CHARBONNEAU – The word “Indigenous” is losing all meaning

AS ‘INDIGENOUS’ gains wider international acceptance, its meaning becomes less clear.

The designation was accepted by the United Nations in 2007. A UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples defined Indigenous people as those “having a historical continuity with precolonial societies that developed on their territories,” and who consider themselves distinct from the “societies now prevailing on those territories.”

But this definition suggests a homogeny of first peoples around the world that doesn’t exist.

It also lumps non-Indigenous people together – those colonial powers who claimed land not theirs. Other than taking land not theirs, colonial powers have little in common.

Colonial powers took land under the pretence that they were empowered by God. They set arbitrary boundaries of nation-states. These pretenders invoked a Vatican rule called the Doctrine of Discovery. Explorers could claim vast tracts of native land by raising flags, or planting crosses or just digging some sod.

If I claimed ownership to your car just by placing a flag on it and muttering some hocus pocus about papal bulls, my sanity could be reasonably questioned.

The Vatican recently repudiated the Doctrine of Discovery, placing more doubts about such fanciful claims.

The trouble with “Indigenous” has nothing to do with legitimate land claims by first peoples. There are two problems.

To lump all of the world’s first people into one category is misleading because they are not alike. Cultures are separated by time and geography. Of the world’s 7,000 languages, about 6,500 or more are spoken by those classified as Indigenous.

Wade Davis, author and National Geographic explorer, says:

“But to wrap the lion’s share of the world’s cultural diversity in a single category, slapping upon it a word as if a convenient label, suggests a uniformity to culture that ethnography vehemently denies (Globe and Mail, March 26, 2023).”

The reindeer herders of Siberia and first peoples living in the forests of the Colombian Amazon have no more in common culturally than the French do with the Chinese.

“Associating the former as ‘Indigenous peoples’ is as arbitrary and ultimately meaningless as subsuming the latter into a contrived category of ‘Industrial peoples,’” adds Davis.

Secondly, it creates a false dichotomy:

“. . . it implies that some of us are, and others are not, indigenous to the planet, which is both incorrect and the wrong message to send to our children. Nurturing a spirit of place, displaying fidelity to land and water, and embracing with conviction the obligations of stewardship, ought surely to be aspirational imperatives for all people and all human societies.”

What could we use in place of “Indigenous?” An expanded view of nations that includes language would work.

For example, Haida Gwaii is the political and spiritual homeland of the Haida and has existed for 6,000 years. Yet, Haida Gwaii is not a member of the United Nations. Ninety-seven current UN members did not exist before 1960.

“Nations” is a better way of describing the unique culture, language and territory of the peoples of the Earth.

“Countries” can then be understood as groups of nations, consolidating the richness of all peoples and languages under their artificial boundaries.

David Charbonneau is a retired TRU electronics instructor who hosts a blog at

About Mel Rothenburger (9634 Articles) is a forum about Kamloops and the world. It has more than one million views. Mel Rothenburger is the former Editor of The Daily News in Kamloops, B.C. (retiring in 2012), and past mayor of Kamloops (1999-2005). At he is the publisher, editor, news editor, city editor, reporter, webmaster, and just about anything else you can think of. He is grateful for the contributions of several local columnists. This blog doesn't require a subscription but gratefully accepts donations to help defray costs.

1 Comment on CHARBONNEAU – The word “Indigenous” is losing all meaning

  1. I like what you say here, sir. It has been said by at least one Indigenous Elder that all people are “indigenous” to Mother Earth, being born upon this planet. I appreciate the suggestion of using “nation” as a replacement. I hope you are successful in changing enough people’s minds that this becomes common usage.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: