Biopolitics of Indigeneity. Indigenous people in neoliberal states

Term Paper, 2015

19 Pages


Table of contents

1. Introduction

2. Neoliberalism as state Paradigm

3. Perceptions of indigeneity

4. Status Quo

5. Case studies

6. The need to accept the UN declaration of 2007

7. Indigeneity on the way to recognition

8. Conclusion


1. Introduction

Before talking about indigeneity, I will try to find a suitable definition first. Merlan (2009) offers a definition of indigeneity as consisting of first-order connections between people and locality, or as the UN applies it, indigenous people are those with a continuous pre-invasion history. Indigenous people must prove an unbroken history in a place in order to claim land or otherwise they era not entitled to stay, as Povinelli (2011) likewise summarises a part of the Australian Native Title Act (1993). In Finland, the criteria to be regarded of Sámi origin are complex and include language skills, being in a registry etc. It is for the overall demanding traits not easy for people to be counted as indigenous people, favouring assimilation on the paper. I reject this definition because when applied, the place of origin as distinctive criteria restricts indigenous people to being tied to that specific place in terms of lifestyles, traditions, etc, delimits knowledge to the traditional and local and withstands any possibility of ‘modernisation’.

Stavenhagen’s definition sees indigeneity as a constructed category. A bit cynically Merlan (2009) adds up to the idea of constructivism by saying that indigenous people can be characterised by their relation to the state government - which is usually one of exclusionary treatment. In the end this definition is self-dissolving, because indigeneity will not stop to exist as soon as indigenous peoples are recognised by the state governments.

I will apply yet another definition. Indigenous people should be considered as such if they see themselves as indigenous, and have a different cultural heritage than non-indigenous groups in a country or region.

I want to show that indigenous people are not recognised enough and suffer from neo-colonial measures. I will pick up Merlan’s (2009) applied definition of Rowse for ‘recognition’: It is the organised representation of population, land and customary law.

Not all indigenous peoples are marginalised, though, and progress in terms of recognition has been made. The ontogenesis of indigenous movements was favoured by the establishment of legal acts in the wake of minority rights after the Second World War, and since then there is an overall bias towards improvement. The ILO guidelines 107 and 169 influenced the policies towards indigenous peoples heavily. ILO 107 (1957), “The Indigenous and Tribal Populations Convention”, focused on the integration of indigenous people who is here referred to as “populations”, so a part of society like any other. This viewpoint favoured assimilation, since integration of indigenous peoples means that their cultural heritage is no longer compatible with the society they are supposed to assimilate into. A shift in policies was marked by ILO 169 (1989), “Convention concerning Indigenous and Tribal Peoples in Independent Countries”., which has a reference to the term “peoples”, which shows that ethnic and cultural diversity are far more respected from then on.

I will examine the frame in which states operate, that is neoliberalism, show how indigeneity is seen and what effects that has on the political situation of indigenous people. Some case studies will shed light on contemporary problems.I will deal with the UN declaration of 2007 as beneficial institutional framework and give my account on how improvement can happen. Unfortunately, there is no patent recipe how full recognition of indigenous people can be achieved and so this paper does not seek to answer what steps exactly have to be done to achieve recognition and how neo-colonialism can come to an end. My primary goal is to raise awareness for he problematic and show the contexts in which indigenous people suffer from non-recognition and neo-colonial adaptation respectively improvement measures.

2. Neoliberalism as state Paradigm

2.1. The role of the market logic in neoliberalism

The state paradigm which is most relevant for my deliberations is the neoliberalism (or, if you follow Povinelli’s (2011) logic, late liberalism since 2008) since it is applied by most concerned countries. The first liberal policy to appear was connected to Adam Smith’s ideas and called Laissez Faire liberalism. A central characteristic is that markets and states let themselves on a set of principles proceed basically independent of each other. Neoliberalism contrary to liberalism strives for the establishment of a market logic to all fields of society and values. According to Povinelli (2011) this means on the extremes that goods like a longer life expectancy are rejected when they do not produce market value. From this perspective, it is morally acceptable when, for example, water is privatised for the sake of economic growth. Economic reasons support competition within society, but societal diversity requires protection in that sense that laws have to recognise different cultural heritages.

