Anthropology Indigeneity
Paulette F. Steeves
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 November 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 November 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0199


There are minimally 370 million Indigenous people in the world. The term Indigenous was not used to identify human groups until recently. Indigenous people are often identified as the First People of a specific regional area. Indigeneity as applied to First People came into use in the 1990s, as many colonized communities fought against erasure, genocide, and forced acculturation under colonial regimes. An often-cited definition of Indigenous peoples is one by Jose Martinez Cobo, special rapporteur for the UN Sub-Commission. Cobo’s 1986 report was completed for the United Nations Economic and Social Council, Commission on Human Rights, Sub-Commission on Prevention and Discrimination and Protection of Minorities, thirty-fifth session, item 12 of the provisional agenda, titled, “Study of the Problem of Discrimination against Indigenous Populations.” Cobo described Indigenous people, communities, and nations as groups that have a “historical continuity with pre-colonial societies” within territories they developed, and as communities that “consider themselves distinct from other sectors of societies” now in their territories. Cobo further stressed that Indigenous people and communities are minorities within contemporary populations that work to preserve their ethnic identities and ancestral territories for future generations. It is important to include displaced people whom prior to colonization identified with specific land areas or regional areas as homelands, as well as Indigenous communities that have for decades been in hiding in areas away from their initial homeland areas. Many descendants of Indigenous people were forced to hide their identities for their own safety due to colonization and genocidal policies focused on physical and cultural erasure. That does not make them non-Indigenous. It makes them survivors of genocide, erasure, and forced acculturation. Many Indigenous people are just coming to terms with the impact of ethnic cleansing and the work to reclaim and revive their identities and cultures. Indigenous is both a legal term, and a personal, group, and pan-group identity. Scholars have argued there are at least four thousand Indigenous groups, but that number is likely very low. Indigeneity is not as simple as an opposition to identity erasure or a push back against colonization. Indigeneity is woven through diverse experiences and histories and is often described as a pan-political identity in a postcolonial time. However, that can be misleading, as the world does not yet exist in a postcolonial state, despite ongoing concerted efforts by Indigenous people and their allies in political and academic spheres to decolonize institutions and communities. Diverse Indigenous communities weave Indigeneity through a multifaceted array of space and time to revive identities and cultural practices and to regain or retain land, human rights, heritage, and political standing.

General Overview

The global view of Indigeneity has provided for a rich and diverse collection of literature on Indigeneity and the 21st-century Indigenous experience. Indigeneity cannot be discussed without a review of the colonial politics, policies, and practices that have historically worked to reinforce acculturation and the erasure of Indigenous identities and lifeways. Alfred and Corntassel 2005 argue that Indigeneity or Indigenous as an identity is experienced and lived within the politics of ongoing colonialism. Brown and Sant 1999 include fifteen essays addressing racism in Australia, Dowell 2006 reviews the First Nations, First Showcase at the Museum of Modern Art and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian. Driskill 2011 introduces articles that weave Indigenous studies through Queer Theory. Graham and Penny 2014 include chapters focused on discussions of being Indigenous in public spaces. Harris and Wasilewski 2004 discuss the value of Indigenous knowledge of global discourse. Johnson 2012 discusses Indigenous ways of knowing, being, and doing and Indigenous stories and landscapes that hold memories. Maaka and Andersen 2006 include global Indigenous scholars. Merlan, et al. 2009 focus discussions on the rejection of the Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous People by the governments of Australia, Canada, and New Zealand. Wilson and Stewart 2008 included discussions dealing with decolonizing the lens in American filmmaking. Settee 2013 presents her perspective as a Swampy Cree Woman on Pimatisiwin, while Dunbar-Ortiz 2014 discusses the history of the United States through an Indigenous lens.

  • Alfred, Taiaiake, and Jeff Corntassel. 2005. Being Indigenous: Resurgences against contemporary colonialism. Government and Opposition 40.4: 597–614.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1477-7053.2005.00166.x

    Clearly states that Indigenous people are Indigenous to their homelands. Alfred and Corntassel argue that there are many Indigenous people, and though their experiences may differ, they still struggle to survive as distinct people and work against colonizing states focused on assimilation and erasure of Indigenous people.

  • Brown, J. N., and P. M. Sant, eds. 1999. Indigeneity: Construction and re/presentation. Hauppauge, NY: Nova Science.

