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First peoples and oppressive authenticity.



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Perspective

Tuesday 13 September 2005

Jeff Sissons, Director of Anthropology, School of Social and Cultural Studies, Victoria University of Wellington, NZ

 

First Peoples and Oppressive Authenticity  

 

The indigenous world is as diverse now as it ever was and despite pessimistic predictions that colonized cultures would be absorbed into the nirvana of the new world order, this diversity shows no sign of reducing.  

 

But what does this term ‘indigenous’ refer to? People tend to worry excessively over its meaning. Surely we are all indigenous in some way or other, they say. What about the English, are they not indigenous to England? I think things become much clearer if we define indigenous peoples as First Peoples, peoples whose cultures were transformed as they attempted to resist and re-direct projects of settler nationhood.  

 

Defining indigenous peoples as first peoples also has merit in that it distinguishes these people from oppressed and tribal peoples throughout the third world. While First peoples share many common concerns with tribal peoples in Asia and Africa, First peoples are confronted with distinctive issues that arise directly out of their colonial struggles within settler nations such as Australia, Canada and the United States. Foremost among these issues are: regimes of oppressive authenticity; urban indigeneity; indigenous schooling; indigenous citizenship and indigenous repossession. I explore these concerns in my book, First Peoples: Indigenous Cultures and their Futures . Here, I want to talk briefly about oppressive authenticity, urban indigeneity. 

 

Oppressive authenticity operates primarily as a mechanism of exclusion; people who cannot be easily placed in one of two categories - ‘native’ or ‘settler’ - become people out of place. They don’t properly belong in the official scheme of things; they are impure, inauthentic; Australian anthropologist Patrick Wolf has described them as an excluded middle. Included in the excluded middles of many post-settler states today are millions of First Peoples variously described as ‘half-castes’, ‘mixed-bloods’ ‘urbanized’ ‘non-traditional’ and ‘westernized’ - usually the majority of their indigenous citizens. 

 

Settler-state regimes of oppressive authenticity are essentially about the granting of official recognition to a shrinking category of indigenous people who were deemed authentic and the denial of this recognition to an expanding category of others who are deemed inauthentic. Biological authenticity, and social authenticity are some of its main manifestations.  

 

Aboriginal child abductions in Australia were legitimized by a strange pseudo-mathematics of biological authenticity. When expressed as racial purity, Aboriginal identity was mathematically divisible: parents were halves; grandparents were quarters, and so on. A precise terminology was evolved to identify the different proportions of white admixture, and hence degrees of racial authenticity; on the path to assimilation ‘full-bloods’ became ‘half-castes’, ‘half-castes’ became ‘quadroons’ and ‘quadroons’ became ‘octoroons’. Beyond ‘octoroon’ children were officially deemed to be officially white Australians. A similar algebra was practiced in North America and New Zealand.  

 

A second form of oppressive authenticity is the requirement for social authenticity - a condition that First Peoples are only authentic when they belong to traditional kinship groups. Recently in New Zealand, as part of a deal between Maori and the Government, the Government agreed to allocate fishing quota to Maori in return for Maori agreeing to abandon all future fisheries claims. But there was a catch. The Courts ruled that only tribal Maori were authentic and able to receive quota - Urban Maori who did not know their tribe or who did not wish to affiliate with a tribe (around 25%) were tossed a token sum of money to keep them quiet. 

 

At the same time that authentic tribal belonging was being required in New Zealand in order to gain fish, authentic traditional belonging became a legal precondition for the recognition of Aboriginal land rights in Australia. The Native Title Act that followed the Mabo decision requires claimants to be able to demonstrate a continuous traditional connection to land being claimed. As a result, many thousands of Aboriginal people have become socially inauthentic, lacking a social quality that would allow them compensation for injustice. Indeed many people are now doubly disenfranchised; having been forcibly abducted from their communities as children, they are now prevented from re-establishing the severed connections with their land as adults.  

 

Cultural creativity and radical innovation are essential to cultural continuity, and this is as true for First Peoples as it is for any other people. Oppressive authenticity constrains and imprisons this creativity. It is an official policing of indigenous identity. If indigenous cultures are to continue flourish in the 21st century they will need to confront this policing and break down the walls of the conceptual cells within which indigenous identities are imprisoned.  

 

Guests on this program:

Jeff Sissons  

Associate Professor, Director of Anthropology 

School of Social and Cultural Studies 

Victoria University of Wellington 

New Zealand