Indigeneity is about many things, among them relationships. These include relationships to a particular community of people – a nation, tribe, clan, and/or lineage, depending on the context. These relationships exist alongside particular legal relationships to a settler government, such as the United States or Mexico. Indigeneity is also often distinguished by relationships to the more-than-human worlds. These relationships exist in, between, and across bodies, lands, waters, and worlds. Rooted in specific languages, stories, and traditional teachings, these relationships situate human beings in networks of responsibilities to human and more than-human-beings. These relationships are ancestral and emerging, situated in particular territories and among particular peoples. Because of their diversity, it may even be better to speak of “Indigeneities.” Such diverse relationships animate particular knowledge systems, governance structures, and ceremonial practices. They are held in collective memory and create pathways of futurity.
As relational frameworks, Indigeneity invites scholars to consider connections. It is not always possible (or advisable) to separate the “political” from the “religious” or “cultural” in Indigenous contexts. Indeed, all of these are concepts developed by outsiders to describe Indigenous life. Instead, Indigeneity invites scholars of political theology and related fields to consider the relationships between these threads of cultural life. In this essay, I focus on ways Indigeneity has been theorized by Indigenous and non-Indigenous scholars and what this can offer to scholars of political theology and related fields.
I write as a non-Native Latinx scholar in Wichita & Affiliated Tribes territory, known today as north Texas. My ethnographic research on movements to protect Indigenous sacred sites in the San Francisco Bay and Monterey Bay areas of California inform my perspective on these issues. In particular, I think with the efforts of the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band of the Monterey Bay Area. I have observed important connections between politics, ceremony, and culture in the tribe’s efforts to protect a sacred place known as Juristac. Located in the foothills of the Santa Cruz Mountains, the site is currently at risk of destruction from a proposed a 403-acre sand and gravel mine. Considering the connections between land, politics, ceremony, and identity—the relationships between these and with the human and non-human world— is an important framework to consider Indigeneity. In this essay I focus particularly on Indigeneity as theorized in North America, though I seek to make connections to broader conversations.
Organizations, scholars, and community members have described Indigeneity as arising out of shared experiences. The United Nations estimates there are more than 476 million Indigenous people. Though they estimate that there are over 5,000 distinct communities, they rely on self-identification rather than bounded criteria in their working definition of Indigeneity. They consider shared characteristics such as existence before colonialism, and distinct languages, governance systems, and identities that differentiate them from dominant society. Taiaiake Alfred (Kanien’kehá:ka) and Jeff Corntassel (Cherokee) theorize Indigenous peoples as originating from their specific homelands and situated in opposition to colonizing powers. They write, “It is this oppositional, place-based existence, along with the consciousness of being in struggle against the dispossessing and demeaning fact of colonization by foreign peoples, that fundamentally distinguishes Indigenous peoples from other peoples of the world.”
Non-Native anthropologist James Clifford argues that Indigeneity “typically refers to societies that are relatively small-scale, people who sustain deep connections with a place.” It “does not presume cultural similarity or essence, but rather refers to comparable experiences of invasion, dispossession, resistance, and survival.” These shared experiences link the histories and contemporary realties of those known as Indian, Native American, First Nations, Aboriginal, Pacific Islander, and others that have survived colonialism. It offers a framework for coalition and shared resistance against colonialization.
Indigenous feminist and queer and Two-Spirit scholars have theorized ways that colonization shape(d) Indigeneity. Shari Huhndrof (Yup’ik) and Cheryl Suzack (Anishinaabe) write, “For Indigenous women, colonization has involved their removal from positions of power, the replacement of traditional gender roles with Western patriarchal practices, and the exertion of colonial control over Indigenous communities through the management of women’s bodies and sexual violence.” Indigenous feminist scholars Maile Arvin (Native Hawaiian), Eve Tuck (Unangax̂), and Angie Morrill (Klamath Tribes) theorize connections between settler colonialism and heteropatriarchy. They position Native feminist theories as offering vital interventions to conversations about gender, colonialism, race, and scholarship. Drawing on legacies of Two-Spirit and Indigenous queer scholarship and activism, Qwo-Li Driskill (unrolled Cherokee), Chris Finely (Colville Confederated Tribes), Brian Joseph Gilley (Cherokee/Chickasaw), and Scott Lauria Morgensen (non-Native) situate queer Indigenous studies as interventions to both gender and Indigenous studies. They argue, “Recalling and defending Indigenous traditions of gender and sexuality makes GLBTQ2 people a central part of the decolonization of Indigenous communities.”
