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Provocations and the Indigenous Category
By Julie Peteet
University of Louisville
This paper begins a discussion of the potential that inheres in talking about Palestine in a
way that locates it in an expansive family of colonialisms. It is worth noting that it is only since
the 1980s that Palestine became an admissible ethnographic subject and the search is still on for
conceptual frameworks and a vocabulary to describe a situation both in concert with other
colonial settings but also characterized by its own specificity. There is a need for new
frameworks and lexical repertoires that move beyond the national as well as treading cautiously
around attempting to fit Palestinians into the latest academically trendy buzz word. For example,
“diaspora” became over-loaded and referred to so many communities that it began to lose
analytical and empirical specificity.i In what follows, I suggest ways to shift discursive
frameworks and lexicon and provoke other ways of conceptualizing Palestine.
A turn to space and time in Palestine studies is now fairly standard. Not only does a
spatio-temporal framework take us well beyond nationalist inflected scholarship, as did the turn
to human rights, it sheds critical light on late modern colonialism and its tactics of governance,
means of acquiring resources, the role of demography and citizenship in colonial political
projects, mobility as a means of control and constituting the spatial contours of the state, and the
commodification of time and its deployment as a means of punishment, and questions of
sovereignty, among others. Each of these seemingly singular themes can become a lens through
which to approach Palestine. For example, the geo-social fragmentation of Palestine is often
reflected in the unproblematized spatio-temporal framework applied to Palestine both in
scholarship and the political realm when we uncritically work with temporal units such as 1948,
1967 and the post-Oslo period. While certainly concrete moments of profound transformation,
these spatio-temporal markers can become seemingly bounded categories particularly in political
negotiations. Although each was catastrophic in a specific way, and 1948 and 1967 have
differing statuses under international law, they have fed into what I will call a politics of the
present. Using the combined frameworks of space, time, settler-colonialism, and demography for
example, can shed light on the continuity among 1948, 1967, and the present, putting these
moments into relief as a single field of analysis punctuated by temporally and spatially marked
moments of transformations. These conceptual frameworks let us hone in on the historical logic
and consistency of the Zionist project from 1948 to the contemporary era of policies of closure
and separation.
In the domain of political negotiations, the prevalence of these compartmentalized spatial
and temporal categories constitutes present-ism, or a politics of perpetual beginnings. For
example, US-Israel negotiators have consistently deployed a strategy of interim agreements such
as the Oslo Accords, premised on present necessity, deferring to a "later" time the critical issues
of refugees, colonies, borders, and the status of Jerusalem. In this scenario, the the nekba (1948)
and the occupation (1967), are treated as a fait accompli or facts-on-the-ground. Negotiations
now focus on the short-term exigencies of things such as checkpoints and “outposts” rather than
critical questions of borders, refugees, and resources. In short, as present-ism prevails, the core
issues recede farther and farther to the background all but omitted from the agenda. A state of
perpetual beginnings, or what Stoler ii calls “states of deferral that mete out promissory notes
that are not exceptions to their operation but constitutive of them,” succinctly captures the use of
time as a stall-tactic.
The term “settler-colonialism” which now appears steadily in the academic literature on
Palestine-Israel and marks a significant shift, has the potential to overcome the spatio-temporal
fragmentation of 1948, 1967, and the present. It compels a view with historical depth and
highlights the connectedness of seemingly distinct periods. Indeed its circulation in scholarship
works to de-exceptionalize Palestine by locating it in a family of colonial histories.
While there is no modular settler-colonialism, Palestine-Israel has enough in common
with those in the Americas, Australia and South Africa to constitute a branch on the family tree.
Each is unique but there are family resemblances that allow us to speak of them as a type of
social formation. In general, the parameters of settler–colonialism involve a more
technologically and militarily powerful entity imposing itself on less powerful, technologically
less sophisticated territories and communities and appending their economy to that of the settlers
and their metropole. Characteristically, it involves the extraction of local resources with local
labor for the economic benefit of the mother country and eventually opening the colony as a
market. Distinguished by the movement of people into the conquered territory, often displacing
significant numbers of the local population, it is considered the most rapacious of colonialisms.
Most significantly the shift to a settler-colonial framework and the set of associated terms that
often accompanies it: colonies, colonists, de-colonization, and the indigenous pushes forward
Palestinian studies. It is to these terms that I now turn.
