On Indigeneity

This week we are examining Pamela Wilson and Michelle Stewart’s Global Indigenous Media: Cultures, Poetics, and Politics. Partly because all members of our class are reading the Introduction (while the other reading is dependent on personal choice) and partly because of my fascination with definitions, I’d like to begin by asking this question: What does the word “Indigenous” mean?

Steward and Wilson first use the word in reference to the Sundance Film Festival’s support of “Indigenous independent filmmaking,” and in this context, it applies to “eighteen eager Native American writers, directors, and actors” (1). But it’s clear that this is not the book’s working definition. On page 12, the editors discuss Indigenism as a “call for ‘globalization from below.'” They go on to discuss how very idea of indigeniety is contested in some countries, particularly in the People’s Republic of China, which claims that it does not have indigenous people or indigenous issues (13). The editors finally put forth four “general guidelines” for determining who is indigenous (14). Indigeneity involves:

1) a claim to a particular geographic place
2) identification with a particular ethnicity
3) self-identification
4) experience of colonization

I still struggle with this definition, and I think I almost prefer the simpler “submerged nations” suggested a little later on the same page. This is another term I’ll have to keep working on.

A little later in the introduction, the editors note that they do not have any case studies from China in this book. I was disappointed at this, because my course project will revolve around Chinese culture (I know, it’s not a monolith, but humor me for now) and its appropriation of reproductive technology, perhaps as compared to parallel phenomena in the United States. (I will post my project proposal here later this week.) I was encouraged, though, by the short discussion of minority status in China and the “recognized fifty-six minzu” which are indicated on “an individuals’ passports, identification cards, and all official documents” (17).

For the purpose of collecting more material for my course project, I picked the article I found most interesting in this collection and began an unabashed mission to poach passages that will also apply to my work. The article I chose was Kathleen Buddle’s “Transistor Resistors: Native Women’s Radio in Canada and the Social Organization of Political Space from Below.” In the paragraphs that follow, I will take quotations from her work, which deals with Aboriginal women using technology to reinvent themselves, and apply those bits of information to the work I plan to do in my project for this course.

Early on, Buddle addresses how “popular constructions of Native women structure their capacities for sociability at work, on the street, and at home” (129). This bit also applies to colonized peoples in general, including the mostly female demographic my work focuses on. People are always limited by the popular constructions of their own abilities.

At the bottom of the same page, Buddle refers to the lack of a gap between makers and consumers, which certainly has interesting echoes in terms of the study of the fetal ultrasound/sonogram, since most sonographers in the U.S. are female and thus are both makers and consumers of this particular medical technology. A little later, she talked about “the feminization of public political space,” which rings of the debate surrounding the ethic of care (130). The public political space surrounding fetal ultrasound is sharply divided, with certain uses being rationalized according to the ethic of care (getting to “know” the fetus, assuring oneself that all is well) and certain uses being rationalized according to a more patriarchal ethic (laws forcing a woman to view an ultrasound prior to abortion, laws which ultimately cause sex-selective abortion).

One of my favorite parts of Buddle’s piece is in the section “Hearth Space for Smoke Signals.” “By engaging in certain activities and not others, Aboriginal women collectively reconfigure the symbolic repertoires through which Aboriginality and womanhood can be thought and formulated–shaped by discourses on duty, family, and tradition” (132). They learn to act in non-traditional ways, and in so doing, “they challenge the grounds on which their authority is disqualified” and “they broaden the scope of possible roles for Aboriginal women” (133). This is precisely the model by which other colonized populations–in my studies, for example, those who believe they must use medical technologies in particular ways–can begin to work toward new possibilities.

Although it may or may not tie to my work, I was also interested that Buddle’s acquaintances would not self-identify as feminists. The stigma surrounding that term continues to both hinder and fascinate me, because I once fell into the category of people who would have denied being a feminist based on the idea that feminists are too radical.

Buddle also employs de Certeau’s notion of “pedestrian speech acts” to demonstrate that “reserves in the popular imagination are bastions of Aboriginal tradition” (135). This quote could certainly provide a sound theoretical point for many arguments about social construction and determinism if only the application to Aboriginal women alone is expanded.

I also think I may have found another space in which de Certeau’s theories can be very helpful to me by paying attention to Buddle’s claim that “women’s everyday engagements … are socioculturally embedded and are conceived in specific locales” (141). It does seem to me that everyday rebellions are those that are most marked. Rosa Parks’ refusal to give up her seat–a fairly everyday sort of action–sparked (arguably) an entire movement, whereas more grand gestures of rebellion are tossed aside as displays by radicals. Perhaps this is exactly why the term “feminist” has such trouble sticking. I wonder how the everyday rebellion plays out in Chinese culture.

Finally, Buddle tells us that her study speaks “to the need for a more nuanced understanding of the nature of the linkages between cultural expression, gender issues, and political practice.” Culture, gender, and politics–and race–are certainly intertwined, and I can’t imagine that anything but good will come from a better understanding of the relationship between these terms.

Work Cited

Wilson, Pamela and Michelle Stewart, eds. Global Indigenous Media: Cultures, Poetics, and Politics. London: Duke University Press, 2008. Print.

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