THE DEFINITION OF INDIGENOUS

After thousands of years of migrations and cullings and displacements and interbreeding, if by the indigenous people of, say, southern Alberta, is meant the people who were first to get here, we have no idea who those people might have been. So presumably we mean the people who were already here when our own ancestors first got here, it being entirely irrelevant to them, and so to us, how long these people who were already here had already been here.

But in any case, the people who were once indigenous to southern Alberta are all dead. So by its indigenous people we must mean those who are descendants of the people who were here when our ancestors got here. But hang on. Those people are as much if not more so descendants as well of our ancestors. Why do we identify them with their indigenous ancestors but not their European ones? Why do they identify with their indigenous ancestors but not their European ones? To count as indigenous, how much blood has to come from the western side of the Atlantic, and how long need that blood have been there? If people were still coming across the Bering ice bridge today, would they count as indigenous or colonizers?

People who self-identify as indigenous – and people who presume to know how to identify people as indigenous – are loath to answer these questions. They’d prefer a much less nuanced test. An indigenous person is a person so identified by other indigenous people. The definition is circular, to be sure. But given how indigenous people are treated by the rest of us, who would invite such treatment upon herself by claiming to be indigenous when she’s not?!

It’s true that indigenous people, at least here in Canada, are entitled to benefits unavailable to others. But those benefits are small consolation for the ways in which  these people are treated in virtually every other aspect of their lives. Would one prefer to have not been born indigenous? The question is incoherent. If she wasn’t indigenous she wouldn’t be the person being asked the question.

Human beings sort the objects of their experience into categories. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t survive very long. This call to be categorized applies equally to an object walking towards me in the hallway. I couldn’t perform this function without a protocol for which categories are salient, i.e.important, and which are not.

In a state of nature, the most natural first cut is probably friend or foe. But since I’ve long since been transported from the jungle to civil society, that sortal has been largely retired and replaced with others to which I’ve become re-habituated. At this point I’m really just speculating, but I’m guessing friend or foe has been replaced with male or female. Why? Because for all my professorial sophistication, once fight or flight is taken care of, my reptile brain is still designed for reproductivity. So it probably goes: Male or female? If female then fuckable or not? If fuckable then …? And so on.

Does race appear anywhere in that protocol? I suspect it does. I’ve never noticed in myself a distinct preference, but I have – or at least I think I have – something of a default  dis-preference. It can be overcome, of course. But not without my noticing that there’s something being overcome.

I acknowledge that these preferences and dis-preferences are culturally informed. But not entirely. The reptile brain infers viability from genotype, and genotype from phenotype. This is nothing to be ashamed of. If it were, what good would it do? I’m an out-of-the-closet heterosexual. Should I be ashamed of that too?

So indigenous people are a) people who share sufficient genotypical features that it behooves us to categorize them as a people, and b) a people for whom many if not most non-indigenous people have a sexual and/or social preference or dis-preference because they’ve been assigned as indigenous people. I take it that (a) is non-controversial. And if (b) were in doubt, no one would be talking about these people.

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