2.2. Compromise replaces idealism

Domestic liberal politics are shaped by the internal rule of maximum efficiency, which Odysseos (2010) names that “one always governs too much” (p.751). At the same time neoliberalism is conducting citizens’ conduct through fields as family or society, which in the Foucaltian sense means a ‘governmentalisation of the state’. The combination of a slim state and building capacities for citizens to be governed marks according to Hale (2005) a shift towards democracy, that is opposition within the system and thus tendency in favour of negotiation and compromise. “[F]rom protest to proposal” (p.18) is what Hale (2005) identifies as a more promising, pragmatic approach to make change happen. The wake of cultural rights followed by inequitable negotiations within the system for resources and political power, the state as an arbiter instead of opponent means that utopian ideas will be given up, though, because of an inclination of actors to articulate more realistic proposals as part of their new role in the system. It is a trade-off, of which Hale (2005) describes the goods traded as “recognition in exchange for compliance with the economic and political constraints that follow” (p.20).

2.3. Multiculturalism

Hale (2005) defines neoliberal governance as “include[ing] the limited recognition of cultural rights, the strengthening of civil society, and endorsement of the principle of intercultural equality” (p.10). Hale (2005) goes so far as to say that collective rights for disadvantaged groups is what justifies the “neo” in neoliberalism. According to the principle of neoliberalism, Guatemalan Maya leaders have a certain power which reflects hat also the Guatemalan state endorses multiculturalism. Nevertheless, perceived excesses of Maya culture trigger anxiousness of Ladinos in Guatemala who fear to lose their status. Legitimacy within the Ladino population is granted to the claims of the “redeemable” Mayas, but radicals are seen as inherently hot-headedness and treacherous people. Cultural racism exists because some Ladinos accuse Mayas of political opportunism and explain that Mayas would be inauthentic: The rationale is based on the believe that Mayas mixed with other people before the Spanish arrived and are hence not indigenous. In effect, many Mayas are considered arbitrary, envious and therefore less responsible workers who wouldn’t care about the Ladinos’ fortunes. So despite neoliberal multiculturalism granting indigenous people more say in state politics, there is still a racial hierarchy.

Sometimes political reasons create rejection of multiculturalism. Australians understand a core principle of democracy, as Merlan (2009) explains, to be equal treatment for everybody. This withstands the Australian Aboriginal position in society, because regarding them as indigenous people requires special rights. This problem is not easily solved, because federal resistance towards a popular movement of equality is not possible by democratic means, so recognition of the indigenous community is not in full effect.

3. Perceptions of indigeneity

3.1. Vulnerability and adaptation

Povinelli (2011) noticed that vulnerability and adaptation literature is the mainstream genre of literature concerning indigenous peoples nowadays and I would assume that this accounts for public opinion as well. In Nordic literature about the respective countries, for example, in-country colonialism is not a thing. Even scholars usually do not recognise the Finnish government’s treatment of Sámi, to give my idea a name here, as colonialism in the public discourse.

When we examine the content of vulnerability and adaptation literature we find that in neoliberalism vulnerability cannot be understood as pressure of cultural marginalisation: multiculturalism is inherent in and even a key to neoliberalism (cultural racism may happen as to be seen in Guatemala example, but is not inherent in the paradigm of neoliberalism). Perceived vulnerability of indigenous people is therefore not created by the dominant political system but more broadly by a changing world (which again is a product of political regimes, but the shaping of the world through political paradigms shall not concern us here). Mostly vulnerability is understood as non-coping with ecological, economic, political and societal change. That is, indigenous people would be seen as vulnerable because they cannot maintain their traditional lifestyle due to climate change, because they would be unable to take part in the economic system, victims of migration movements into ‘their land’ etc.

Lindroth and Sinevaara-Niskanen (2014) point out that otherness is still understood as powerlessness or in other words as vulnerability, and thus associated with a need for protection and a continuous call for adaptation. They summarise the question in how far indigenous people have to adapt by saying “the status of indigenous subject has stagnated to mean no more than that of adaptive subject” (p.193). Cameron (2012) found that governments and non-governmental institutions intervene by relocating, residential schooling etc., which is also caused by the perception of indigenous people as least responsible yet most affected and the idea that because of their affection they are the ones who have to adapt. It is problematic that indigenous people themselves stress their abilities to adapt and thereby create pressure to continuous adapting for themselves as well.

3.2. Neo-colonialism

The neo-colonial adaptation perspective lends wisdom to for example those who aim to “improve” the life of indigenous peoples. Vulnerability functions as a predisposition for adaptation, which then takes place in a colonial way when the enforced adaptation is not congruent with indigenous peoples’ values, traditions, goals and other. Murray Li (2007) describes neo-colonialism as enhancing capacities for agency and thus causing adaptations in the desired direction. Colonialism in distinction is about domination in a broader sense and not so much an issue any more nowadays.