Outsiders often reduce Indigeneity merely to a racial or ethnic minority. Kim TallBear (Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate) analyzes how popular DNA tests reduce Indigeneity to racialized genetic material. This process obscures Native peoples as citizens of particular Native nations and modes of kinship shaped by relationships to particular lands, peoples, and legal histories. Audra Simpson (Kahnawà:ke Mohawk) describes the ways Mohawks on the Kahnawà:ke reserve continuously refuse to let go of “their relatedness to their place, to others, to a particular history, to their ongoing experience because of this relatedness.” They refuse assimilation into the settler state. Instead, they assert their distinct Indigenous nationhood and governance which pre-date Canada and the United States.
Distinct nationhood status is connected to sovereignty. Though sometimes reduced to self-government, Indigeneity often positions sovereignty as fundamentally rooted in relationships – communal, cultural, political, and religious. In the United States, the federal government defines sovereignty though a series of Supreme Court decisions and laws and through the Indian Act in Canada. Leanne Betasamosake Simpson (Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg) offers a more robust concept of sovereignty through the Anishinaabemowin phrase “Kina Gchi Anishnaabe-ogaming.” The phrase means “the place where we all live together.” Simpson explains it is as “a description of sovereignty and nationhood that is at its core about relationships – relationships with each other and with the plant and animal nations, with our lands and waters and with the spirit world.” She argues, “Sovereignty is the freedom and the means to live fully and responsibly as an Anishnaabeg person or as Indigenous peoples.” Simpson’s definition of sovereignty is important because it allows us to understand that tribes without federal recognition status, like the Amah Mutsun, continue sovereignty as relationships and responsibilities to human and non-human kin.
Particular colonial histories shape the contours of Indigeneity in specific places. Latin American countries did not sign treaties with Indigenous peoples and do not recognize them as tribal governments. Instead, many Latin American countries promoted assimilation though mestizaje (racial mixing), valorizing mixed-race identities, and marginalizing Black and Indigenous peoples. Latin American scholars M. Bianet Castellanos, Lourdes Gutierrez Najera, and Arturo Aldama note that shared culture, kinship, and homeland are characteristic of Indigeneity in Latin America. They argue that Indigenous peoples are linked beyond national borders by shared territories and relations to colonial governments (i.e. dispossession and genocide). They write further, “the desire to maintain and protect land links indigenous claims for sovereignty and autonomy across the Américas.” Castellanos, Nájera, and Aldama examine shared experiences across the western hemisphere to account for migration, hybridity, and resistance of contemporary Indigeneity.
The importance of land is a fundamental element of Indigeneity. Indigenous peoples often speak of being from and of particular places. Glen Coulthard (Yellowknives Dene) situates land as central to decolonial struggle through “grounded normativity.” He defines this as “the modalities of Indigenous-land connected practices and longstanding experiential knowledge that inform and structure our ethical engagements with the world and our relationships with human and non-human others over time.” Native Hawaiians describe similar values through aloha ‘āina (love of land) and mālama ‘āina (care of land). Haunani-Kay Trask (Native Hawaiian) argues, “We are the only people whose religion and hundreds of gods come from the place, Hawai’i. We are the only people whose material culture was based on the magnificent lands and waters of Hawai’i.”
Alieen Morton-Robinson (Goepul) contrasts settler Australian ideas of land as possession from Indigenous connections to land as relations. She describes traditional Aboriginal understandings of land as shaped by and an embodiment of the ancestors. Morton-Robinson writes, “Our ontological relationship to land, the ways that country [land] is constitutive of us, and therefore the inalienable nature of our relation to land, marks a radical, indeed incommensurable, difference between us and the non-Indigenous.” Land is not simply where one lives. Indigeneity relates to land in a number of ways – as ancestor, culture, knowledge, belonging, memory, and fundamental orientation. These relations continue amid colonial occupation of Indigenous lands. Morton-Robinson argues, therefore, that these relations challenge Australian settler belonging which is based in white land ownership.
Relations to lands, waters, humans, and more-than-human beings are central to Indigenous religious practice. Non-Native scholar Lee Irwin notes that “Native religions are remarkably diverse and grounded in very specific languages, places, lifeway rites, and communal relationships embedded in a unique ethnic history often overshadowed by the more pervasive history of religious and political oppression.” Vine Deloria, Jr. (Standing Rock Sioux) theorizes Native religions as rooted in specific places where particular people engage communal ceremonies to harmonize with that land. Dennis Kelley (Chumash descendant) offers a model of Indigenous religions through what he terms place (locale), power (the sacred), and protocol (communal ceremony). Despite ongoing colonization, Deloria writes that ceremonial practices matter, because “[i]t is this unbroken connection that we have with the spirit world that will allow us to survive as a people.”
