On the danger of “indigenous” as an adjective

While looking at archives from my childhood, I found what may be my first “ethnographic” text. It is a few paragraphs, written 60 years ago, when I was 11. It was a kind of school report of the type “what did you do last summer?” I had been on a family trip to South India. We had spent two days in Pondicherry. I wrote that the town was really “two towns”: “la ville indigène et la ville blanche.” On reading this, I first cringed at a language that, soon after I wrote this, I learned was an echo of French colonial racism at its most common sense and, most importantly, was not to be used again. And then I recognized that my use of “indigène” might not be insulting any more. The connotations of the word appear to have flipped as it may now be the preferred term for those who, in Pondicherry, were not “white.” Even so, I have mentioned to some of my students and colleagues my continuing discomfort with the word “indigenous,” particularly when it is used as an adjective rather than as a quote from some of the people about whom my colleagues are writing. The final trigger for this blog post was a review of a book about the East Asia Company in the New York Times (Morris Sept. 12, 2019). I read it at about the same time I read my account of Pondicherry and I found myself propelled back to 1960. I have not read the book but Ian Morris, the reviewer, wrote as it were a matter of course among the sophisticated readers of the New York Times that one could talk about “the indigenous Mughal Empire” and wonder whether changing anything would have permitted “native rulers” to survive.

“Indigenous Empire,” “native rulers,” what do the adjectives hide? In this case, they hide the history of invaders from Central Asia, descendants of Gengis Khan, imposing their rule on a population they defeated through military superiority, and doing this at about the same time Europeans were imposing their own rule in the Americas. The “Mughals” (they also go by other names) were actually the next to last (so far?) of many invaders of India. These included, a few centuries earlier, those who institutionalized in India a major religion “native” to the Arab peninsula but with world-wide ambition. Like the other religion also “native” to the northern part of the peninsula (what is now “Palestine” or “Israel”), it did eventually spread around the globe. Both of these religions had actually arrived in India centuries earlier. As for Hinduism, the religion most specifically associated with India, there is every evidence that it came to the place along with other invaders who, several thousand years earlier, imposed it, along with their language, on populations that were already there—or at least had been there for the preceding tens of thousands of years when members of what some call the most “invasive species” on earth crossed the Khyber Pass on their way east (Dennell 2017), as so many did in the following millenia.

All anthropologists will credit Boas for a negative achievement: demolishing the argument that “race” is something that could explain human variability. They are more reluctant to credit him for a positive achievement, particularly when they summarize it as “culture.” But Boas argued for much more than “culture.” More subtly he argued that humans make their doings “suitable” to the conditions they face and thereby making themselves a-new—not reproduction but history. Thus, as I teach it, Boas’ most important work consisted in making those interested in human variability notice matters like “diffusion,” “borrowing,” “appropriation,” etc. as well as the making of that which is borrowed “suitable.” As Ruth Benedict later noticed when she wrote about “islanding” (Varenne 2013), interaction with some “other” may actually lead to a refusal rather than a borrowing. Which is why I now wonder about the act that must precede borrowing, and that is noticing (or being made to notice) some trait (objects, ritual, discourse) as potentially suitable. First the encounter and then (sequentiality here is central) either “making it suitable” through forms of “appropriation” or rejecting it (possibly violently). Given all this, I am sympathetic to the anthropological critique of any kind of claim to the “authenticity” of some trait as if any could be “owned” by any population and copyrighted as another form of capitalistic property.

But, and this a big “but,” anthropologists, in their own encounters with the other human beings they are concerned with, do meet people who make a claim to ownership of some trait, to its authenticity as theirs, and to the subsequent claim that all others should respect this claim. This is a major dilemma for anthropologists. In many cases they feel obligated to respect such claims and broadcast them (say, if they are made by people who claim “the Amazon”). In other cases they feel obligated to “de-construct” them (say, if they are made by people who claim “Germany”). In both cases they are caught reconstructing the very dichotomy within humanity anthropologists have been fighting against (and criticizing each other for reproducing). There is what “we” do (as the form is used by the New York Times when criticizing the United States or Europe) and then there is “them,” the “indigenous” people whom “we” respect, or deconstruct.

There may be no way out of the dilemma. The best advice I can give students and colleagues, is to tell them that, if the people they get to know have appropriated the (European) word “indigenous” for themselves, and made it suitable in their political struggles, then we have no choice but to report on this claim in our ethnographic writing without criticizing it as appropriate, or not.

Thus my discouragement at the October 2019 issue of Anthropology News featuring “Indigenous Languages” and, not so implicitly, contrasting them to non-indigenous languages (as if there were any), thereby encouraging students and journalists to dichotomize.

At the same time, we must take care not to “theorize” the word and transform it into some ideal-typical (in the Weberian sense) “it” that might then be studied across populations who may not even make the claim, possibly leading to a book titled “The Mind of Indigenous Man” (to paraphrase Boas at his most easily criticizable). Minimally, we must fear any use of the term, particularly as an adjective. In the review which triggered this piece, to qualify the Mughal Empire as “indigenous” added nothing but might mislead readers into not noticing its own historicity (and their own). The same for the word “native” (which is of course but another way of saying “indigenous”). Those who inhabited the Red Fort in New Delhi when the East Asia Company attacked it may have been born there, but that is the least of what makes them interesting.


Dennell, Robin   2017 “Human Colonization of Asia in the Late Pleistocene The History of an Invasive Species”  in Current Anthropology, vol. 51, 17: S383–S396.

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