The term settler-colonialism conveys the presence of an indigenous population facing a more
powerful, technologically sophisticated, externally supported settling other. This was certainly
the case in the Americas, Australia, and South Africa, among others. The question animating
this section is: should we conceptualize Palestinians as indigenous and why? The scholarly
literature on Palestine-Israel commonly refers to Jewish settlement and state-building in
Palestine as settler-colonialism and, within this paradigm, the Palestinians as indigenous,
without, however, problematizing the latter or eliciting a critical conversationiii. Perhaps it is
time. For Palestinians, what are the benefits and obstacles to inclusion in the category, what
implications does it carry? And, what are the limitations of the term. For anthropology, how
might such a conversation carry forward their engagement with the concept? In lively and
contentious anthropological debates in 2003 and 2006, indigeneity’s power to assert a
historically deep presence in place was not dislodged but did generate a conversation around the
contemporary rights, particularly the collective, associated with this presence. Like many terms,
indigenous can acquire new meanings in a world where history unfolds in complex and
entangled processes and the indigenous take shape as a collective category with legal claims and
rights. Indigenous can be vacated of troubling and freighted past references and need not imply
pre-modern, tribal, or primitive nor cultural essentialism or primordialism. Its invocation has
become less about the primordial and the concept of culture and has moved into the realm of
domination, relations with the state, presence in place, and rights and claims,iv echoing the
application of what Spivak dubbed “strategic essentialism.” v
There is no universally accepted or singular definition of “indigenous,” a term often
associated with once colonized underdeveloped areas. Until recently, Palestinians had been
excluded from the category. As an illustration, Cultural Survival (CS), founded to support
indigenous struggles has published two articles on Palestinians in its 40 year history: one by me
in 1995 and several articles on Palestinian Bedouins under the title: Israel. In the wake of the
1982 Israeli war on Lebanon and the Palestinian refugee community, culminating in the Sabra4
Shatila massacre, it declined to accept a proposal for an issue addressing mass Palestinian Thus CS laid out and protected the boundaries of the category in anthropology.
What might account for this exclusion: could it be the association with the small-scale,
technologically simple, pre-industrial colonized societies CS usually covered, an inability to
understand Zionism as a form of colonialism with a displacing impulse, and Palestinian’s long
history of belonging to literate empires? Palestinians do claim an indigenous presence in space
and domination by an expanding state. However, the academic literature on Palestine has only
recently adopted more forcefully this term as the understanding of Zionism as settler-colonialism
took hold. Might increasing recognition of Palestinians as indigenous have played a role in the
adoption of BDS resolutions by the American Studies Association (ASA), the Native American
and Indigenous Studies Association (NAIA), the Association for Asian American Studies and the
Critical Ethnic Studies Association, all organizations with an abiding interest in colonialism,
post-colonialism, and the indigenous.
The anthropologists who popularized the term indigenous in reference to the contact
situation and the colonized, and gave it academic credibility were in something of a dither over
how to conceptualize people from literate civilizations. They were certainly not Westerners yet
they were distinguishable from what were usually called the indigenous because for centuries, if
not millennium, as in the case of Palestine, they had been part of transcontinental literate
empires. Among the characteristics CS identifies as common to the indigenous are: small
populations relative to the now dominant culture of their country; a language and distinctive
cultural traditions; once had or still have their own land and territory to which they are deeply
tied; and a self-identification as indigenous. Curiously, the definition makes no reference to
colonization or the state. Examples include the Inuit of the Arctic, Native Americans, hunter5
gatherers in the Amazon, traditional pastoralists like the Maasai in East Africa, and tribal peoples
in the Philippines. All were non-literate societies. Anthropology had been comfortable
categorizing the indigenous as Tribal Peoples, First Peoples, Aboriginals, or Native Peoples,
terms implying presence and rootedness in particular places. Both the numerical designation
“First” and the place reference “Native” are autochthonic, implying an original presence and
subsequent colonization or displacement by a non-native.
In a 2006 anthropological debate on the indigenous, Barnard writes “It is the idea of
definition itself that is the problem.”vii He proposes moving beyond debates revolving around
essentialism on the one hand and a political economy and historical approach, on the other. His
intermediate and more flexible solution boils down to a group’s relations with the state, its
dominance of them and their descendants, a presence before the arrival of the dominant others,
cultural difference and self-ascription. The relational features of this definition – state and
self/other – insert flexibility into the definition.