    What it is to be Indigenous is often seen in public displays of overt racism targeting Indigenous people. To be Indigenous is to inherit a legacy of colonization. The essays in this powerful book draw back the curtains on racism as an ongoing and reemergent legacy of colonization and a normalized arena that Indigenous peoples navigate daily.

  • Dowell, Kristin. 2006. Indigenous media gone global: Strengthening Indigenous identity on‐and off-screen at the First Nations/First Features Film showcase. American Anthropologist 108.2: 376–384.

    DOI: 10.1525/aa.2006.108.2.376

    Dowell is focused on Indigenous directors strengthening social networks through interaction with film industry representatives and with each other.

  • Driskill, Qwo-Li, ed. 2011. Queer indigenous studies: Critical interventions in theory, politics, and literature. Tucson: Univ. of Arizona Press.

    Critical perspectives of Indigenous-centered discussions focused on gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer, and Two-Spirit (GLBTQ2) lives and communities. This collection seeks to move discourse beyond historical Western discussions, bringing Indigenous voices and knowledge into a traditionally Eurocentric academic space.

  • Dunbar-Ortiz, Roxanne. 2014. An indigenous peoples’ history of the United States. Vol. 3. Boston: Beacon Press.

    Opens a view of the past that has been ignored by mainstream history scholars. Dunbar-Ortiz discusses genocide under US colonial regimes of power and domination. This book is essential reading for understanding the place of Indigenous people in the present and the ongoing impacts of colonization. Dunbar-Ortiz clearly lays out how US policies were and are designed to rid the United States of its “Indian problem” through cultural and physical erasure.

  • Graham, Laura R., and H. Glenn Penny, eds. 2014. Performing indigeneity: Global histories and contemporary experiences. Lincoln: Univ. of Nebraska Press.

    How identities are preformed and displayed are discussed in case studies from both Indigenous and non-Indigenous views. The essay highlights how performance and display are woven throughout the creation and persistence of indigeneity.

  • Harris, La Donna, and Jacqueline Wasilewski. 2004. Indigeneity, an alternative worldview: Four R’s (relationship, responsibility, reciprocity, redistribution) versus two P’s (power and profit). Sharing the journey towards conscious evolution. Systems Research and Behavioral Science 21.5: 489–503.

    DOI: 10.1002/sres.631

    Focused on Indigenous ways of knowing, being, and doing and their contribution to scientific research and the articulation of Indigenous knowledge to broader audiences.

  • Johnson, Jay T. 2012. Place-based learning and knowing: Critical pedagogies grounded in Indigeneity. GeoJournal 77.6: 829–836.

    DOI: 10.1007/s10708-010-9379-1

    Johnson paints a picture of an assimilating globalization that is dull compared to vibrant landscapes of Indigenous knowledge. The message in this article is clear: “A critical pedagogy of place seeks to decolonize and re-inhabit the storied landscape through ‘reading’ the ways in which Indigenous peoples’ places and environment have been injured and exploited” (p. 829).

  • Maaka, Roger, and Chris Andersen, eds. 2006. The indigenous experience: Global perspectives. Toronto, ON: Canadian Scholars’ Press.

    An edited collection of essays that brings a diverse global view to the Indigenous experience. Includes essays from North America, United States, Latin America, Australia, New Zealand, Hawaii, Rapanui, Oceania, Europe, and the circumpolar region, Norway, and Africa. Twenty-one essays present readers with both insider and outsider views of Indigenous colonial experiences.

  • Merlan, F., R. de Costa, C. Greenhouse, et al. 2009. Indigeneity: Global and local. Current Anthropology 50.3: 303–333.

    DOI: 10.1086/597667

    This discussion includes references to the governments of Australia, the United States, Canada, and New Zealand, as they initially rejected the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

  • Settee, P. 2013. Pimatisiwin: The good life, global indigenous knowledge systems. Vernon, B.C: J. Charlton.

    Settee skillfully interrogates the dominant colonial system in contemporary education and shares her thoughts on furthering Indigenous-based struggles for decolonization, social justice, and intellectual thought. Topics include storytelling, languages supporting Indigenous knowledge, pedagogy of healing, Indigenous knowledge and the arts, and critical thought. Global locations of Indigenous knowledge are included in her discussion.

  • Wilson, Pamela, and Michelle Stewart. 2008. Indigeneity and indigenous media on the global stage. Global and Indigenous Media: Cultures, Poetics and Politics 1–35.

    DOI: 10.1215/9780822388692-001

    Interdisciplinary scholars explore the new wave of Indigenous media: produced and created by Indigenous peoples around the globe.

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