[lg policy] Who is indigenous?

Dave Sayers D.Sayers at SWANSEA.AC.UK
Mon Jan 7 16:17:43 UTC 2013

Hello one and all,

I do hope the new year is treating you all well so far, and that you managed to get some sort of a
break during the festivities. I'm well and truly back in harness, and I hope I'm not butting into
anyone's continued vacation with this question, especially one that has turned out to be such a
monster as I've written it. (I also apologise for cross-posting.) Well, here goes...

In language policy research, I've always been struck by the implicitness of the meaning of
'indigenous', usually referring to those with the oldest known historical ancestry in a given
location. One example that comes to mind is Nancy Hornberger's 1998 article:


Since 1998, the emphasis on education has been increasingly called into question (including by Nancy
Hornberger, I hasten to add), but I haven't really seen the same critical deconstruction of what
'indigenous' means -- either in language policy or elsewhere. I hope I'm just looking in the wrong
places and that the debate is alive and well, somewhere. From what I have seen in language policy
research, the meaning of 'indigenous' is complex and varied...

In some cases, it's highly politically salient, defined starkly against the backdrop of historical
injustice and present-day inequalities (e.g. USA, Australia, Canada). Language policy is often a
central aspect of such debates. The indigenous people are typically socially excluded, poorer, with
relatively high rates of incarceration, alcohol and drug dependence, shorter life expectancy and so
on. (I do have concerns about quite how substantively language policy in these contexts is actually
motivated by concerns over material human wellbeing, but that's another matter.)

In other cases, the picture is very different. In much of Europe, 'indigenous' is a term used often
by elements of the political far right, in contrast to 'immigrants', those with more recent
ancestries on other shores. In these cases though, the 'indigenous' ones are relatively privileged,
while the 'immigrants' tend to be socially excluded, poorer, etc. 'Indigenous' in these contexts is
seldom equated explicitly to the struggles of, for example, Native Americans. I'm not suggesting
this is the case in all of Europe, of course. My point is that 'indigenous' in European contexts is
a varied condition -- some richer, some poorer, and variously the beneficiaries and the dispossessed
in different historical struggles.

The longer histories of migration and conquest in Europe mean that 'indigenous' is much harder to
define based on original inhabitation of a given location. The English popularly like to define
themselves as Anglo-Saxons since time immemorial, but try telling that to the sixth century Britons
as they were driven ever further westward by successive waves of Angles, Saxons, Jutes and Franks
(who were themselves later shoved around by the Vikings for a few centuries, and so on and so on).

Defining an indigenous Brit these days continues to embarrass the British far right (no bad thing).
But whatever its meaning, it isn't strictly "us what was here first". Nevertheless (and back to my
original question), I've always wondered what is meant by 'indigenous' in these historically more
convoluted cases, in language policy research. Where the term is used in LP research, I've tended to
find it mainly as a contrast with (im)migrants (not in a far-right type of way, but
just as a way to counter-define). That in turn begs the more important question: If the Anglo-Saxons
ultimately 'became indigenous', then how long should others wait to qualify for indigenous status?
How many centuries do you have to be around?

The European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages might not actually use the word
"indigenous", but its somewhat mealy-mouthed focus on "languages that are traditionally used within
a given territory of a State" is placed in contrast to the "languages of migrants", which it
excludes. I've seen Anthea Fraser Gupta call the ECRML a racist document for this reason, which is a
fair heckle to an extent. Without wanting to put words in Anthea FG's mouth, I took her point to be
that languages like Hindi have a centuries-long 'tradition' in, say, parts of the UK, but they just
happen to be associated with ethnic groups whose migration is ongoing, not ancient history -- yet
those languages are perfectly 'traditional' in those parts of the UK. If 'traditional' here is a
kind of definition of indigeneity, then how long, in years, is 'traditional'?

The conundrum for the creators of the ECRML (and let's remember it took 8 years to write, so there
were bound to be compromises made and corners trimmed) was that Europe is host to hundreds of
languages, depending on the measure, and so protecting all of them would be practicably impossible.
But the next question is: well, why not decide on an actual definition of how long it takes to be
counted as 'indigenous', or 'traditional' etc., after which you can join the club? We've already
established that it isn't based on being there first, and that it is just a matter of time (e.g.
Anglo-Saxons). I doubt the current 'minorities' of Europe will all count themselves as
non-indigenous in a few hundred years' time. So how long is it?

I'm not really looking for an answer in the form of X years. I'm really hoping for this idea of
'indigenous' to be picked apart and ultimately discarded, as it doesn't seem helpful to any but
those on the far right (and it's not particularly helpful to them; it's so nebulous it just makes
them look silly). I'm not trying to rhetorically equate anyone who uses that word with far right
extremists! But I am asking... after all this... am I re-inventing the wheel with all of the above?
Has there been a decent deconstruction of the 'indigenous' label, either in language policy research
or elsewhere? If so, please let me know as I've run out of leads. If not, then let's start it...!

All the best,

Dr. Dave Sayers
Honorary Research Fellow, Arts & Humanities, Swansea University
and Visiting Lecturer (2012-2013), Dept English, Åbo Akademi University
dave.sayers at cantab.net

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