What is Indigenism?

I have at many times referred to myself as an indigenist and I have often gotten asked what exactly I mean by the term indigenism as there seems to be a bit of confusion and misconception around it on the revolutionary left.

Well, in short, indigenism is a theory and practice which places the struggles of indigenous peoples for land and autonomy at the centre of its work. Much of the time it also draws inspiration and insight from the lessons of indigenous peoples, such as (in the Americas) values of communality, solidarity, reciprocity, social justice, equality, complementarity and harmony with nature.

In the Anglo-world, the term was made popular by well known radical scholar Ward Churchill, who claims descent through the Cherokee and Creek Indian nations. He has written a number of works on the topic, including the essay I Am Indigenist and the book From a Native Son: Selected Essays on Indigenism.

However, while it was certainly Churchill who brought the term into wide-spread use in the West, he is not actually the source of the term or school of thought. The earliest uses of the term can be found in the works of Mexican anthropologist and activist Guillermo Bonfil Batalla who used the term indigenismo in his writings on Latin America. The idea began to gain traction and recognition in Mexico during the 1930s, when many people in the country began to look back to traditional Indigenous forms of organization for inspiration, and also began to elevate the struggles of the Indigenous peoples in the country.

A major line of argument in indigenism is that unless the issues of indigenous land and autonomy are resolved, any sort of movement, even ones claiming to be socialist or revolutionary, will remain inherently colonialist. Thus, as with the acceptance of other national liberation struggles, indigenous rights and first nation sovereignty must be central in any program for, or work towards, a society free of all forms of oppression.

With that, I generally go by Batalla’s definition of Indigenism rather than Churchill’s decidedly more “blame everyone in America” definition. Batalla in his work identified six fundamental demands within the Indian movement:

  • Right to ancestral lands including complete control of land and subsoil, the defence of land and recuperation of land lost.
  • Recognition of the ethnic and cultural identity of indigenous people- all indigenous peoples and organizations reaffirm the right to be distinct in culture, language and institutions, and to increase the value of their own technological, social and ideological practices.
  • Equal political rights in relation to the state.
  • The end of repression and violence, particularly that against the leaders, activists and followers of indigenous political organizations.
  • The end of family planning programmes which have brought widespread sterilization of indigenous women and men.
  • The rejection of tourism and folklore, meaning the end of commercialization of Indian music, dance and other art forms as well as other forms of cultural appropriation. Instead, respect for true indigenous cultural expressions.
These original six demands, as well as many others such as the rejection of capitalism and neoliberalism, have framed many of the Indian liberation struggles in the Americas over the last century, from the American Indian Movement, to the Zapatistas in Mexico, to the work of Hugo Blanco and others in the Andean region of South America, to the election of Evo Morales in Bolivia, to the current struggles in Canada.

While indigenism has become, in certain circles, a curse word on the left implying that someone seeks a return to an anarcho-primitivist life-style this is not what it means, and I hope this post does much to dispel that myth. The simple fact is that it is not something people on the revolutionary left should be afraid of, indeed it should embraced alongside the struggles against capitalism, racial/national oppression of blacks and latinos, patriarchy and homophobia/heterosexism, only then can a truly emancipatory struggle be waged.

In the Spirit of Crazy Horse
In the Spirit of Túpac Amaru II

Long Live the World’s Indigenous!
Long Live the Excluded of the Entire World!
Long Live the Anti-Imperialist and Anti-Capitalist Struggle!
Long Live the Tireless Defense of Mother Earth!
Long Live Our Dead Forever!
Democracy! Liberty! Justice!

Mitaku Oyasin – We are All Related

Rowland Keshena

Posted on August 27, 2008, in Indigenous Struggles. Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on What is Indigenism?.

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