We can find one example of neo-colonialism in Australia. Brigg (2007) explains that for Aborigines “life is embedded in other people, entities and the landscape rather than concentrated in individual figures like the self and the sovereign” (p.410). Western shaping of politics focuses on speech and the written word (biopolitical), whereas Australian Aboriginal traditions emphasize land and ancestors for the establishment of policies (terrapolitical). Both systems of creating social hierarchy have importance of land (exploitation vs. orientation) and speech (constituting the basis for law) in common. Authority, then, is dependent on successful demonstration of skills and capacities in the indigenous way. This implies opportunities for everyone, independent of old age; however, seniors are advantaged in gaining influence. Force is not constituted in Aboriginal communities. Attempts to abolish the terrapolitical way and introduce the biopolitical system by relocating or other makes people neo-colonialists.

It is pastoral power which seeks to enhance indigenous people, but it is misplaced here since a top-down enhancement cannot be the overall goal. “Care to death” and “suffocating care” are two further terms to describe mainly colonial efforts in order to shape indigenous life. From a humanitarian perspective this neo-colonialism is not acceptable. Society wise, top-down induced efforts risk perpetuating social problems when they take a dominant, colonising measure and are therefore not helping. Indigenous people themselves are often not happy with governmental biopower in action. Murray Li (2007) reflects on that saying that “some of the more incisive critiques of improvement are generated by people who directly experience the effects of programs launched in the name of their well-being” (p.2). Knowledge about how to improve others’ life choices is included in the self-understanding of the Western parties who try to improve. Improving here means selectively enhancing indigenous peoples’ capacities for action by the means the parties consider most suitable, and in doing so they become guilty neo-colonising. It would be better to consider that everyone has to adapt and include indigenous people in setting the terms and pace of the change.

4. Status Quo

4.1. Why it is hard to get political attention

The former chairperson of Global Indigenous Caucus Malezer, as Merlan (2009) reports, explains his strategy for gaining national attention as speaking to an international audience. Domestic audiences see the will as a tool to hold people accountable for their own situation, since opportunities for improvement would exist. Theoretically this might be the case, but in practice there are barriers which prevent the free will, like poverty, over proportionally many illnesses and diseases etc. Also within the international community the situation is difficult nowadays. Povinelli (2011) found civilization rhetoric in speeches of the European leaders Cameron, Sarkozy and Merkel who call for defence of western liberal principle and declared multiculturalism a failure slowly after the 9/11 attacks.

Povinelli (2011) states that “indigenous claims on the basis of prior occupation gain moral force from the human desire for stability, security, certainty and peace” (p.35). It is kind of sad that one has to resort to the argument of place of origin and humanitarian ideas do not count so much. Plus, the disadvantage of the place of origin argument is that moral weight decreases as time goes on. A future centred perspective should be given the chance to have more weight.

4.2. Political influence of indigenous people

Indigenous peoples are reduced the virtue of their allegedly inherent qualities. Typically those are in close relationships with nature, indigenous knowledge and customs and their interpretation of change, which results in kind of stakeholdership in urgent affairs. Since in the public perception indigenous peoples and indigeneity are basically tied to nature and hence to exceptionality, they become subject to the normalizing biological and political technologies of biopower in other fields. It limits their possible actions in politics significantly to a pre-destined space of decision making respectively consultation, where few decisions of broader importance are made. As Cameron (2012) explains, indigenous peoples’ place is often considered in debates instead of places where political decisions are made. For instance, instead of assessing local weather patterns as part of climate change, the Inuit could as well participate in meetings about territorial claims about former ice fields, where shipping routes or military infrastructure are created. Lindroth and Sinevaara-Niskanen (2014) point out that even when indigenous groups ‘sit at the same table’ or are considered to be ‘partners’ they are governed and they usually lack decision-making power. The authority lies within the state actor, so that indigenous people often occupy only a consultation role. So the actual power of indigenous people in decision-making processes is limited in quantity (few fields of policies) and quality (often consultation role or at least no meta-decisions). Even when indigenous people have the ability to participate in decision making, Hale (2005) says that indigenous claims cannot go against the Western economic order or be too radical in order for indigenous people to be continuously included into the political progress. The agency function of indigenous people is further undermined by the fact that consultancy happens mostly in times of crisis, and then it is possible because of the scarce nature of involving indigenous people that they are held over proportionally responsible when their expertise proofs misleading. Political practices are different from institutional framework, that is, even when indigenous people should in theory be equal partners they might just not be invited to important talks or similar. This colonial perspective of ‘inclusion’ into decision making stresses the traditional but fails to recognize that Inuit concerns may as well go beyond the traditional realm and do not have to be limited to the traditional and local.


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Biopolitics of Indigeneity. Indigenous people in neoliberal states
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indigeneity, biopolitics, indigenous, neo-colonialism
Quote paper
Tobias Vornholt (Author), 2015, Biopolitics of Indigeneity. Indigenous people in neoliberal states, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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