Backing up a bit, it is worth asking when, and under what circumstances, the term forcefully
entered the anthropological lexicon. Interestingly, in noted South African anthropologist Adam
Kuper’s stinging critical engagement with the concept of the “primitive,” he did not use the term
“indigenous” to refer to colonized areas of the world where those he critiqued had worked. In
2003, he argued that the rise of the concept of the “indigenous” had replaced the “primitive” and
cautioned that “Fostering essentialist ideologies of culture and identity”, claim to rights,
especially land, on the basis of indigeneity “may have dangerous political consequences.” viii
However, it can be argued that including Palestinians, socially complex, highly literate
cosmopolitans, and part of Arab-Muslim and Ottoman empires, in the ranks of the indigenous is
hardly essentialism. Instead it is more a conceptual and strategic response to on-going settler6
colonialism and the ensuing denial of their rights to place based on a historical fiction of a weakor non-presence and claims to native-ness by those replacing them. Most importantly, it has
become central to seeking political claims to land and water resources and rights. Thus this may
be an instance of the tactical use of categories.
The inclusion of Palestine in the ranks of the indigenousix raises a host of issues that could
contribute to the larger conversation on the concept. A series of questions arise: does the
inclusion of Palestine challenge the boundaries of the concept and collapse the debate in
anthropology between essentialist definitions and Kuper’s historical and political-economy
approach? Who determines who is indigenous? How are “indigenous” and “native” ranked or
translated into the social order of rights in the international arena? How is the category
racialized? Did “indigenous-ness” emerge with post-colonialism and de-colonization? Is the
circulation of the term somehow related to incorporation, however unequally, or containment by
states where the indigenous continue to struggle for recognition and rights? Most significantly,
within anthropology is the switch to “indigenous” grounded in a rejection of the “primitive’s”
putative location in social evolutionism? Is indigeneity a spatialization of the primitive, a move
from time i.e., the primitive past marching in a uni-lineal direction toward modernity, to space
(the rooted indigenous) in conceptualizing the native other? In this formulation, space trumps
Ultimately, the meaning of words is transferable and transportable from one historical setting
and time to another. If the concept becomes too expansive can risk losing specificity;
alternatively, I would contend, the concept may be capacious enough to incorporate a
contemporary colonial-native relationship. Indigenous need not imply essentialism and
exclusivism as some critics claim and it can certainly be argued that “strategic essentialism” can
play an at times positive role in anti-colonial struggles. Nor does the term preclude attachments
to multiple places and multi-stranded forms of identity. Clifford eloquently recuperates
indigeneity as a process whereby communities are “recombining the remnants of an interrupted
way of life. They reach back selectively to deeply rooted, adaptive traditions: creating new
pathways in a complex postmodernity. Cultural endurance is a process of becoming,” x a
description that can accommodate Palestine. Clifford and Barnard’s historically dynamic
approaches capture some elements of Palestinians as indigenous. Thus Clifford’s “indigenous
becoming” is most appropriate here. I would note emphatically that Palestinians need not be
included in the category to have their rights to self-determination recognized and validated. On
the one hand, inclusion in the category expands the category’s boundaries and relevance in the
present and on the other it works to de-exceptionalize Palestine and situate it in a historical
trajectory of colonialism and displacement. Yet a note of caution is in order. To which
Palestinians does the term apply - the Naqab Bedu who have attended UN forums on the
indigenous and that Cultural Survival deems admissible? Doe the term run the risk of adding
another wedge in the Zionist imposed categorization of the Palestinians in Israel into Muslim,
Christian, Druze, and Bedouin? And what meaning might the term hold for Palestinians in the
West Bank, Gaza, Jerusalem and the refugees abroad?
In the specific context of Palestine, indigeneity is further complicated by the claims of others.
In this topsy turvey terrain, if the Jews were the natives, what were the Palestinians? The central
issue in the construction of a Zionist self was relation to place, the practice of producing it in the
present, which involved telescoping time, as part of nativizing the European Jew. Jewish
settlement in Palestine/Israel is characterized as a 'return' home. The term captures and endows
the process of colonization with an aura of the heroic and romantic that draws upon a marriage of
religious texts and beliefs with nationalism in the quest for legitimacy. The suffix 're' implies to
'do again', to 'repeat' and indicates a previous state of being and place to which one is re-turning.
