Do African Ethnic Groups Need Recognition?: Perspective of an American

 Click here for 'A Brief Look at the Plight of South Africa'.

Many sovereign countries, such as the United States of America, have long been questioned for the system by which it built its supremacy. The morals of its freedom may largely be a myth but it is not an isolated case. The moralistic myth or its own independence is the same delusion other countries have evangelized races and countries in order to take their land and identities away.

 Africa is one such case. There are more than 100 ethnic groups in Africa that trace their history through hundreds of years before people from the West started coming to conquer them. It is also this roots that makes the term Indigenous Peoples, not just ambivalent, but highly paradoxical.

Definition of Indigenous Peoples

The term Indigenous Peoples has been a subject of much debate but mainstream understanding indicates that people who lived in an area before the conquerors arrive are indigenous. This understanding, however, is muddled with confusion. Indians, for example, were in Louisiana before the arrival of white Americans but ask any American and they would claim original ownership of the land.

Even the term indigenous peoples is being question and as much as it is tempting to say that there shouldn't be a lot of effort put into debating about terminologies, anyone in America would understand that a lot lies on terminologies.

A further understanding would most likely present two concepts:

1)      The First People pertains to the original settlers of a country or area. They are also often called ethnic group or aborigines.

2)      Cultural Difference is also used as a major differentiating point between who is indigenous and who is not. Languages, religion or spiritual belief, and socio-economic structure define who is indigenous to the culture

In a bid to have a universal understanding of indigenous peoples, a defition was developed by Jose Martinez Cobo in the Special Rapporteur on Discrimination against Indigenous Populations. This was, for a time, accepted internationally (Sanders 214):

"Indigenous populations are composed of the existing descendants of the peoples who inhabited the present territory of a country wholly or partially at the time when persons of a different culture or ethnic origin arrived there from other parts of the world, overcame them, by conquest, settlement or other means, reduced them to a non-dominant or colonial condition; who today live more in conformity with their particular social, economic and cultural customs and traditions than with the institutions of the country of which they now form part, under a state structure which incorporates mainly national, social and cultural characteristics of other segments of the population which are predominant."

However, the definition resulted to many questions and challenged many political, cultural, and social beliefs. For one, the acceptance of the definition makes the identity of indigenous peoples dependent on the chronology of its social development. Next, classifying conquerors as people from other parts of the world effectively eliminates neighboring conquerors which may have been more prevalent before recorded history.

The definition fundamentally assumed and solidified that the formation of identity, history and culture were dependent on when Europeans started colonizing different parts of the world. It was beyond simple. It was, in fact, unreasonable as it ignored the more organic formation of culture, history and identity that started hundreds, if not thousands of years before European colonizers.

Essentially, the definition that was supposed to uphold the identity of a country was based on discrimination. So much, in fact, that even their definition had to be around the axis of the colonizers. Europeans had to arrive before the presence of culture is recognized. The definition may have been well-intentioned but the result only lead to further marginalization of people that should have never had to fight for their land.

There is also the lack of framework on how culture, tradition and beliefs continue to persist even in the face of modernity and continuous strengthening of global hybrid community.

What the definition did, though, is make provide a better and stronger mainstream understanding of the cause of the indigenous peoples. It allowed mainstream society a glimpse of what these people have fought for and survived. However, the definition does not explain the fundamental difference between ethnic groups and the indigenous peoples.

In 1983, a more appropriate definition was developed to include people that were technically unrecognized in the first definition. The decision was that even people that didn’t go through colonization are also recognized as indigenous people if they were descendants of a race that were originally from the area before the influence of foreign influence arrived in the country in the form of trade and commerce or actual colonization.

If an indigenous community bear similar beliefs and customs with those communities that are formally acknowledged as indigenous, that community will also be acknowledged as indigenous if they were able to preserve their customs, beliefs and tradition or at least part of it.

This inclusion has allowed many communities from different parts of the globe to be a part of the global framework for indigenous communities. It even went a step further by acknowledging those that didn’t originate from the area as indigenous peoples if they were placed as a group in the new area. Even those who are not, by blood, a descendant of the community by declares his or her affinity to the race and the group acknowledges the person as one of their own, that person will be acknowledged as indigenous.

It was added that any individual who identified himself or herself as indigenous and was accepted by the group or the community as one of its members was to be regarded as an indigenous person (UN 1989). This preserves for these communities the sovereign right and power to decide who belongs to them, without external interference.

However, this definition is not always recognized mainstream. It seems that different countries recognize who are the indigenous people relative to their own understanding. The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples formally defined Indigenous Peoples through their political condition. Included in their definition is the requirement that a race has to be ‘politically underfavored’ and has minority rights.


Click here for 'A Brief Look at the Plight of South Africa'.

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