Altitude: an e-journal of emerging humanities work

July 2, 2004

Review of Bartholomew Dean and Jerome Levi (eds). ‘At the Risk of Being Heard: Identity, Indigenous Rights and Postcolonial States’. University of Michigan Press, 2003.

Filed under: Volume 4: Justice and the Global (2004) — Tags: — Clifton Evers @ 12:52 am

by Barry Judd, Altitude, Volume 4, Review 2, 2004.

There are an estimated 370 million Indigenous people in more than 70 countries worldwide. At the Risk of Being Heard reminds us that Indigenous peoples are the inheritors and practitioners of unique cultures which, despite their great diversity, have become fused in a world wide movement to survive against external interference by non-Indigenous people, corporations and governments. Concerned with relationships between Indigenous identity and strategies for effective political struggle, At the Risk of Being Heard surveys the plight of Indigenous people in Siberia, Southern Africa, Mexico, Peruvian Amazonia, South East Asia and Australia. In each of these locales, the authors describe how Indigenous people continue to struggle for an active place within the non-Indigenous nation-states in which they now live, while at the same time retaining their own cultural practices.

The book demonstrates that, increasingly, Indigenous positions have been manifest around the concept of nationalism. The ideas of collective identity, shared histories and political solidarity embodied in emergent discourses of Indigenous nationalism situates the process of identity formation at the heart of Indigenous politics. At the Risk of Being Heard indicates that Indigenous peoples have projected both essentialist and more fluid or hybrid forms of identity, suggesting that Indigenous groups have acted pragmatically to develop political positions that best suit their particular circumstances. The various case studies contained in this volume also confirm that Indigenous people have been equally pragmatic in their use of cultural ‘tradition’ and ‘universal’ human rights agendas. Interrogating the interplay between essentialism and hybridity, cultural tradition and universal human rights, the authors raise important questions about the usefulness and long-term viability of these strategies. Although diverse in their focus and subject material, each of the contributors to At the Risk of Being Heard is directed by these critical questions.

In the opening essay, Parker Shipton discusses the applicability of ‘universal’ human rights to the culturally specific traditions of Indigenous Africa. Shipton retraces the development of the human rights agenda to the ideas of Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau. These thinkers posited the development of rights in terms of social contracts between individuals and states. Believing that true rights were those negotiated via a political contract between people and sovereign, Locke and Rousseau, in particular, attempted to retrace the advancement of ‘mankind’ from the rights of the strong that existed in the ‘law of nature’ to those that later developed in civil society through political consent. Shipton shows how each of these thinkers concocted images of natural man to support their ideas. Derived from second hand stories of North American and African peoples, the myth of the noble savage was born. Man in his ‘natural state’ was considered to be a solitary, independent and anti-social being untrammelled by the social and legal constraints of society. In nature it was the right of the strong to impose their will on the weak. Man’s decision to form civil associations and constitute governments to uphold individual rights and promote the commonwealth was therefore viewed as real progress. This separated the civilisations of Europe from the lawless and primitive savages of the dark continent, the Americas and later the South Pacific. Importantly, the rights agenda commenced by Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau (and extended by Adam Smith and Herbert Spencer) conceived rights as having universal application. All human beings whose actions are informed by reason would, it was assumed, agree with Locke that rights included those to life, health, liberty and possessions. Likewise it was assumed that all reasonable human beings would prefer the state’s protection of their rights to the law of nature. Moreover, the idea that rights be independent of social position was also considered a ‘self evident’ universal truth.

By exploring the genealogy of universal rights, Shipton reminds us of their cultural specificity, grounded as they are in the ideas of Enlightenment Europe. He also demonstrates that the independent and solitary noble savage existed only as a figment of the European imagination. He shows us through his description of the Indigenous peoples of Africa that western definitions of rights cannot be applied without reference to local traditions and customs. For a start, Shipton notes that many African languages do not possess words that correspond to the English word right, the French droit or the German Recht. Further problems are encountered when Shipton demonstrates that speakers of the Nilotic Luo language (of the Lake Victoria region) do not speak of life and death as either or propositions, but rather as continuums of being, where a fat and healthy person is considered to be more alive than a thin and sickly person. Such linguistic differences make the application of right to life more complex than western philosophers might have supposed. More fundamental is the African idea that rights are as much about groups, networks and classes of people rather than lone individuals. According to African minds, then, rights are highly dependent on one’s position in society. Kin relationships, richness in knowledge, property or friendship, determine rights as do membership of other categories such as social class, gender and age. In Africa the right to be connected in a social constellation of kin and community is regarded as the fundamental human right; it is society underpinned by shared histories, geography, language and culture that matters. As Shipton points out, for many Indigenous groups in Africa the relationship between individuals and nation-states does little to reflect local concepts of rights. Indeed, on the African continent, it has been the colonial and post-colonial state that, contrary to social contract theory, has more often than not functioned to eliminate or violently suppress the rights of the Indigenous peoples. The African experience reflects the uneasy relationship Indigenous peoples everywhere experience in their relationship with western political traditions.

