Identifying indigenous societies

Identifying indigenous societies

The United Nations estimate that more than 370 million people spread across at least 70 different countries constitute the world’s ‘indigenous societies’. This clearly presents us with problems if we want to avoid falling into the trap of generalizing and simplifying the peoples, and the knowledge, that is found within them.

It gets more difficult: indigenous societies are often remote and isolated from one another and their development has occurred relatively independently, so their identities are far more varied than in those of the ‘Westernised’ world. For example, in terms of language – the way of knowing that arguably most shapes our collective identity – there are about 7000 different indigenous languages. That’s worth thinking about for a second. We are used to thinking of Europe, a continent of around 730 million people as being linguistically (and culturally) very diverse. Yet only 78 languages are spoken in Europe by groups of more than 120 people. In other words, Europe contains twice as many people, but ten times fewer languages, than indigenous groups worldwide.

To picture this diversity in another way, consider the fact that another characteristic of indigenous societies is that they are very much the product of the environment in which they are located. Think about the number of different landscapes, climates, floras, and faunas on Planet Earth, and you’ll gain some idea of the implications of this. So we should be very careful about the question ‘what are indigenous societies?’ because it is probably even more difficult to answer than ‘what are Western societies?’ For now, it will be far more profitable to concentrate on the people from which the knowledge comes.

Identification, not definition

It is partly because of this difficulty that the United Nations stresses that one should ‘identify’ rather than ‘define’ indigenous people. The UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues presents the following list of characteristics to help us identify indigenous people:

  • – Self-identification as indigenous peoples at the individual level and accepted by the community as their member
  • – Historical continuity with pre-colonial and/or pre-settler societies
  • – Strong link to territories and surrounding natural resources
  • – Distinct social, economic or political systems
  • – Distinct language, culture and beliefs
  • – Form non-dominant groups of society
  • – Resolve to maintain and reproduce their ancestral environments and systems as distinctive peoples and communities

The key characteristic is the first of these. Martinéz Cobo, the academic who helped the United Nations develop its thinking on indigenous peoples, stated:

On an individual basis, an indigenous person is one who belongs to these indigenous peoples through self-identification as indigenous (group consciousness) and is recognized and accepted by the group as one of its members (acceptance by the group). This preserves for these communities the sovereign right and power to decide who belongs to them, without external interference.

Further ‘identifying’ characteristics of indigenous peoples

Despite what we have already said about indigenous societies being incredibly diverse, there are certain characteristics and outlooks that they often share. The Cherokee economist and founder of First Peoples Worldwide, Rebecca Adamson, lists three interlinked characteristics of indigenous societies:

Community is essential for survival [In indigenous societies…] concern for the greater good and respect for the community are embedded in Indigenous legal, political, social and economic structures.

Life is sustained through balance and harmony. [This means indigenous people…] give and take from nature in synchrony with natural cycles, ensuring that our sources of life remain healthy and abundant.Nature is a source of knowledge… Indigenous science and knowledge are based largely on bioindicators, or natural signs.

To these points, we can perhaps add three more. First, is the importance of spoken language, given that most indigenous societies do not have a literary heritage. Second, and overlapping with the first, is the rich artistic tradition that is found within most indigenous societies, such as the visual arts, dance, and song. For most indigenous people, the arts are a form of communication, both between themselves, and with the metaphysical world. Third, is the fact that traditional societies are run along much smaller lines than their industrialized counterparts, partly as a way of avoiding too much impact on the environment around them, partly as a way of ensuring that there is unity in decision making, and that a separate political bureaucracy is not required.

Jared Diamond, the geographer and anthropologist, refers to indigenous societies as ‘small-scale’, and the fact that indigenous societies can be described as such means some major implications in terms of the knowledge it creates and draws on.

Methods of studying indigenous societies

For those of us who come to this theme as ‘outsiders’, accessing and understanding indigenous ways of thinking presents certain problems. To start with, indigenous societies is probably the most unfamiliar of the five optional TOK themes, and the only one that it is perfectly possible to have no prior experience of. Furthermore, as indigenous societies are so incredibly diverse, it’s easy to make over-generalized assertions and judgements, which we must be careful about.

Finally, many indigenous societies have practical difficulties that prevent us from easily obtaining a clear picture of the knowledge that characterizes them. These difficulties include the fact that much indigenous knowledge is based on non-literary sources, which is hard to access, particularly because of how remote many indigenous societies are (indeed, there are a few that still remain untouched). A lot of indigenous societies have either died out, or are on the verge of doing so. These problems can also compound each other – consider, for example, how we investigate the ideas of a society that never wrote anything down, and whose language no one now speaks.

Of course, there is a substantial amount of indigenous culture that is very accessible, and as indigenous peoples are slowly gaining more political rights throughout the world they are forcing the world to take notice of their ideas, and what we can learn about them. However, we do need to take account of the thousands of societies whose knowledge is hard to access. 

Links to the human sciences

Human sciences and indigenous peoples have an intimate relationship, as it has traditionally been the role of anthropologists, ethnographers, and sociologists to make the first academic studies of indigenous societies. This usually involves spending at least a few months, but often years studying their way of life. However, it isn’t just human scientists who are involved in these studies: experts from other fields are also interested in studying small-scale societies and those societies’ relationship with their environment, such as historians and biologists. By ‘academic studies’ we mean studies that take a scientific approach, involving the investigation of a specific hypothesis, via quantitative data. This leads to results that should be objective and testable, and be possible to replicate.

This all sounds good in theory, and there is no doubt that human scientists have provided superb information and knowledge on many indigenous societies around the world. But there are also various difficulties with this immersive method of gathering indigenous knowledge. First, there is the phenomenon known as the Hawthorne (or Observer) Effect.

This is the way in which observers will affect and alter the object of study, meaning that what they are studying doesn’t match up to its ordinary reality. The Hawthorne Effect can be relatively benign, and simply involve those being studied behaving differently around ‘strangers’. Of course, even the most expert human scientists cannot know for sure if this is happening, given that they are probably dealing with a society whose ‘normal’ mode of behaviour they are unfamiliar with.

Second, even trained experts bring with them biases, which act as a paradigm through which they view the indigenous society under observation. These may not be personal biases, but may be imposed upon them by the society and academic institution from which they have come. Whilst we like to think of the academic world as one that used objective methods in order to acquisition knowledge, it is just as prone as any other aspect of society to fashions and trends. These are sometimes intellectual paradigms, made popular by influential academic thinkers, and broader ways of thinking and behaving that affect the whole of society.

Observers who take with them such outlooks will inevitably skew the data and information that they find in order to address such paradigms. One such example is the work done by Margaret Mead in the Pacific Islands, who in the 1920s published Coming of Age in Samoa, one of the most influential anthropological books ever written, based on her work in the South Pacific. Her portrayal of a sexually and socially egalitarian society struck a chord with the early feminist movement, as well as with academics who were keen to promote the idea of nurture rather than nature as being the key component determining human behaviour. However, many people have questioned the extent to which her findings were deliberately (or even subconsciously) designed to fit in with the intellectual zeitgeist of the time.

Cite this page as: Dunn, Michael. Defining indigenous societies. (9th June 2022).


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