Becoming Indigenous

“Indigenous” is a word fraught with peril.  It is usually used as a synonym to “Aboriginal”,  and in Canada, with “First Nations” and “Metis”.  In addition, it is part of the vocabulary within which is discussed the thorny issue of whether (or not) and, if yes, then how, former colonies have managed to move past their colonial structures into a “post colonial” social environment.

Having lost so much, having had so much stolen from them, Aboriginal Peoples/First Nations Peoples are understandably loathed to consider sharing the status of “indigenous” with the heirs of their colonial oppressors and with new waves of immigrants that have been invited into “the country” by those heirs.

Yet it is difficult to envision how two pressing problems can be solved without such a sharing – and indeed, guidance from First Nations Peoples.

How is any society to become “post colonial” without the indigenization of colonial heirs, the transference from “there” to “here” as the ground source for values, customs and practices.  More on this below.

But, also, in an era when “globalization” is finally being countered successfully by an emerging “re-localization” movement, the “here” can be more fully localized through the deeper connection that “indigenization” presumes and demands. How will localization move from surface to deeply rooted without indigenization?

I am here going to use another word fraught with peril: “zionist”.  By using it, I am not referring, as many will presume, to “Jewish radicals”.  Rather, I am using it to refer to anyone who has a deep sense of allegiance to a place other than “here”, an allegiance based on a theological precept that some particular piece of ground is holier than another and that that place holds all that is worthy of reverence.  In this theological sense, zionism is a terrestrial  variant of Gnosticism: stop the world I want to get off.     In both of these lines of meaning,  “here” is debased and fallen, in the former sense, unworthy, but partially, in the latter, unworthy, totally.  All of the “Abrahamic” religions suffer from an underlying gnosticism and all of them retain a degree of zionism, be it for Mecca, for Jerusalem, for Rome or for “Eden”. My knowledge base is concentrated on the “Western Religions”, so I can speak with no certainty regarding other religions but I have the sense that Buddhism and Sanatana Dharma/”Hinduism” also partake of this “otherness” centrality – which likewise travels with adherents when they emigrate.

“Zion” could be, therefore, wherever one believed one’s “original” homeland was, a place which continues to evoke longing: by the waters of Zion, I sat weeping. It could also be a direction which vectored a site endowed with (ostensibly) supremely sacred experience.  Most certainly, there are many Jewish zionists but, by the definition I have constructed here,  it will be apparent that there are also European descended persons  (I am one) who referenced  deepest identity to “elsewhere”: longing could be for Caledonia, the ancient site of the Dal Riada;  the vectored site, Glastonbury, Stonehenge.  In such spiritual displacement of course,  there could be also be African zionists,  Chinese zionists,  Indonesian zionists and so on. But, whoever we are, here is not “it” – yet, here is where we are and this place (and its Indigenous people) asks us for awareness and respect.

It appears that this “elsewhere” orientation is one that comes with immigrant status as well as with colonial heir status.  Indeed, “colonialism” is an earlier phase of current globalization and predicated upon the scale of movement of people, uprooting them (there is a reason we have that phrase) and depositing them upon the surface, principally of urban landscapes, where,  seeking some source of comfort, the tendency is to group together where the familiar can assuage the strange.  Ergo, an emerging problem with “multiculturalism” is that it tends to prolong emotional and customary ties with “elsewhere”.  In addition, the “here” to which allegiance might eventually be transferred continues to be colonial, referencing its existence, not to immigrant countries of origin but to the imperial adventures of the past and present and the culture that those adventures produced.  As Sarah (of “Towards an Engaged Paganism” blog)  points out however, the comfort of the familiar to the struggling is qualitatively different from the idealization of the imperial home court.  But what is absent in both is the indigenous – the deep here, where we now reside.   Perhaps we can now define the “indigenous” precisely as “spiritual here-ness”, belonging here, knowing here deeply, understanding and responding to the ecological truths of here, finding collegiality in the co-inhabitants of here.  It is profoundly different from citizenship which is allegiance to a state; rather, indigenousness speaks to belonging to place and place belonging, in the deepest sense, to the indigenous of it.  In this sense, are you “indigenous” to where you live?  And, if not, how do you become so?

In Mexico, Central and South America, post colonialism is signified by the political emergence of “Metizos” who are belatedly but surely becoming the governors of the lands to which they are “indigenous”.  In Canada, while we recognize the Metis, and while some Aboriginal and Metis have achieved degrees of political status, we can hardly claim to be a post colonial society – so firmly ensconced are we in European orientations – or the American derivative.  Given the swing over the last half century, from Britain to the United States as our source world, we need to be acutely aware that the United States has no metizo/metis vocabulary that is not disparaging (“half-breed”) to represent this blending of First Nation Peoples with in-comers, whether earlier colonizers or later immigrants.  “Creole” comes closer, used by the “Creole” with pride, but used ambivalently by the dominant culture.  This absence from public discourse of a vocabulary that indicates a blended heritage means that our story is still structured toward supersession.  John Ralston Saul, among others, has written eloquently about the replacement of an earlier tolerance of Metiz -ization  – Metissage – with more recent Eurocentric zionism (although he did not use that term) which short circuited the process of indigenization and occluded the fundamental and foundational gains that had been made in that direction.  Certainly Saul’s recommendation appeared to be to embrace Metis-ness as a deliberate re-orientation away from there to here – and to the values of First Nations societies. Indeed, the orientation to First Nations values viz a viz social ordering took precedence over ecological concerns, the enormity of which problem is only now becoming clear.

Very recently, at an event sponsored by the Council of Canadians on water and as part of my own engagement with environmental issues, I had the pleasure of hearing Robert Lovelace speak on “re-indigenization”, a talk which surprised and delighted me.  His credentials, as a First Nations co-chief, as an environmental justice advocate and as a teacher, meant that he could raise this issue in ways that might be better received among First Nations Peoples than I could myself.  Last year, I applied to Trent for doctoral work upon precisely this urgent task, “Becoming Indigenous”  –  to no avail despite acknowledgment of my “impressive academic background”.  It was clear from conversations with academic staff that this idea made them profoundly uncomfortable and my guess would be that that had much to do with being turned down.  But, like all closing doors, windows opened to pursue this work.

For Becoming Indigenous is, indeed, an idea whose time has come – there is simply no way that an “other” orientation will meet the environmental needs now so apparent. What “indigenous” does that “citizen” can not is to frame the issue of belonging in spiritual terms which connect the potential integrity of persons, groups and place.  To those for whom this bounded constellation raises spectre of “tribalism” with its ostensible rivalries and wars,  note that the world around us now suffers from militarism and that ancient, pre-imperial societies found ways to engage in (as Lovelace pointed out) diplomacy and trade.  They functioned on the principle of “articulation” not amalgamation, and this was true for ancient First Nations here, ancient indigenous Europe, ancient Africa, ancient Asia.   Ancient humanity held the line a long time before its expansion propelled aggression toward enslavement or extermination – and covered its tracks under the veneer of material brilliance that we call “civilization”.

If we are to survive, many now believe that we must return to an indigenous state – and this is, above all, a state of spiritual orientation to, and profound knowledge of,  the “here“.  What I have come to believe is that Metissage and Indigenization are complementary routes, the one relating to social structures, the other connecting those structures to place, locale, land.  I think that we need both to reshape the future toward sustainability.  If “what we believe matters”, then spiritual indigenousness is the elan vital of sustainability, practices informed by immanential devotions of place.  Next fall, I will be teaching a course called “Becoming Indigenous” to further this objective.

The url for Towards an Engaged Paganism is


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