The term native refers to “a person … by nature, innate, inherent, [and] natural to” a place, an environment, or condition (Concise Oxford Dictionary 1982, p. 674). One meaning is “of one’s birth, where one was born; [and] belonging to one by right of birth”; another “found in a pure or uncombined state”; and another “born in a place (esp. of non-Europeans), indigenous, not exotic; of the natives of a place …” (Concise Oxford Dictionary 1982, p. 674). The term developed in tandem with the historic rise of colonialism and colonialism’s incumbent discourse, and was shaped by a system of regulation set to incorporate those native people within boundaries and jurisdictions rather than forcing them into diaspora. Native carried a pejorative meaning in the Americas, New Zealand, and Australia—especially in former colonies of the British Empire when colonist settlers spoke of and to indigenous populations. A variety of terms arise from the concept of native: Indian came into use within the context of Spanish imperialism, savage in New France, and aborigine specifically in the Australian context. Any indigenous person who became a colonial subject was often referred to as a “native” by colonial settlers, and slavery was simply another dimension of control, but for indigenous peoples in the Americas this had only limited effectiveness. (See Forbes 1988 for extensive discussion of the language Europeans have historically used to designate shades of skin color and other constructed racial markers.)
Prior to the popularization of the term indigenous in the 1980s, native was often used to describe peoples who claimed to originate from a particular geographic location. Two basic perspectives, often contrasted with each other, are primordial and contructionist orientations (Lawrence 2004, p. 1–16).
When a society has occupied a territory for a period before the subsequent arrival of others, the first group, conscious of its primordial claim that they are native to a region, perceives its historic occupation as centrally tied to its identity as a native people. This nativity concept, “from birth,” contributes to the group’s understanding of its origins. Residing on the same lands as one’s ancestors gives the group an understanding of its origins and nativity similar to that of previous generations. Boundaries for these regions are either delimited or undefined, but the group locates its nativity as a fixed place, and this nativity is often chartered by a rich oral tradition or written history that has a specific ethnographical knowledge of how a people are native.
In contrast, a constructionist orientation of nativity is based upon a group’s perception and assertion that its claim is an original or immemorial right. Such claims often emerge when groups are threatened by new immigrant populations competing for resources and survival.
In these cases, the historic sources for a consistent and continuous heritage of occupation, be they archaeological, ethnographic, or textual, are often incomplete, or may be open to competing interpretations. This “nativism” or “indigenism” becomes as much a political as a cultural construct. This reality means that claims being made are open to scrutiny based upon a wider range of considerations. The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (1994), and the decades-long political struggle to see its adoption, epitomizes this fact.
The geographic connection of a people to their homeland is strengthened when a group either seeks or achieves sovereignty. Often, sovereignty is conceptualized in terms of a group’s origins and the maintenance of the group’s identity over time. The identity of many groups is not straightforward; rather, it is complicated by vagaries of a given group’s cultural history. Consequently, the degrees of recognition that any identity receives is often either affirmed or denied as much as it is asserted by outsiders. State-sanctioned status for native groups may even be extended from the recognition of a group as a minority to a denial of a specific identity in exchange for another.
For example, the term native in Canada has been applied to the Métis—who, before the 1982 Constitution of Canada, had no recognition—as well as to nonstatus Indians, non-Métis mixed-bloods, and other aboriginals living off-reservation, often in cities. The term native often has been used by these unrecognized, unofficial aboriginals to refer to themselves, but also by outsiders to refer to them. With the introduction of the term aboriginal in the Canadian Constitution as an all-encompassing term for Indian, Métis, and Inuit, native has been replaced in many contexts in favor of aboriginal. However, many aboriginal groups prefer their ethnocultural names for themselves. And although a number of academic programs are still called “Native Studies,” the parlance has shifted in favor of indigenous instead of native.
In the United States, recognition is accorded to the members of federally recognized Indian tribes, and then specifically to members who are minimally one-quarter in blood quantum; no recognition is accorded to others of native heritage, nor to anyone not a member of a recognized tribe. The term Native American was in use for several decades, but because of its confusion with native-born Americans as opposed to immigrant Americans, the term is rarely used, having been dropped in favor of American Indians ; most American Indian groups prefer to call themselves by tribal designations. In Australia, the term native is used in the larger society to refer to anyone descended from Aborigines or Torres Strait Islanders. Most groups refer to themselves by their own names for themselves, reflecting their linguistic or geographical location names, and the use of “native” is also made in reference to their struggle for legal title to their traditional territories.
SEE ALSO Colonialism; Gaze, Colonial; Indigenismo; Indigenous Rights; Native Americans; Nativism; Other, The; Racism; Self-Determination; Sovereignty
Banton, Michael. 1996. Native Peoples. Dictionary of Race and Ethnic Relations, 4th ed., ed. Ellis Cashmore, 256–257. London and New York: Routledge.
Dombrowski, Kirk. 2004. The Politics of Native Culture. A Companion to the Anthropology of American Indians, ed. Thomas Biolsi, 360–382. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.
Forbes, Jack. 1988. Black Africans and Native Americans: Color, Race, and Caste in the Evolution of Red-Black Peoples. Oxford: Blackwell.
Lawrence, Bonita. 2004. “Real” Indians and Others: Mixed-Blood Urban Native Peoples and Indigenous Nationhood. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press.
Niezen, Ronald. 2003. The Origins of Indigenism: Human Rights and the Politics of Identity. Berkeley: University of California Press.
David Reed Miller