Pessimistically, Shipton concludes that the great foil of the social contract, David Hume, was correct to assert that individuals become subjects of political institutions (and more recently multinational corporations and transnational capital markets) not through any consensual social contract but through force. According to Hume, the state claimed sovereign ‘rights’ only after its subjects acquiesced and came over time to view the states control over their lives as the natural order of things. As Shipton points out, it is Hume’s understanding of politics and ‘rights’ that better reflects the contemporary situation of Indigenous peoples in their struggle against state and other powers. We can interpret the other essays contained in this volume as reiterating this salient conclusion.

Benedict Anderson, for example, demonstrates how the post-colonial states of Indonesia and the Philippines have actively suppressed the emergent nationalist movements of the West Papuans, East Timorese and Bangsa Moros. Anderson’s analysis shows how each separatist movement is the outcome of the same kind of colonial intervention that earlier worked to forge Indonesian and Philippine nationalist responses to Dutch and American imperialism. Anderson suggests that the right of self determination is central to understanding Indigenous nationalist movements. More importantly, he points out that the harnessing of nationalist sentiment by Indigenous groups transforms them into new cultural and political communities. In his words it functions to give previously futureless people, a potentially viable future.

Like Anderson’s contribution, the essay by Lynn Stephen and Jerome Levi that address Indigenous rights in Mexico suggests that no social contract mediates the relationship between these groups and the state. The contribution from Stephen which outlines the struggle of the Zapitistas shows how the Mexican government only responded to Indigenous demands for self determination after the Maya led group were driven to armed rebellion. The contributions of Kirk Endicott, who surveys Indigenous rights in Malaysia, and Marjorie Blazer, who outlines the unfolding struggle of Indigenous peoples in post Soviet Siberia, confirm a depressing picture of Indigenous/non-Indigenous relationships that are framed not by consent but rather by the often violent use of state sanctioned force.

While concepts of rights and nation are important to Indigenous peoples no question is more important than who is Indigenous? In an exploration of gender hierarchy among the Urarina people of Peruvian Amazonia, Bartholomew Dean shows us how the political effectiveness of forming essentialist identities to project an Indigenous position to the outside world can mean important social issues like gender inequality are viewed as tradition and are therefore considered off limit to debate. Contributions by Richard Lee and Ian McIntosh demonstrate how notions of hybrid forms of Indigenous identity (an alternative to essentialism) can be utilised to gain social and political objectives. Outlining the re-invention of San (Bushman) identity in Southern Africa, Lee is able to show how hybridity and increased group inclusiveness has reinvigorated San culture by successfully co-opting the majority ‘coloured’ population of the Western Cape. Similarly, McIntosh provides an interesting (and beautifully written) take on reconciliation. Drawing on the philosophical lessons of the Dreaming and the reflections of a late Yolgu Elder, McIntosh argues that reconciliation requires the creation of hybrid Europeans and Aborigines in a framework he describes as ‘membership and re-membership’.

As a collection of essays on diverse Indigenous cultures united by a familiar struggle to survive in their own right, At the Risk of Being Heard is a thought provoking volume. It reminds us that the majority of the world’s Indigenous peoples do not live in midst of the often talked about first world, but are more likely to be subsumed by second and third world nation states considered to be ‘post-colonial’. These writings also show the position of Indigenous peoples around the globe to be complex and problematic. The book highlights to us that Indigenous people have adopted a number of political strategies to defend their rights, and, importantly, that sometimes these strategies are effective and do translate into substantive wins for Indigenous autonomy and self determination. Perhaps most significant of all, for Indigenous leaders and intellectuals, At the Risk of Being Heard reminds us that we are not alone in our ongoing struggle.


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