“There is a certain historiography that is quick to take the agents of imperialism as exclusive players of the only game in town. It is prepared to assume that history is made by the colonial masters, and all that need be known about the people’s own social dispositions, or even their “subjectivity,” is the external disciplines imposed upon them — the colonial policies of classification, enumeration, taxation, education, and sanitation. The main historical activity remaining to the underlying people is to misconstrue the effects of such imperialism as their own cultural traditions. [...] Everyone hates the destruction rained upon the peoples by the planetary conquests of capitalism; but to indulge in what Stephen Greenblatt calls the “sentimental pessimism” of collapsing their lives within a global vision of domination in subtle intellectual and ideological ways makes the conquest complete”. Marshall Sahlins, “Goodbye to Tristes Tropes”, in Culture in Practice. New York : Zone, 2000, pp. 477-478.

Indigenous or autochthonous peoples are the most recent terms in an awkward list which has seen certain peoples in various parts of the globe described in turn as savages, primitives, aboriginal peoples, and peripheral or traditional peoples — the list goes on. Autochthonism is neither the least inconvenient nor the least tenuous of these various ways of tracking difference. Let us begin with the biggest paradox of all: in affirming both that these peoples cannot be reduced to the common lot of the states which contain or divide them, and that they can stake a legitimate right to their territories, resources, and lifestyles — in short, in asserting their reluctance to let themselves be crushed by the Westernisation of the world — the term “autochthonism” simply reactivates one of the founding myths of Western culture. After all, it was in the name of autochthonism — “those born from the earth” — that the Athenians not only based their explanations of the bond of equality between them, but also gave this equality a status that was both exemplary and exclusive, reserving democracy for citizens of Athenian origin while at the same time making it a model for barbarian peoples to follow. The term “autochthonous peoples”, which locates the difference between “them” and “us” in geography rather than history, doubtless has the advantage of bringing an end to the fluctuation from “aboriginal peoples” to “primitives”, which brought the same evolutionist myth into play, albeit with opposing meanings. But at the same time, it seems to reactivate other hesitations, subjecting the affirmation of rights to a debate over precedence — who is from here? who isn’t? — and rooting the defence of minorities in a reference to identities and roots that feeds the worst nationalist policies. Which leads to the blend of condescension and mistrust often caused by campaigns in favour of the world’s 350 million indigenous people. At best, this is outmoded Rousseauism; at worst, it is dangerous nostalgia for the politics of lineage.

Suspecting the politics of autochthonism of being a way for nationalism to mirror itself in exoticism in fact overlooks three points. First of all, it overlooks the fact that affirming the existence and rights of populations that settled earlier, whose customs make them outsiders, to spaces governed by sovereign states does not mean reactivating the myth of origins which feeds national identities. Rather, it means contesting national identities directly in their own field, where cultural homogeneity is the flip side of political equality. As we know, however republican a state might be, there always comes a moment when it forgets for an instant the universality it prides itself on and presents itself as the expression of one sole Nation and one common origin. Autochthonism responds not by taking this logic of identity to its extreme, but by placing difference at the heart of national territories: native peoples, or the Nation outside of itself.

Secondly, it has been little noted how much the category of autochthonism has in some ways taken up the baton of national demands which were largely the backdrop for anti-colonial struggles. These struggles demanded the same superimposition of territory, community, and political sovereignty for colonised peoples as for their colonisers; autochthonous demands must deal with governments born from de-colonisation while confronting other players, particularly in the economic sphere, and aspire not so much to sovereignty as simply to recognition. This can be seen as a defeat, auguring only dismal, fragile protectorates; but it can also be seen as a step towards to a mode of political constitution, detached from the horizon of an autonomy whose sole adversary is the other state, and in which the creation of a state would be the supreme consecration.

Because thirdly, the emergence of the question of autochthonism cannot be dissociated from a call to institutions and international campaigns, with the creation in 2002 of a Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues at the UN as one of its outward signs — strange though it is for peoples who are seen as rooted to seek assistance from cosmopolitan law. Hannah Arendt saw refugees, condemned by the logic of the nation-state to walk the earth without having a nation of their own, as the avant-garde of peoples and the starting point for an International. As for us, we simply see autochthonous peoples, living by the same logic on lands that are no longer their own, as our contemporaries facing the most urgent crisis.

