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  • Wild Sardinia: Indigeneity and the Global Dreamtimes of Environmentalism
  • Andrea Muehlebach
Tracey Heatherington , Wild Sardinia: Indigeneity and the Global Dreamtimes of Environmentalism. Seattle and London: University of Washington Press, 2010. 314 pages.

The category of indigeneity has by now become a highly mobile form, migrating not just from "original" contexts such as the Americas into new terrains such as Africa and Asia, but, astonishingly and somewhat counter-intuitively, into the margins of Europe. In Wild Sardinia: Indigeneity and the Global Dreamtimes of Environmentalism, Tracey Heatherington's interlocutors, sheep herders in central Sardinia who have for decades struggled against the establishment of a national park on their communally held land, ruefully call themselves "Indians" from whom "the land is being stolen." Yet in Sardinia as elsewhere, such local alignments with a transnationally available politics are heavily mediated by environmentalists. To them, indigenous groups are only recognizable if they behave in properly indigenous ways; if they are slottable as eco-saints seamlessly aligned with what is deemed to be appropriate ecological behavior.

At the same time, many environmentalists use the category of indigeneity as a reservoir for their own conceptualizations of themselves as activists [End Page 709] with a "spiritual" relationship to the land. This is why Heatherington's title metaphor of "dreamtimes of environmentalism"—the tendency on the part of environmentalists to misappropriate indigenous identities (19) and to spin out of their presumed cultural materials a highly moralized narrative of sacred, timeless nature—is an apt one (22-23). It underscores not only the neo-primitivist cadence of some global environmentalisms, but the profound effects this may have for local populations whom environmentalists seek to align with their own visions and dreams. It is at such moments that global dreamtimes become nightmares for local peoples, who are all too often so tightly trapped within the bounds of their presumed ecological and cultural alterity that any attempts to assert their own visions outside of these parameters are bound to fail.

Of course, Heatherington uses indigeneity quite irreverently as well, even as she acknowledges that there is "considerable awkwardness in using this category" in the Sardinian context (53). But the reasons to do so are multiple. After all, the people of Orgosolo, the small, very poor central Sardinian town where Heatherington's rich and imaginative ethnography is set, have been widely celebrated for protecting the local Commons from enclosure and privatization since the early 19th century and for since then vehemently opposing any projects that would put the Commons under the control of outsiders or in private hands. Its residents continue to give expression to this long history of resistance through songs and poetry and exhibit a "profound local attachment to place" (53) by maintaining and transmitting their agro-pastoral heritage, including transhumant pastoralism, agriculture, and gathering. To locals, the land is a "cathedral," a space saturated with sacrifice, hard work, and suffering.

But one can dig even deeper, as Heatherington does, to show that these wild men have endured long histories of racism and colonialism that stretch back to the mid 18th century, when Swedish naturalist Linnaeus created a taxonomy of species that compared Europe's peasants with indigenous counterparts elsewhere. Similarly, 19th century cultural typologies only barely slotted childlike European peasants above other exotic " savages" (44). The "errant herder" was considered biosocially inferior—a living emblem of a disappeared morality and, in the spirit of the intermingling of racial evolutionism and criminology, a "born delinquent" (126). Heads were measured to establish the atavism of a race that apparently had not properly evolved; cranial differences were interpreted as evidence of psychological dispositions and passions (127). In short, [End Page 710] as Heatherington's gestures towards the longue durée show, indigeneity is not a thing or a cluster of characteristics that indigenous groups immanently share, but a relationship of subordination and violence that pits highly marginalized groups against dominant ones and that almost always gets refracted through differential relations to the land.

What, then, does the category of the indigenous do for us analytically in contexts such as the "wild" Sardinian frontier (159)? If the story about parks and the politics of nature conservation has been told in other parts...


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