Identity evolves. Social categories shrink or expand, become stiffer or more elastic, more specific or more abstract. What it means to be white or Black, Indian or American, able-bodied or not shifts as we tussle over language, as new groups take on those labels and others strip them away.
On August 3, 1989, the Indigenous identity evolved. Moringe ole Parkipuny, a Maasai activist and a former member of the Tanzanian Parliament, spoke before the U.N. Working Group on Indigenous Populations, in Geneva—the first African ever to do so. “Our cultures and way of life are viewed as outmoded, inimical to national pride, and a hindrance to progress,” he said. As a result, pastoralists like the Maasai, along with hunter-gatherers, “suffer from common problems which characterize the plight of indigenous peoples throughout the world. The most fundamental rights to maintain our specific cultural identity and the land that constitutes the foundation of our existence as a people are not respected by the state and fellow citizens who belong to the mainstream population.”
Parkipuny’s speech was the culmination of an astonishing ascent. Born in a remote village near Tanzania’s Rift Valley, he attended school after British authorities demanded that each family “contribute” a son to be educated. His grandfather urged him to flunk out, but he refused. “I already had a sense of how Maasai were being treated,” he told the anthropologist Dorothy Hodgson in 2005. “I decided I must go on.” He eventually earned an M.A. in development studies from the University of Dar es Salaam.
In his master’s thesis, Parkipuny condemned the Masai Range Project, a twenty-million-dollar scheme funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development to boost livestock productivity. Naturally, then, U.S.A.I.D. was resistant when the Tanzanian government hired him to join the project. In the end, he was sent to the United States to learn about “proper ranches.” He travelled around until, one day, a Navajo man invited him to visit the Navajo Nation, the reservation in the Southwest.
“I stayed with them for two weeks, and then with the Hopi for two weeks,” he told Hodgson. “It was my first introduction to the indigenous world. I was struck by the similarities of our problems.” The disrepair of the roads reminded him of the poor condition of cattle trails in Maasailand.
Parkipuny had always thrived on confrontations with authority. Once, as a high schooler, he was nearly expelled when he burned grass (the Maasai method of bush clearing) instead of cutting it, as instructed. He later recalled that, when the headmaster threatened to hit him, he replied, “If you beat me with a stick I will get mine, because my traditions do not allow this. I ask you to give me another punishment.” This outspokenness propelled his activism. Following his American sojourn, he started to publicize the Maasai’s plight in international circles, linking it with other struggles. He met members of tribal nations in New Mexico and Canada to sharpen his understanding of Indigenous issues, and allied with the International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs, headquartered in Copenhagen.
By the time Parkipuny showed up in Geneva, the concept of “indigenous” had already undergone major transformations. The word—from the Latin indigena, meaning “native” or “sprung from the land”—has been used in English since at least 1588, when a diplomat referred to Samoyed peoples in Siberia as “Indigenæ, or people bred upon that very soyle.” Like “native,” “indigenous” was used not just for people but for flora and fauna as well, suffusing the term with an air of wildness and detaching it from history and civilization. The racial flavor intensified during the colonial period until, again like “native,” “indigenous” served as a partition, distinguishing white settlers—and, in many cases, their slaves—from the non-Europeans who occupied lands before them.
Then came the nineteen-sixties and seventies. Liberation movements flourished. In New Zealand, the Polynesian Panthers worked with the group Ngā Tamatoa to rally for Maori rights. In the United States, the Red Power movement spawned groups like the American Indian Movement and the International Indian Treaty Council. Inspired by decolonization, activists from these groups coalesced, turning indigeneity into a global identity. What linked its members was firstness. Peoples like the Maori and the Sioux are not just marginalized minorities, activists stressed; they are aboriginal nations whose land and sovereignty have been usurped. With time, however, the identity was stretched further. When Parkipuny showed up in Geneva, activists were consciously remodelling indigeneity to encompass marginalized peoples worldwide, including, with Parkipuny’s help, in Africa.
Today, nearly half a billion people qualify as Indigenous. If they were a single country, it would be the world’s third most populous, behind China and India. Exactly who counts as Indigenous, however, is far from clear. A video for the U.N. Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues begins, “They were always here—the original inhabitants.” Yet many peoples who are now considered Indigenous don’t claim to be aboriginal—the Maasai among them. According to Maasai oral histories, their ancestors arrived in Tanzania several hundred years ago from a homeland they call Kerio, likely situated near South Sudan.
Conversely, being first doesn’t seem to make you Indigenous. A handful of Gaelic monks and then the Vikings were the first people to arrive in Iceland (they settled there earlier than the Maori arrived in New Zealand), yet their descendants, the Icelanders, are rarely touted as Indigenous. Farther east, modern-day Scandinavians can trace most of their ancestry to migrations occurring in 4000 and in 2500 B.C., but it’s the Sami reindeer herders, whose Siberian ancestors arrived in Scandinavia closer to 1500 B.C., who get an annual entry in the “Indigenous World” yearbook.