The Convenience of defining Indigeneity

October 2016

The term “indigenous” is a Western invention. The New Oxford American Dictionary defines it as “originating or occurring naturally in a particular place; native” (NOAD). It defines the term “aborigine”, often used synonymously with “indigenous” as “a person, animal, or plant that has been in a country or region from earliest times” (NOAD). From the very definition, the term “indigenous” is already inextricably linked to origin and has since been shaped by Western perspectives to mean that the group of people must uphold the cultural identity that their ancestors once embodied at these ‘earliest times’. It is the worst kind of paradox, that a culture that so values progress and the future should impose such an inflexible stagnancy on another, demanding of its constituents a gaudy and hyperbolized display of the culture that it once sought to forcibly eradicate.

The problem with defining “Indigenous” with the origins of something is its tying of the label “Indigenous” with a one-dimensional, parochial representation of an otherwise diverse and vivid people group. It reduces an entire ethnic group of people as a marker of time--an era past, and is only concerned with a very specific beginning and gives no heed to what follows. This is in discord with the actual culture of indigenous people, as King writes, “Native culture, as with any culture, is a vibrant, changing thing” (King 37). King lists the long and growing list of grievances with this Western romanticization and parochial view of Indigenous peoples: “James Fenimore Cooper, George Catlin, Paul Kane, Charles Bird King, Karl May, the Atlanta Braves, the Washington Redskins….Red Man chewing tobacco, Grateful Dead concerts, Dreamcatcher perfume” (King 54). In this way the Western perspective has frozen the indigenous people in time, unwilling to see and accept them “as contemporary as well as historical figures” (King 43).

The film Dark Horse directly challenges this view of the frozen-in-time Indigenous person. It paints an incredibly real and accurate depiction of an urbanized, contemporary indigenous individual and the reality of carrying such an identity in a hostile world, a reality laden with homelessness, ostracization, poverty.  Thus Dark Horse forces the audience to place the Indigenous person that it imagined from a hundred years ago into the context of today. The particularly interesting aspect of Dark Horse is the game that the plot centers around--chess. Chess has its origins in ancient China, and found its way into the Western sphere and adopted as a facet of Western culture. This multiethnic center to the film tactfully underlines the interrelatedness of all culture; Western culture is as apt to change and adopt facets of other cultures as is Indigenous culture. Taking up something with roots in Asian culture does not make the Western culture any less Western, and in fact adds a Western dimension to the adopted facet. Likewise, indigenous persons must not be seen as being less indigenous for their adoption of Western culture. Instead the indigenous dimension that they bring into Western culture must be recognized and legitimized.

The term “Indigenous”, in all its historical and sociopolitical context, is a convenient blanket term for ethnic tribes that have been displaced from their land and seek to find a place in the society that has replaced theirs (note that this is not synonymous to assimilation). But indigeneity in its purest definition should not be applied to these ethnic groups. If indigeneity refers to all people who are native to a certain land, and the names and borders of lands have constantly changed throughout human history, either we must all be indigenous or not be indigenous. Instead, let us call them by what they are. Maori. Cherokee. Metis. Inuit. And so forth.

King, Thomas. "You're Not the Indian I Had in Mind." (p. 37, 43) The Truth about Stories: A Native Narrative. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota, 2005. N. pag. Print.