Indeed, we must deal with autochthonous societies in the present, as opposed to a certain left-wing tendency inherited from the 1970s to make them either the witnesses of a lost past or the laboratory of a future alternative — the before or after of global capitalism. The extreme violence that capitalism has inflicted upon them is an indisputable fact and creates an inexhaustible debt, whatever the new apostles of the benefits of colonialism say. Yet seeing the difficulties they face as nothing but further proof of the damage caused by the West is an insult to their attempts to remain standing — attempts that are no doubt fragile but not necessarily doomed to failure. On the other hand, looking at them as the last survivors of a resistance that has been crushed everywhere else, as the last hope for change, means not only forgetting the extreme imbalance of power but also imagining an artificial transversality of struggles which is likely to be of service to no-one. We must look at autochthonous societies in their own right, in their necessarily oblique relationship with those that dominate them.

The minimal proof that these societies have not been crushed to death by the West is the inability of Western categories to give a full account of them. Economy? There are definitely autochthonous economic strategies and activities. However, they are enclosed in other practices, particularly because they involve a relationship with the land that cannot be assimilated with private ownership, even if it is collective in nature. Being a Kanak means belonging to the land as much as it does being the land’s first owner. Art? There are autochthonous artists, who describe themselves as such. But for the Aborigines, art is just as much a way of making the community exist. Knowledge? For the Trumai and the French Academy alike, those without the appropriate title cannot claim to be wise. But for them, knowledge owes its value to the social relations it permits, reinforces, and recomposes. So throughout this dossier we will ensure that the lesson of classical anthropology, from Mauss to Clastres, remains relevant — autochthonous peoples superimpose and overlap concepts and fields that the West keeps separate.

However, they are not the uncompromisingly undifferentiated groups, communities without individuals, or stateless societies our imagination tends to see them as. Autochthonous societies have their own particular individuals (aboriginal artists provide proof of this, if proof were needed), internal heterogeneity, both social and political, as Kanak differences on the issue of nickel demonstrate, and complex organisations, from the Caledonian customary senate to the Inuit Circumpolar Conference. Is this an effect of acculturation? Probably in part, but only in part, and even so, Marshall Sahlins reminds us that it takes a great deal of ethnocentrism and great ignorance of the societies in question to interpret all and any appropriations from the West as examples of Westernisation: as he points out, “it was muskets that entered into Fijian wars rather than Fijians into musketry wars”.

Here, the perspective is reversed. The simple survival of autochthonous communities is not attested by the way the West struggles to grasp them; rather, their insistence is shown in the way they grasp the West, seizing on the logic of globalisation as a resource and turning the rules and gestures which try to label or circumvent them to their own ends. The following pages contain several remarkable examples of the indigenisation of the West: negotiating high prices to reveal the slightest secret to anthropologists, while in so doing reintegrating their inquisitive gaze into the interplay of traditional exchanges; using the international art market’s interest in tribal art to strengthen the tribes’ place in the internal political scene without renouncing the work of memory, conspiracy, and reinvention enabled by painting; basing a political constitution on mineral resources that interest the West, or appropriating the notion of culture to the point of turning it into a legal weapon; mobilising international opinion when the government represents the interest of diamond traders, without hesitating to take on private law status to negotiate directly with companies when the state becomes too racist and returns to the old logic of internal colonisation in its own territory.

In all these cases, autochthonism is not about celebrating the bucolic marriage of man and inviolate nature or opposing instrumental and predatory European rationality so much as it is about indicating a strategy that is coherent with the processes that make and unmake our era. There is no cynicism in this reading, as long as we do not lose sight of what makes such strategies so harsh: if these peoples fight in the name of what they are, it is so that they can carry on living, so that the weapons used in battle become the stake of the battle’s outcome — still being there.


Dossier compiled by Antoine Perrot, Mathieu Potte-Bonneville, and Stany Grelet.