Indigenous peoples

According to the UN, Indigenous peoples are the ‘inheritors and practitioners of unique cultures and ways of relating to people and the environment’ and are distinguished from later settled populations by their inherent rights to lands and lifeways that have been afforded to them since time immemorial. Whilst we could debate and potentially critique the exact criteria, this post is actually about the use of Indigenous peoples as a term, and the particular ways in which it works (and sometimes doesn’t work!) in museum narratives.

Although terms for First Peoples have shifted and evolved over the years (and will likely continue to do so), the term Indigenous peoples has come into use more frequently in recent years. What I want to concentrate on is the capitalisation of the letter “I” in “Indigenous” and the “s” in ‘peoples’. The word “indigenous” itself has been used historically to refer to Indigenous peoples but the lack of capitalisation belies a linguistic refusal to ascribe a proper noun to Indigenous peoples. Daniel Heath Justice (Cherokee Nation/ᏣᎳᎩᎯ ᎠᏰᎵ), in his book Why Indigenous Literatures Matter puts it this way: ‘The capital “I” is important […] as it affirms a distinctive political status of peoplehood, rather than describing an exploitable commodity, like an “indigenous plant” or a “native mammal”.[1] The “s” in “peoples” then, serves to signal the fact that Indigenous peoples are hugely diverse, with distinct cultures, histories, languages and beliefs. Pluralising “peoples” makes this clear and resists subsuming all Indigenous peoples together as a homogenous group.  

In museums, especially in Europe, the term still hasn’t become totally mainstream. Even in Anglospheric settler-colonies, the debate around terminology still rages. This article from Canadian newspaper The Star gives some more detail on the debate and their decision to change their style guide accordingly. For curators, I’d suggest that it’s always better to be specific in who you are referring to in your exhibition narrative. However, if speaking in collective terms, Indigenous peoples is a preferable term.

[1] Daniel Heath Justice, Why Indigenous Literatures Matter, (Waterloo, ON: Wilfrid Laurier Press, 2018)p. 6.

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