What does 'Indigenous' mean? Do we get to use it in Ireland?

by Jimmy Billings

Originally posted as an Instagram post

What does ‘Indigenous’ mean? Do we get to use it in Ireland?

‘Indigenous’ is a politicised cultural identity that has been created through colonialism’s violent encounter with particular groups of people. ‘Indigenous’, in its most basic understanding, is a group of people belonging to a particular place. This only came to make sense in an era of brutal conquest by people who were far from home. Now it means more than that: an emplaced culture that differs in worldview to that of the dominant colonial-capitalist world system, and usually has a strong connection to their ancient ancestral ways and land.

‘Indigenous’ as a political and racialised identity and category was formed in the initial centuries of European colonial domination of the globe. It was one of the first such categories – as it was Indigenous people of the Caribbean (named for the ‘Caribs’, now the Kalinago) who first had the misfortune of meeting European colonisers. Modern racialised categories of people were formed through the initial centuries of colonialism, and we still live with them and their consequences today. See: Rattansi’s very short intro to racism and the BBC doc ‘Racism: A History’ for info on how ‘race’ was developed to structure and justify conquest and slavery

A story largely untold is that of the internal colonisation of ‘Europe’ that was first required for and happened parallel to the colonial conquest of everywhere else. Much of this violently enforced monoculturalism and ecocide in what is now Western Europe occurred onwards from the time of Roman imperialism. Europeans honed this blade at home before export. Some indigenous cultures of ‘Europe’ met this destruction later than others. I use quotes on ‘Europe’ because the unified political image we have of it today is a very recent phenomenon only brought about by over 2000 years of horrific violence and forced assimilation to an increasingly centralised homogenous culture.

So what does this mean for the identity and category of ‘Indigenous’? The reality is that this contested politicised identity can only legitimately be claimed by particular groups of people that are mostly still living in the jurisdiction of a nation state where their ethnicity is not the dominant one, ie. the one of the people that make the decisions. It speaks to their continued subjugation and marginalisation by that state. It also usually means their cultural worldview is incompatible with the dominant one that seeks their assimilation or erasure. In Ireland, Gaelic language and culture is certainly peripheral, but who does it belong to?

In Europe nearly all peoples benefit at least to some degree from the white supremacist Euro-American domination of the planet that persists to this day. The dominant position of European and white settler states is because of the historical (and continuing) subjugation of most of the rest of the world. This is why it is inappropriate and irresponsible for white Europeans to try to claim the term ‘Indigenous’ to describe themselves. Indigenous cultures have retained something we cast out in accepting the benefits of whiteness.

In Ireland, whiteness is not something we can just decide to shake off by insisting we’re indigenous because “we were colonised too.” Irish people have also been involved in the worst excesses of colonial violence for centuries now. ‘Lynching’ comes from the Irish surname Lynch. “The only good Indian is a dead one” was coined by an Irish man. Irish Christian missionaries have committed unspeakable horrors everywhere they’ve tried to convert what they considered pagan savages (ie. Indigenous people). That we are both colonised and coloniser calls for solidarity with Indigenous people – not continuing colonial dynamics by trying to appropriate the term, parts of their cultures, or insisting we’re in the same boat because we’re not.

Mythologist Martin Shaw speaks about the cultural adolescence of modern society. We really are culturally immature if we can’t own up and reckon with all of the things that historically make us who we are now. The full picture, not just the bits we like the sound of. The question is what do we do with our inheritances at this historical juncture? The damage of whiteness will take generations of undoing. We have to make friends with the hard work and heartbreak that the revitalisation of our old pre-white ways entails. Though there is much joy to be created from it, it can’t get reduced to self help. We have to weaponise that revitalisation against whiteness.

Note: I am not the one who gets to decide who or what ‘Indigenous’ is. I am sharing some of what I have learned from Indigenous scholars and activists. I encourage everyone to listen and learn from the work of Indigenous peoples from different places. There’s no excuse for ignorance now with internet access. I can only speak about the Irish context that I belong to. Further, this topic is far more complicated than I could possibly cram into a social media post. A good book for some depth is Linda Tuhiwai Smith’s ‘Decolonizing Methodologies’.