Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Tuesday, October 12, 2021

Conquest and Words: Who is Indigenous?

In a sense "indigenous people" is a weird phrase. Lots of areas have seen multiple waves of migration, conquest, settlement, foreign ruler elites which eventually become just the elites, etc.  Indeed, intriguing genetic and archeological evidence suggests that the "indigenous peoples" of the Americas (who moved into the continents from Beringia around 15,000 years ago) may themselves have displaced a sparser population which had already been in the Americas for 5,000 years or more before that.

I think to a great extent the colonizer vs indigenous concept as opposed to what we more generally see as conquest and migration is based on the "great divergence", the idea that from 1500 to 1900 Europe surge forward and technological, economic, and cultural development such that when Europeans showed up and set up settlements in other parts of the world, they were able to do so in a deeply unequal way.

Thus, the Turks are not seen as having "colonized" Asia Minor and Eastern Europe, even though they did conquer it and install themselves as the ruling elites within clear historical memory. This is seen as a conquest, but not colonization, because the Turks are at some level seen as having been at the same level as the Byzantines, Persians, Slavs, Greeks, etc. that they fought and ruled. 

Nor are the Arabs seen as having "colonized" Palestine, although the Israelis are often accused of having "colonized" the same area when they established political control over the area which their religious forebears had inhabited prior to its conquest by Arabs (and various other intervening conquests and migrations.)


Poland is not usually described as being "colonized" by the Germans, Austrians, and Russians, although Poland was carved up and ruled over by those three empires during the 1700s. And the Poles are not describes as the "indigenous people" of the region, even as they struggled to maintain their language and culture under the rule of other peoples until regaining their own national government after World War One.

And we talk about the "Norman conquest" of Britain (a conquest which resulted in the imposition of a foreign elite which spoke a different language and ran the government for their own ends for hundreds of years until the country gradually blended into one culture) and the Indo European migrations (which in Europe mostly wiped out and replaced the Neolithic farmer populations in the 2nds and 3rd millenniums BC) but not about "Norman colonization" or "Indo European colonization".

The reason that we see these conquests and migrations throughout history is that peoples move, whether seeking new resources or escape from threats. Often they are moving into areas in which some people already exist, and often when that happens they do not treat those others well.

The division between talking about "conquest" versus talking about "colonization" is also not based on the era.  The Ottomans were establishing rule over the Balkans after the European colonies in the Americas had already been been established, and the Great Powers were dividing up Poland after most of the European colonial empires in Africa, the Pacific and Asia were already extant.  

Some have suggested that the "colonialism" versus "indigenous" terminology is simply anti-European bias.  There's perhaps some element of this, but it's worth noting that "indigenous" is sometimes used to distinguish between different non-European populations.  For instance, people talk about the indigenous Malay population in Singapore as opposed to other Asian ethnicities who moved in during the last few hundred years.  There are also European groups which are referred to as indigenous, primarily nomadic groups living in the far north of Europe and in Siberia.  

This, I think, points to what people end up meaning when they contrast indigenous people versus colonizers, which is some sort of distinction of technology which is seen as giving the outsiders and "unfair" edge over the natives. Thus, because the Ottomans are not seen as having a massive technological edge over the Europeans living in the Balkans, we talk about the Ottoman conquest of the Balkans, but not the Ottoman colonization, while during the same period we talk about the Spanish and Portuguese conquest of the Americas as colonization.  And although no one talks about the Russians "colonizing" Siberia, the UN does describe the semi-nomadic peoples that were in Siberia prior to Russia establishing control over it as "indigenous peoples".  The Russians had a large, complex state architecture and various technical advantages, so they were seen as the outsiders crowding out the "indigenous" natives. 

Characterizing things this way might be seen as unfair, as people have become less comfortable with talking about one culture as being more "sophisticated" or "advanced" than another, even when one has stone tools and the other has firearms.  And yet, I think this hierarchy is clearly implicit in the way that we talk about different historical groups and events.

Of course, another element is that we assign a moral weight to recent historical events (or historical events which are seen as connecting to still-current inequalities) that we don't to others.  Thus, one sometimes hears people claim that the creation of the modern state of Israel was "colonization" and subjugated the "indigenous" Palestinians, but one seldom hears the conquest of Palestine by Arabs in the 600s or by Seljuq Turks in the 1000s referred to in the same moral terms.  Those conquests and displacements are seen as being beyond a sort of moral event horizon, while the actions of the Spanish in the 1400s and 1500s are not.

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