On Becoming Indigenous
Indigenous — autochthonal: originating where it is found; Living or occurring naturally in a specific area or environment; native; the native people of a place
Indigenousness is a relative concept. Among mobile humans, it is especially so. Cultures, from the beginning of human history have replaced other cultures, often violently, but more often through a slow process of assimilation or displacement.
One group of my ancestors, the Cherokees, are often said to be the indigenous people of the Smokey Mountains. The Mississippian culture that existed there before them might dispute that claim, if it still existed. But even the Mississippian culture did not “originate where it is (was) found.” Only Africans can claim that.
Still, in the broader sense of native, it is fair to say that the Native Americans in general are the indigenous people of the Americas, just as we are all an indigenous species of Planet Earth.
This is not to denigrate the idea of the indigenous. European, African, and Asian peoples are newcomers to this hemisphere, and it is essential that we recognize the importance of the displaced natives, because they are the ones whose roots go deepest in the soil.
My point is that in ten thousand years, if our species survives that long, our current mixture of native and invasive cultures will all be blurred together in history, and our commonalities will be considered the indigenous culture of the ancient past.
We are all becoming indigenous in that historical sense. We are becoming of this place and this history and this road forward together.
With the arrival of the first European invaders, Native Americans were violently uprooted from their past, cut off from their traditions, and their language, and their sacred places. African slaves, also, were pulled up like a crop from its soil, and replanted in a strange land. Others have fled imperialism, war, persecution, and impoverishment to arrive here. In the wake of this disruption, all of us, Native, African, Asian, and European, have constructed a new identity for ourselves. An American identity. Here I am talking about all of the Americas, not just this nation we call “America”.
As individuals, we have the capacity of making choices. We can take the best our ancestors have to offer us, combine that wisdom with our own knowledge and experience, and take that path forward. Or not. But our combined wisdom is what we have to offer the future. So, take it or leave it to die in the dustbin of history. Our choice.
Among the many Native American stereotypes is the wise elder who respects the earth and honors the ancestors. Like the noble savage, this stereotype is a romanticization, displacing the reality of a people in cultural decay, faced with poverty, alcoholism, unemployment, and lost heritage. Somewhere in there is a truth, but we must take the whole package. Wisdom requires knowing what we want and what we don’t want. We must understand what we have lost, in order to avoid losing it again.
The history and culture of all of our ancestors, red, black, white, or brown, contains wisdom and truth. It also contains folly. In this ever-changing sea of cultural fluidity and displacement, we have a choice. We each, individually and collectively, create together the culture and ethos of our time.