonization of Ireland by the English, who seized the farms there and used them for export crops, thus starving millions of Irish peasants, who had to leave – a process that is going on now again all over the world on a vast scale. Millions of eastern European Jews came to this country to escape the pogroms, in 1905 especially, but also at other times. The vast migrations to Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, and Paraguay were for similar reasons.

      When we start thinking in terms of indigenous vs non-indigenous, native vs european, people of color vs whites, we get into such a briar patch of contradictions it becomes simply laughable. Are the whites in South Africa, who have been there for four hundred years, to pack up and go back to Europe, because they are not indigenous? (Same with Algeria, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the United States.) Are the nations of Argentina, Uruguay, and Paraguay, which are predominantly of European extract and white, to be defined as People of Color and Third World? Are the Irish, one of the first people colonized, included in the oppressed indigenous peoples, or are they white Europeans and part of the oppressors? Are the Turks, many of whom look just like Europeans, with red hair and all, being of Indo-European stock mixed up with Mongolian stock, people of color or white? Are they part of Asia or Europe? Are they third world or first world? They nearly conquered Vienna once, after all, and have lived in the Balkans for half a millennium. Should the Puerto Ricans in New York, Turks in Berlin, Algerians in Paris, Chinese in San Francisco, or West Indians in London all go back where they came from? Are the Chinese communities in Indonesia indigenous or not? Are the Indian communities in South Africa indigenous or not? Are the Arabs in the southern Sahara to go back to Arabia where they came from? How long does a people have to live in an area before it becomes indigenous? Do the Jews (the Zionists among them), who want to go 'home' to Palestine, have a real claim to that territory even though they have been gone for 2000 years and Arabs have been living there all that time? Can they now go back and drive the Arabs out, claiming that Palestine is theirs? How anyone can think that this quagmire is superior to class analysis is beyond me.

      A critic of my take on indigenism said that I had missed the point. Indigenous is just a name for the people who were in a place before the Europeans arrived, he claimed. Perhaps the concept has a certain plausibly when applied to the United States and Canada, and one or two other places, but it rapidly breaks down if applied worldwide (and it is even false, as explained above, when used for the US and Canada). Yet Indigenism is being applied worldwide, and has practically become a movement, and is spreading, as an analysis, and becoming a widely accepted approach to the strategy and philosophy of revolution.

      Naturally, if there are important grass roots movements of people who call themselves indigenous you might argue that it makes sense to call them what they themselves call themselves, and for the most part I would agree. Of course, a movement, group, or people can call themselves anything they want to. It is their right to do so. And out of respect for them, there is generally no reason why others shouldn't accept the name. That doesn't mean we have to suspend critical judgement though, especially if a name has theoretical significance. I had no problem, for example,  switching from Negro to African-American, because in that case, it was pretty much immaterial to me what name was preferred. (I refuse to use the term People of Color however, which I regard as pompous, euphemistic, and pretentious, seeing no difference between it and Colored People, which is taboo; the condoned phrase is actually closely linked with Indigenism).

      The term indigenous however is in a rather different category. It has become a name for a whole analysis, an analysis which is unaware of or denies that we live in a capitalist social order. So I'm wary of it, and ultimately opposed to it. None of this means however that I don't support the revolts of people who call themselves indigenous, like the Zapatista revolt in Chiapas, which is obviously a very significant struggle. All kinds of struggles are undertaken by people who don't have the analysis that I wish they had – strikes, boycotts, urban insurrections, demonstrations – all done by people who don't have a thought of overthrowing capitalism – but I'm happy to see those revolts. It will all add up in the end, or at least I hope so. The Zapatistas have been especially creative in breaking down all sorts of barriers, mind sets, categories, and boundaries. Who knows where it will all end? It's hard to imagine that it won't end in something good. But I still take a critical attitude toward their conceptual framework and self-identity.

      I recently asked a friend who is living in Mexico about the racial breakdown in Mexico, and whether or not there was a name for a pure blooded Spaniard, and how conscious people were of racial distinctions there. He sent me back some passages from a book by James Cockcroft, Mexico's Hope, which described the following distinctions (this was from considerably earlier in Mexican history): "Spaniards were at the top of the social pyramid, followed by successful criollos (whites born in Mexico), mestizos (of mixed Spanish/Indian descent), mulattos (of mixed black and white descent), negros (Africans), and, at the bottom, Indians." (There are obviously a couple of likely categories missing: persons of mixed black and indian descent, and persons of mixed white, black, and indian decent.) So the question is: how can a mix like this ever be divided into indigenous and non-indigenous, and even if it could be, how could a just social policy ever be based on such a distinction?

      In Cuba, the people who lived on the island before Columbus have long since been exterminated. None of the people there now are indigenous (in the sense of being there before Columbus). The population of Cuba now is composed of ex-slaves (blacks, negroes), ex-slave owners and other Spaniards (whites, criollos), and mulattos. Indigenists though do not consider the population of Cuba to be non-indigenous (a bad term), but third world and people of color (good terms). So their application of the concept is rather contradictory and hypocritical.

      The Turks started migrating into Asia Minor around the eleventh century. They captured Constantinople in 1453. So I guess you couldn't consider them indigenous to Anatolia, having come originally from Central Asia, although by now they have been living there for nine hundred years.

