TOEFL Listening Practice: Lecture19
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|Today, we’re starting our series of lectures on indigenous cultures and indigenous people. Estimates put the total population of post-colonial indigenous peoples at between 220 million to 350 million, so there are plenty of them out there. So let’s look first at what we mean by the term Indigenous People. You see, while it is an interesting exercise to form an academic definition of indigenous people, in real terms it is of vital importance out there in the real world, as it ultimately could dictate which people are listened to, and which are not, when, for example, a company is seeking to excavate or exploit the resources in a certain area of land.
It’s not easy, because there are so many different groups of indigenous people out there, and of course, they have all changed over time. So let’s go back to colonial times, and we can look at how definitions change and why. During colonial rule, the term was used to describe any non-European natives in territories colonized by European powers. Basically, everyone who was not European in the colonized country was Indigenous. But these days, any academics who define indigenous peoples as such will find themselves heavily criticized, as in many countries the so-called indigenous people would make up the majority – places like Mexico, Fiji and Bolivia. It also suggests that countries, like Tonga, which were never colonized, have no indigenous people.
So where does that leave us? Well, most organizations have given up on trying to come up with a strict definition. Instead, they create their own accepted guidelines. Each organization and nation will have its own, but the most common elements that are invoked in these guidelines are the following: a claim to ancestral lands based on the fact that they are direct descendants of its original inhabitants; some degree of cultural distinctiveness – which could manifest itself in any of whole range of ways – dress, religion, means of livelihood, tribal system, language and so on. Another prevailing concept is that an indigenous person is someone who self-identifies as a member of an indigenous group, and is also recognized and accepted by these populations as one of its members. It is also generally accepted that an indigenous group is one that is marginalized, isolated or minimally participative in comparison to the nation-state as a whole, this giving them limited influence regarding the policies and jurisdictions that affect their traditional territories and livelihoods.
But there are a number of problems with these guidelines. A colleague of mine, a white lady of European ancestry, living here in the USA, identifies herself as a Native American, because she was born here in the States, and considers herself a native. Her close family and friends agree with her whim. That means that according to this idea of self-identification and recognition by the group, she is in fact a Native American and should be given rights accordingly. But of course that is not what is meant by the term at all, but you can see that these definitions are very subjective.
Another issue is the idea that indigenous people have retained their own particular way of life in spite of other cultural influences. But can’t that define anyone – any minority group, including my elderly parents who choose not to watch television, own a computer or listen to pop music, and have no interest in popular culture? I mentioned that a lot of importance tends to be placed on the idea of historical connection with lands and territories, before present state boundaries were established. Which is all very well, but what about countries like Israel, where boundaries are still being contested? That adds another layer of complexity.
Moreover, we talk about ownership of land, but what about those who have, voluntarily or unwillingly, left their ancestral territory? Another issue is the idea of marginalization. In Russia, it is considered, and possibly rightly, that the concepts of culture and self-identification are too subjective to distinguish whether someone is part of an indigenous group or not. They focus on population figures, under the idea that a small population will have less power. Groups of under 50,000 are granted indigenous rights, while groups of higher populations are not. This system excludes larger Russian ethnic groups such as the Sakha, the Komi and the Chechens from certain rights that are bestowed on the smaller indigenous population groups. Consequently, they are, arguably, more marginalized than the so-called indigenous groups. You can see that this could potentially lead to tensions based on positive discrimination, especially if the variances in lifestyle and experiences between one group and another are actually quite minimal, and this could inhibit integration and equality, something that we ultimately strive for in society.
So, ultimately, it is very hard to define indigenous populations. So where does that leave the businesses, the companies that want to apply for rights to excavate a certain piece of land, to mine or to look for oil? It’s obviously very hard. We obviously can’t give them carte blanche to do what they like simply because we haven’t worked out what an indigenous person is. But maybe the idea of defining indigenous people is unnecessary anyway. A company can respect the right of all people to fair consultation, consultation made available in the local language, whenever the future of land in their region is being discussed. And if such practices are legitimate and non-harmful, then perhaps it is unnecessary to define indigeneity at all. These things are everybody’s human rights.