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Review

Invisible Indigenes: The Politics of Non-recognition

By Bruce G. Miller

November 4, 2013

Review By Alexander Dawson

TEXT THAT PURPORTS to examine the experiences of indigenous peoples on a global scale is by definition ambitious and, thus, open to a variety of critiques. These works tend to sacrifice detailed analysis in favour of sweeping descriptions and often base their comparisons on weak evidence. Yet this criticism would be unfair to Miller because, as he understands it, “indigene” is fundamentally a global concept. Indigenes the world over were created through roughly contiguous practices – similar forms of territorial conquest, discrimination, and cultural genocide. According to Miller, the failure to recognize indigenous peoples on a global level is simply the latest injustice. Miller’s analysis works on three levels. He provides a detailed examination of the struggles of Coast Salish and Snohomish in Washington State to gain recognition from the US government, and then he goes on to provide a more general analysis of other US groups and Canadian Aboriginal peoples. Following this examination he introduces observations from every region of the planet in an effort to connect local struggles to global issues. Moving from the specific to the general will please some readers as the examples he offers from the Pacific Northwest seem to have important analogies elsewhere. This same practice, however, will frustrate others. As Miller moves further from the cases that he knows best, his grasp of the details weakens and analytical flaws become more evident. 

The text’s principal strengths lie in Miller’s analysis of the Pacific Northwest. Political manoeuvres and changing legal definitions of the concept “Indian” have made claims for recognition in this region particularly difficult to prove. Miller sees a sinister state here – one that is either in the hands of perfidious individuals or one that simply endeavours to limit recognition in favour of ethnic genocide. He has plenty of evidence for this, as the actions of Bureau of Acknowledgement and Research (BAR) officials are hard to render sympathetically. Moreover, Miller points out other structural obstacles to recognition. What of the Sinixt, whose cross-border traditions and small numbers have trapped them in the United States and whom federal officials have grouped with larger communities? And what of the Lubicon in Alberta, who were not included in Treaty Eight because federal agents did not know they existed? 

These are good questions, but Miller offers one-sided answers. Intransigence on the part of the leaders of the Lubicon produced a schism in the band over the issue of recognition, a conflict Miller represents simply as a product of federal manipulation. Would the 182 individuals who took part in the opposition to band leaders see it the same way? Furthermore, when Miller tries to extrapolate from these struggles to a more global approach to indigenous rights, he falls short. He privileges concepts that simply do not translate well beyond North America. His assumptions come out of a context within which federal states denied or granted special rights based upon a legal definition of “Indian.” Because the state in North America has the capacity to grant fishing, hunting, welfare, and other benefits to recognized indigenes, the category has some appeal here. Elsewhere, however, the state has never had the power to grant or enforce the rights associated with recognition, and the concept that the state should grant these rights and benefits seems alien. 

Some of the underlying assumptions about what it means to be an indigene in North America do not translate well from here to other places. This is underscored by the fact that in Chile, Guatemala, or Venezuela (three countries Miller discusses), the Coast Salish would not be described as indigenous but, rather, as ladino/mestizo. This category is not a product of ethnic genocide; rather, it originates in the belief that simple dichotomies do not describe these complex societies particularly well. Miller fails to adequately account for these different histories, and he suggests that countries in this part of the world are/should be moving towards a conception of indigenous rights that is more like that accepted in North America (217). Leaving aside the question of whether or not this is just another example of North American imperialism, it suggests that Miller has learned little from the other cases he studied. 

Miller’s concept of indigenousness also fails to be convincing outside of the North American context. He outlines the difficulties associated with a variety of etic, emic, historical, and geographical definitions, but he leaves his readers with the unsatisfying observation that indigenousness is “best understood as arising from historical experience and associated with particular forms of reaction to particular forms of state formation and modes of economy”(61). His definition is particularly troubling for those who want to interrogate indigenous claims and for those who believe that, if the state is going to recognize special rights, then it needs to have a concrete basis for doing so. His own estimates of the global population of indigenes are profoundly imprecise (between 3 percent and 5 percent), including either very few Africans or all Africans (between 1.2 percent and 100 percent). Furthermore, inasmuch as Miller critiques traditional methods of determining indigenousness, he does not recognize that many of his own claims are questionable. His unwavering support of oral histories and criticisms of historical empiricism (the former are always reliable and the latter are always “flawed,” especially when they contradict the former) leaves one questioning whether this is a scholarly work or an exercise in unrelenting activism. Fairness dictates that the claim to indigenousness be supported by concrete and mutually acceptable evidence. If we ignore this requirement we risk a political backlash against the very concept of indigenous rights. What may be at stake is not an expansion of rights but, rather, the end to any acts of recognition.