      North Africa, originally a land of the Berbers, was overrun first by Arabs, and then by Ottoman Turks, and finally by the French, as empires waxed and waned. The Berbers, Arabs, Turks, and French are all still there.

      In Lebanon, the population is divided religiously into Marionite Christians, Druses, and Muslims, all ethnic Arabs, plus hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees, from just across the border. Are the Palestinian refugees non-indigenous? They are Arabs, but not Lebanese. Each of the main religious groups considers the others as somewhat illegitimate, although not exactly alien or foreign I guess. At one time or another, since ancient times, just about every ethnic group in the Middle East, and there are many, has passed through Lebanon, with some of them staying behind to settle. It would be next to impossible to say who is indigenous to that region. In Egypt, in the Nile delta, peasants have been there for eons. I guess you could call them indigenous.

      Of course, European Spaniards are themselves mestizos in a sense, being a mixture of Arab and European genes (and Arabs are a mixture of Indo-European, Mongolian, and African genes). In this case, since the Arabs were the invading group, representing a so-called higher civilization, and were imposing their culture on so-called native, indigenous Europeans, the Spaniards were the colonized, while the Arabs were the colonizers. So many contemporary Spaniards are mestizos, the descendants of a colonized people, who intermarried with their colonizers.

      The same might be said of the Turkish invasion of Eastern Europe and the Balkans. The Turks were the invaders. So the Europeans, according to indigenous theory, would have to be considered the native, indigenous, colonized element. There was also an earlier invasion of Eastern Europe by the Huns from Central Asia (c.379), and a later invasion by Mongolians (c.1279).

      Also, many southern Europeans have some African genes, from way back, and are therefore mulattos. Dark complexioned persons are born throughout Europe in fact, except in the far north. Marx was called The Moor because of his dark complexion. So, many eastern and southern Europeans have long been either mestizos or mulattos. All of which shows why I believe it is rather absurd to try to comprehend history in terms of blood lines.

      Many radical Latinos who are part European genetically, nevertheless adopt the identity of an indigenous person. How is it that they identify only with their Indian genes, but not with their European genes? Isn't it somewhat dishonest not to acknowledge one's actual genetic heritage, but instead only recognize those genes that are ideologically fashionable?

      I got into a dispute once with a man who walked into the Lucy Parsons Center, a radical bookstore in Boston, and started trashing a young woman who was staffing the store, because she was white, and therefore imperialist, and "part of the problem". This man himself was white. He looked European to me. I could see no visible evidence of black or indian genes. It turned out though that he was Puerto Rican, and considered himself to be a Person of Color. It's possible of course that he was Mestizo or Mulatto, and might have fathered black or brown children. But it's also possible that he was a pure blooded descendant of Spaniards, and of pure European ancestry, genetically speaking. Yet he denied the European part of his genetic heritage.

      There was another similar incident at the store one day. A young woman came in who claimed that she was an Indian. She was tall and slender, had blue eyes, blond hair, and ivory white skin. I looked at her in astonishment. "How do you figure that?" I asked her. She claimed that her great-great grandmother was an Indian. So we see how far at least one sensitive young person would go to avoid the stigma of being White and European, a stigma that has been aided and abetted by Indigenism.

      A big part of the problem with the concept of indigenous people is that it is linked to territory in a very bad way. Can the remaining American Indians in the United States ever really be free by trying to reclaim the land they once lived on? Can they link their destiny to the reservations they still own (by treaty with the government in Washington, DC)? Or is another approach called for, in which all peoples can be free, regardless of their ethnicity or where they live, and where nothing, including land, is commodified and bought and sold?

      Edward Said published an insightful piece recently in the Progressive (December 1999), about territory, although I don't think he got it quite right. He had returned to a village in Palestine, where a horrible massacre of Palestinians had taken place in 1948, and was struck by the irreconcilable interpretations of the place offered by himself and his Israeli guide. He writes:

"This incident raises a profound existential dilemma, and not just for Palestinians: how to deal with issues of contested territory and competing claims of ethno-national identity?

"It seems clear to me that schemes of separation and partition and wishful ideas of creating ethnic or religious homogeneity have failed miserably and, in fact, have reproduced and intensified the problems they were designed to remedy. The idea was to divide Ireland between Protestants and Catholics. It hasn't worked. The idea to divide Cyprus between Turks and Greeks hasn't worked, either. The partition of Palestine between Jews and Arabs hasn't worked. Israel is not a homogeneous Jewish state. Twenty percent of the population are non-Jews. What do you do about them? The whole idea of partitioning and trying to separate ethnic groups who have lived together in one way or another, in contest or not, into pure states is a mistake. Look at India, which is largely a Hindu state but has a Muslim population of 120 to 150 million people. What do you do about them?"

      Later on he describes, rightly, the destruction that Identity Politics has caused in the Middle East over most of the decades of his life. And then he comments: "Identity, I think, is more of a burden and an inhibitor of thought – especially identity as ethnic, religious, or even national particularity. This identity strikes me as something to be gotten over." Unfortunately though, in seeking a solution to "the ravages of the politics of identity", he moves in the direction of a universal, secular humanism, rather than toward a decentered, diverse, anarchistic world. If he had given more consideration to the two-hundred-year-old communist and anarchist attack on states as such, he might have seen another solution.