Indigeneity is rooted in place and simultaneously transnational. Leanne Betasamosake Simpson (Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg) articulates an “Indigenous internationalism” as rooted in long histories of Indigenous nations engaging in diplomacy with other Indigenous nations and non-human beings (described as plant and animal nations). Nick Estes (Lower Brule Sioux Tribe) traces contemporary Indigenous internationalism to the work of the International Indian Treaty Council and the United Nations Declaration on The Rights of Indigenous Peoples (2007). He writes, “Far beyond the project of seeking equality within the colonial state, the tradition of radical Indigenous internationalism imagined a world altogether free of colonial hierarchies of race, class, and nation.” Thomas Hall (non-Native) and James Fenelon (Lakota/Dakota) describe international Indigenous movements working to distance themselves from the state and influx of global capitalism. They argue that this desire for autonomy “is what links indigenous movements to other social movements. It is also why these quintessentially local movements are simultaneously part of a global process.”
Indigeneity is also about futurity. Cutcha Risling Baldy (Hupa, Yurok, Karuk) examines the revitalization of the Hupa Flower Dance coming-of-age-ceremony for women as a practice that embodies Indigenous values and knowledges. The effort to revitalize the ceremony demonstrates how Indigenous peoples “are participating in a (re)vivification that builds a future with the past, showing how these epistemological foundations speak to a lasting legacy that is both ancient and modern.” Laura Harjo (Mvksoke) argues, “Futurity means that despite the nation-state’s projects to eliminate us, here we are—living!” She examines the everyday actions of Mvskoke/Indigenous people to generate futurity through what she terms este-cate sovereignty (radical/kinship sovereignty), community knowledge, collective power, and emergence geographies (Mvskoke spatialities). Harjo writes, “This methodology is decolonial in nature because it allows community members to draw upon all the senses and all the realms, such as the physical and the metaphysical, to dream and craft the communities we want to reside in.” These Indigenous visions do not imagine an inevitable capitalist or imperial future. Instead, they envision and embody futures rooted in relations to lands, other-than-human beings, community, and ceremony.
The survival and futurity of Indigenous peoples offers challenges and possibilities. Eve Tuck (Unangax̂) and K. Wayne Yang (diasporic settler of color) argue that “decolonization is not a metaphor.” Colonization ruptures Indigenous relations to land, which they write is “a profound epistemic, ontological, cosmological violence…reasserted each day of the occupation.” Decolonization is, therefore, incommensurable with popular social justice movements because it calls for the return of Indigenous lands and the end of settler colonial domination. As a result, “[s]ettler colonialism and its decolonization implicates and unsettles everyone.” For Tuck and Yang, this opens other kinds of futures that are accountable “to Indigenous sovereignty and futurity.” This includes calls for #LandBack and the protection of sacred places like Juristac.
Clifford, James. Returns: Becoming Indigenous in the Twenty-First Century. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2013.
James Clifford examines the rise of Indigeneity as a dynamic global movement of survival, transformation, and renewal among distinct people with shared histories. Clifford theorizes this rise of global Indigeneity as a process of “becoming,” as Indigenous peoples “reach back selectively to deeply rooted, adaptive traditions: creating new pathways in a complex postmodernity.” He describes these movements as “indigenitude,” operating through shared symbols on local, national, and transnational scales, in homeland and in diaspora.
Kelley, Dennis. Tradition, Performance, and Religion in Native America: Ancestral Ways, Modern Selves. New York: Routledge, 2014.
Dennis Kelley draws from his ethnographic work with Chumash, Makah, and urban Indian communities to theorize contemporary Indigenous religious life. He theorizes Indigenous religious traditions operating through what he terms place (local), power (sacred forces), and protocol (communal ritual). Kelley engages religious practice as an anchor of Indigenous identity through an examination of religious revitalization movements, political activism, Indigenous Christianity, and Native American recovery programs. He offers an important theory of Indigenous renewal through the musical concept “reprise” which “alludes to the rearticulation of an earlier theme whose basic elements remain present throughout the piece.”
Simpson, Leanne Betasamosake. As We Have Always Done: Indigenous Freedom through Radical Resistance. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2017.
Leanne Betasamosake Simpson offers powerful visions of Indigenous resurgence rooted in the theory, practice, and heritage of her Nishnaabeg people. She writes, “The crux of resurgence is that Indigenous peoples have to create and regenerate our political systems, educational systems, and systems of life from within our own intelligence.” Simpson examines the interrelated issues of colonial land dispossession, gendered violence and cis-heteropatriarchy, and capitalism in what is now called Canada. In conversation with Indigenous elders and intellectuals, she theorizes Indigenous resurgence as nation-specific and land-based alternatives to settler domination.