Where Some Ideas Are Stranger Than Others...
Yes Indigenous People Today are Real
On 15 november 2019, Māori scholar Melissa Derby took part in the Feminism 2020 speaking event held in the wellington parliament of Aotorea (new zealand). Her speech covered a number of important areas, including free speech, notions of intergenerational trauma, and Indigenous authenticity. The issue of authenticity came up due to one of the ad femina attacks raised in an attempt to claim the arbitrary pulling of an article co-written with a Pakeha man on the subject of intergenerational trauma was ultimately justified in part by Derby supposedly not being a "real" Māori for working with such a person or questioning the currently received narratives about presumed Indigenous intergenerational trauma. The issue from Derby's viewpoint was not that others disagreed with her, but that steps taken by the forum moderators prevented discussion of the article all together, including any specific critiques of its arguments. Instead the rationalization finally fell back on a swing of the bat labelled "authenticity" that every Indigenous scholar has to parry during their career. Quite apart from the issue around the attempt to suppress her article, Derby noted that if the only wat to truly be Māori is to think exactly like ancestral Māori did, then that can only mean that Māori can not ever change. Māori cannot have their own history and development in response to their world. This is a powerful point, not least because so many Indigenous people are dealing with the necessity of sorting out how much of what they have been told their ancestors thought is in fact from european sources, and therefore of questionable accuracy. Even honest and well-meaning outsiders often completely misunderstood what they heard and saw, but if we are lucky they noted their sense of befuddlement.
Derby's point reminded me again of Paige Raibmon's 2005 book Authentic Indians, in which she explores the different ways "authenticity" was and is defined by non-Indigenous and Indigenous peoples on the northwest coast of northern north america. In this study, Raibmon carefully unpacks the challenges Indigenous people in this region faced as they strove to use non-Indigenous notions of authenticity in ways that benefitted their families and communities, while seeking to evade attacks based on their supposed lack of authenticity. In the end, it always came down to people who think they are white insisting that they know how "real indians" are supposed to dress and behave, in particular that "indians" are not supposed to change. Yet "authenticity" itself is a moving target, as anyone who looks up the non-Indigenous trope of the "ecological indian" including its weird twilight role in pseudo-explanations of the extinction of the pleistocene megafauna in the americas. Raibmon's critical perspective on "authenticity" is made clear up front when she observes on page 3 that whites use notions of authenticity to limit what "Aboriginal claims they will recognize, while indigenous people use authenticity to survive colonialism. Later she notes a nineteenth century writer's comment that the "frontier" had become inauthentic because it had become "self-conscious." That is, people on the frontier had become self-conscious.
A preview of the cover of Paige Raibmon's 2005 book Authentic Indians, which explores the implications of "authenticity" and its different uses by both Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples on the northwest coast of north america in the nineteenth century.
These three interwoven claims, that authenticity must correspond to an unchanged, robotic repetition of the past as non-Indigenous outsiders understood it, is a non-trivially poisonous pill. It cedes control over Indigenous cultures and peoples to colonizers, and on top of that renders Indigenous political thought and action verboten because supposedly they can only indicate a loss of authenticity. Every time you read or hear a person, who if often but yes not always non-Indigenous, declaring how "those people would never have protested/disagreed/done whatever" if it hadn't been for political outsiders who either are definitely non-Indigenous or "not really Indigenous" you have just encountered a recent variation of the same theme. Of course, the thing about imagining Indigenous peoples as static and only authentic when they aren't questioning the status quo or making it easy to displace Indigenous communities and destroy Indigenous economies, cultures, and lands, is that this is perfect for defining them as vanishing. With such unreasonable and far from static expectations in place, it is quote easy to find "evidence" that Indigenous people are assimilating away into the mainstream. Those claims get loudest whenever Indigenous people are found busy surviving and challenging colonialism outside of theme parks and other types of performance venues where they are supposed to mindlessly repeat their worn out scripts in a world they no longer fit.
Somehow for many non-Indigenous people, this absurd mess goes together with no difficulties with an every deepening historical and archaeological record of Indigenous nations in the americas. The archaeological record that gives away longterm changes in technology and landscape interaction due to local and wider scale climate change, let alone the pressures of episodic warfare. Some of the most interesting historical information that non-Indigenous people began trying to both collect and hide was the evidence of the many Indigenous methods used to curb and defuse warfare. Those means range from peacemaking and diplomatic work to make treaties and alliances to rewarding small-scale raiding and acts of individual bravery over bringing together armies to perpetrate mass slaughter. Somehow many people can go from inveighing against say, Cree dancers at a powwow for integrating fluorescent tape into their regalia, to pointing at how amazing the Maya writing hieroglyphic system is. In neither case noticing that both indicate change and adaptation within the mores of those cultures, according to the principles of the peoples who lived and live by and carry those cultures.
Somehow the sheer unfairness and dishonesty of the authenticity trap set up by colonial authorities doesn't trouble most non-Indigenous people whose roots are in england or france for the most part. This is especially surprising in the case of french canadians, who get caught in a similar bind of insistence that they can't change and still remain distinct, and they can't be "really" french if their language is not that of the paris region of france. Except, how could it be, when french canadians, or let's be very careful and not assume they all agree they are "canadians" per se, how could it be when many people in the diverse and persistent french communities in north america have continued to evolve in language and culture independently of france? Of course, other people who have come to make their homes in canada whose origins come from different and "more picturesque" areas of eastern and southern europe, let alone africa and asia, face different shapes of the authenticity stick. Yet again they are denied any recognition from colonial authorities of any possibility that they could or would find ways to be according to their own cultures in a good way on these Indigenous lands in the americas. Of course, colonial authorities are appalled by the very notion that they would want to, even though that in the end is the only way for all of us to successfully live together.