[lg policy] Re: Who is indigenous?

Dave Sayers dave.sayers at cantab.net
Wed Aug 12 08:04:53 UTC 2015

Hi everyone,

After a hilariously long delay (two and a half years!), I've managed to write up this 
blithering ramble into something longer, and possibly more coherent. It's been 
further tidied up and prettified by the wonderful people at Language on the Move, and 
it's online here: http://goo.gl/tdEfvi.

Sadly I wasn't trendy enough to mention super-diversity, but it relates to all that 
jazz quite straightforwardly, if that's your thing :)

Please feel free to share the link far and wide (that shortened link above is best; 
the full link will break in emails).

Comments welcome either in reply to this email or in the comments section of the web 
article - rest assured the comments sections on Language on the Move articles are 
usually less frothing than on the interweb badlands generally, but who knows, maybe 
I'll entice the trolls with this one.



Dr. Dave Sayers
Senior Lecturer, Dept Humanities, Sheffield Hallam University
Honorary Research Fellow, Arts & Humanities, Swansea University (2009-2015)
dave.sayers at cantab.net | http://shu.academia.edu/DaveSayers

On 07/01/2013 14:54, Dave Sayers wrote:
> 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:
> http://journals.cambridge.org/action/displayAbstract?fromPage=online&aid=28435
> 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 very clear and 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
> higher rates of incarceration, alcohol and drug dependence, shorter life spans 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.
> Perhaps 'indigenous' is taken to mean those with the oldest known historical connection to a place;
> but that crumbles under closer inspection in a lot of cases. The English like to define themselves
> as Anglo-Saxons since time immemorial, but try telling that to the sixth century Britons as they
> were shoved 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 more historically
> less recent and less salient cases, in language policy research. Where the term is used in LP
> research, it's usually in order to contrast with (im)migrants (not in a far-right type of way, but
> just as a point of contrast). That in turn begs the more important question: If the Anglo-Saxons
> ultimately 'became indigenous', then how long must 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 are
> excluded. I've seen Anthea Fraser Gupta call the ECRML a racist document for this reason, which is a
> fair heckle to an extent. If 'traditional' here is a kind of definition of indigeneity, then how
> long, in years, is 'traditional'? 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 parts of the UK, but they
> just happen to be associated with an ethnic group whose migration is ongoing, not ancient history --
> yet those languages are perfectly 'traditional' in those parts of the UK.
> 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 hope it's clear that I'm not actually 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's just not
> very 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,
> Dave
> --
> 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
> http://swansea.academia.edu/DaveSayers
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