- A Global History of Indigenous Peoples: Struggle and Survival
Whereas the concept of indigenous people is at least as old as Iberian expansion, the construct of indigenous peoples as a category in international law and politics is relatively new. It developed slowly in the aftermath of decolonization and gained global currency in the final decades of the twentieth century. The category comprises widely diverse populations, which vary in numbers, subsistence mode, cultural outlook, and political assertiveness. The construction of this rather fuzzy category evolved from the common predicament of native nations in the face of postcolonial state formation and nation building, economic development, and ecological pressures. Their pressing problems were linked to encompassing processes of globalization, and so was the responsive proliferation of international organizations defending indigenous rights and traditions.
Since the study of indigenous peoples was prompted by current problems, a presentist perspective has prevailed. In the introduction, Coates rightly diagnoses that this has impaired historical understanding, and, rightly again, he embarks on redressing the presentist myopia by adopting a world historical approach. He sets out to mend the prevailing sociopolitical definitions of "indigenous peoples" by adding historical criteria, such as a "sense of rootedness in the past" and "a conservative attitude towards external influences" (p. 13). He advocates widening the narrow Eurocentric focus by including expansionism of non-Western empires. The presentist perspective tends to present native nations as primordial communities overtaken and endangered by the modern world. The long-term perspective underscores their continuity, resilience, and agency. Vanishing peoples as [End Page 228] victims of progress turn into vibrant nations struggling for cultural survival. Pessimism yields to guarded optimism.
Basically, the global history of indigenous peoples results from the interplay of "the processes of externally driven change and the force of internally motivated cultural continuity" (p. 23). Therefore the book is structured around the historical dynamics of colonial encounter and indigenous response. It starts with a juxtaposition of modern scientific and indigenous mythical accounts of the demographic origins and migrations of mankind. Myths of creation and descent are crucial in defining the spiritual roots and cultural identity of native peoples. The encounters between tribal peoples and expansionist powers in Europe, the Middle East, and Asia are presented as mutual discoveries in the first wave of globalization. First contacts were followed by varying patterns of occupation, resistance, and adaptation. Next, the author reviews the demographic and cultural impact of colonialism. Demographic transformations were the often dramatic outcome of epidemics, ecological imperialism, and the usurpation of "empty" lands. Cultural transformation was the outcome of Christian missionary efforts and the diverse indigenous responses. In a later phase, colonial control was intensified by various systems of administration and civilization projects. World War II accelerated the intrusion of remote regions for military control and resource extraction, and refreshed agendas for dealings with tribal peoples. The final chapters deal with the emergence and globalization of the indigenous rights movements and organizations. Re-indigenization is being complicated as boundaries become blurred and identities are redefined. Despite growing assertiveness and effectiveness in claiming rights, the future of indigenous societies remains beset with many dilemmas and uncertainties.
This book is a concise synthesis of burgeoning research. It offers a useful introduction for novices in indigenous studies and refreshing reading for professionals. Its emphasis on history counterbalances the socioevolutionary approach of many anthropological studies. Its wide spatiotemporal scope offers a clearly patterned global view of divergent local histories. The world historical approach stresses local continuities and regional diversities. Politicized views and persistent stereotypes are effectively differentiated by the generally balanced analysis. However, the book does not meet the intentions of its author in every respect.
The historical process has been structured in both a thematic and loosely chronological framework. The sequence of phases might unintentionally convey the wrong impression that indigenous peoples [End Page 229] passed a similar trajectory, although this took many centuries for some and a few decades for others. The colonial encounter is presented as a common starting point. However, the indigenous...