Workshop 18

Indigeneity: Career and appropriation(s) of a global category

RG Africa

In the history of anthropology, the concept of indigeneity was most often used to mark the opposition between ‘us’ and ‘them’: the indigenous, natives to the soil and caught up in their local cultures, were opposed to the civilized, more cosmopolitan high cultures of the West or, more rarely, of local elites.

In the last decades, the concept has taken on a new turn. It is detached from the notion of inferiority and connected to a special status and special claims linked to autochthony. (Cultural Anthropology, Social Anthropology)

In the last decade we observe a new rise of discourses on indigeneity, above all led by local actors but also promoted by scholars, triggering new debates (Cultural Anthropology, 21, 2001; Social Anthropology, 14, 2006). The contexts of these discourses are quite diverse. They often involve political struggles of local groups for entitlements and political representation, perceived as only partially guaranteed by the respective national constitution and policies. In many cases, indigeneity is linked to strategies of so called Cultural Defence of minorities in legal cases. Finally, there are international discourse coalitions of NGOs, human rights activists and scholars promoting the cause of endangered peoples, local languages and cultures in these terms. Within regional anthropological traditions, there are, however, startling differences with regard to the public and scholarly uses of the concept.

From the Africanist perspective, we witness discourses featuring a “new nativism” (Mbembe), and there are successful movements to obtain guaranteed land titles (Botswana) or shares from the commercialisation of medical plants (Namibia) linked to the promotion of indigenous rights. In these cases, the concept is used to remedy wrongs committed against minority groups. On the other hand, rhetorics of exclusion, primarily based on “autochthony” principles (a dominant notion above all in West Africa) are gaining ground, sometimes even sustained by national laws. So while indigeneity can be used by minorities in an emancipatory way to claim their rights, it takes on an oppressive and exclusive character if used by a majority group. Clearly, the political problems of both cases go hand in hand with the conceptual ones: the categorical difference between ‘autochthonous’ and strangers (often themselves born in a country) can only be established by the political act of focusing on (often invented) origins, and by fixing fluid identities in a clear ascription of indigeneity.

The workshop discusses the usefulness and pitfalls of the concept, promotes the discussion of comparative case studies also beyond Africa with respect to various local understandings and cultural constructions of indigeneity, strategies of local actors, but also legal contexts and political frameworks. Finally, we may discuss whether alternative concepts can be eveloped that both meet scholarly standards and comprise universal human rights standards, or whether the political ascription of rights based on such group differences is doomed to become oppressive.



Gregor Dobler (gregor.dobler[at], Tilo Grätz (tilograetz[at]



Freitag, 02.10.2009, 17.15 bis 19.00 Uhr / Raum 454 (Hauptgebäude)


Vorträge inkl. Abstracts als pdf

David Picard (Leeds): Indigenousness and the Modern State: The Formation of Cultural Primordialisms in a Creole Island Context

Olaf Zenker (Bern): Autochthony, indigeneity and nationalism: time-honouring and state-oriented modes of rooting individual-territory-group-triads in a globalising world

Gregor Dobler (Basel): A White Traditional Authority? Afrikaner claims in Southern Africa and the conundrums of indigeneity

Tilo Grätz (Hamburg/Halle): Political emancipation, Cultural entrepreneurship, revivalism. Reflexions on the concept of “Indigenous Media”, with a case study from Benin (West Africa)



Alan Barnard (Edinburgh)