The Inquiry of Indigeneity: On Telling Our Own Stories

“The unexamined life is not worth living,” Socrates is credited to have said; by that measure, Native people’s lives must be the most worthwhile around.

The life of the indigenous person and our place in the larger community is continually the subject of study, research, scrutiny, dissection, and governance. We are often the work (and hobbies) of writers, photographers, researchers, scientists, companies, scholars and more, mined and extracted for our stories, methods of communication, art, relationships, knowledge — for the very substances within us, under our feet, and off our shores. The indigenous experience is to know raw export; this is part of the economy of indigeneity.

These modes of inquisition into our lives gives way to questioning our own selves: who are we? Where are we going? How and what makes us Native, in the past, present and future? What will keep us indigenous through evolution, adaptation and assimilation via colonization? What makes any of our peoples distinct or similar from neighboring cultures and regions, or in what ways are we not all the same? With that sows uncertainty: what do we keep? What do we change? What do we fight and what do we allow to be altered for us? What are the things that are going to “keep us Native?” What does that mean at all, anyways? And if it’s not any one thing, what is the combination of things, and what are their proportions? These question are often called the “politics of indigeneity.” 

In being asked these questions from our examiners, we begin searching, struggling to find the answers and understand our own situations.  Everything that we have been and are, is in a state of flux. While we’ve always been influenced by neighbors and advances in our own or neighboring technologies, those influences and changes were from these parts of the world; if there is ever a time where there is a question that we don’t have the answer to, it’s not because the individual being asked is lesser, or doesn’t know their own culture; it’s because the state of our own evolution is that great. For this reason, there is not one answer about the indigenous experience. There is no one line or answer on “the Native perspective,” about a policy issue, or as a Native person might get asked in class. There is no one standard Native way to be; many are figuring that out for ourselves.

How many of us have elevator speeches prepared, to encapsulate the entirety of our existence in 45 seconds or less? How many of us have fine-tuned our identity, balancing a maximum information sharing to efficiency ratio? How many of us have adjusted how we share our story through trial and error, and tailored from there? My people are some of the most researched people in the world; we’ve long known how to tell our stories, by us, for us, in ways that are like us. We now develop our stories, for others, in ways that are not like us. This is part of the inquiry of indigeneity.

There is a sense of claim on our time, efforts, and insight into our existence. We help others become successful. We help researchers complete dissertations, writers print novels, photographers put on shows, resource developers work the land using our “TK” (Traditional Knowledge) and visitors write essays of what their time amongst us has meant to them. That is not to say that there is not helpful education, earnest intent and relationship-building that happens as a part of these efforts. However, it is said that victors write the history — and what happens when your tradition is largely oral? As Bentham Ohia (Maori) has said, “What counts as knowledge, what knowledge counts, and who decides?” Along with that, what stories count, what counts as stories, and who decides?

We need tell our own stories, by us, for us, using any of the means that are now available — print, video, dance, music, essay, film, art, theatre, and more.

We are audience enough.

And if others happen to encounter those stories in their research into who we are, then that’s just fine. With the unexamined life not being worth living, I have to believe Socrates meant examining life by ourselves, for ourselves; any to anyone else watching, we indigenous are figuring it out.

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