To re-turn is to re-claim and to re-establish; for Zionists who desired to 're-turn' to Israel, the
land was to be 're-claimed' and a Jewish community 're-established' in order to make Israel itself
re-appear. Re-turn implies a past presence and ownership, an absence, and now re-possession. To
re-turn, re-claim, and re-establish a Jewish presence meant nativizing the Jew. Yet a land already
heavily populated undermined Jewish claims to ownership, of a 're-turn.' Zionists, particularly
the more ardent and religiously motivated, often refer to Palestinians both in Israel and in the
occupied territories as 'foreigners.' When acres of olive groves in the West Bank village Iskaka
were being uprooted to make way for construction of the wall, protesting villages asked soldiers
guarding the bulldozers why they were destroying these well-cultivated Palestinian fields. In a
linguistic inversion, one of the soldiers pointed his rifles at the protestors and yelled, “You are all
foreigners here. This all belongs to us.”
“Native” is a coveted category for the Zionist project which is built on the idea of Jewish
nativeness. In its appropriation by the Israelis, indigenous-ness loses any putative connection
with the “primitive.” Thus the meaning of indigenous is fungible and can be appropriated by
colonists themselves. In the Zionist mythico-historical formula, there can be only one native
with rightful claims to land. Indeed self-ascriptive indigeneity undergirds the Zionist claim to
Palestine and it has been a conscious objectified project to nativize the Jewish-Israeli. For
example, the power of naming was recognized early on by Zionist leaders who formed the
Committee on Names in 1930 (later the Place Names Committee) tasked with changing Palestine
place names to either biblical or nationalist/Zionist names. Arriving settlers adopt Hebrew
names. xi Erasing Arabic place names also effaces signs of an indigenous or native population
and their memories of place and bolsters the mythico-history of a Jewish claim to Palestine that
outweighs any other possible claims. If a non-Jewish group were to be recognized as the
indigenous, what would that imply about Zionist claims? The use of “indigeinty’ opens space for
a transgressive thinking about Zionism, space, and rights. More recently in the West Bank the
imposition of Hebrew signage and the removal of Arab signage continues the inscription of
colonialism on the ground.
The term indigenous is now bound up with claims to resources and sometimes collective
rights. Unlike other indigenous communities, for example in Latin America, Palestinians are not
seeking cultural rights as a minority within a larger state; they seek an end to occupation, ongoing colonial expansion and the right to pursue self-determination. To include Palestinians in
the category would de-stabilize or compel a serious thinking through of indigeneity and
colonialism in the late modern world. Including them would link them to others in the global
category and movement of the indigenous and strengthen their claim to self-determination and
rights. Embracing the term “indigenous” could be empowering in the same way it has been for
other groups who claim it and join a host of international organizations dedicated to achieving
the rights of the indigenous.xii Indigenous disrupts the settle-colonial narrative, casting a dark
shadow on its heroic and self-imputed autochthonic state but also highlights the failure of the
colonial endeavor to make the native disappear and hence the landscape to match the narrative.
Not surprisingly, this inclusion will quickly generate disavowal. During the 2014 Middle East
Studies Association debates on BDS, which invariably references settler-colonialism and thus
indigeneity, an ardent Zionist activist baldly stated that Palestinians aren’t indigenous because
there is no DNA link going back thousands of years.
Peteet, Julie 2007 “Problematizing a Palestinian Diaspora” International Journal of Middle East
Studies 39(4):627-646.
Stoler, Ann 2008 “Imperial Debris: reflections on ruins and ruination” Cultural Anthropology
23(2): 191-219.
For an exception see Veracini, Lorenzo 2012 “The Other Shift: Settler-Colonialism, Israel,
and the Occupation” Journal of Palestine Studies 42(2):26.
Kuper, Adam 2003 “The Return of the Native” Current Anthropology 44(3) p. 395; Barnard,
Alan 2006 “Kalahari revisionism, Vienna and the ‘indigenous’ debate” Social Anthropology
14(1): 1-16; Sylvain, Renee 20014 “Essentialism and the Indigenous Politics of Recognition in
Southern Africa” American Anthropologist 116(2): 251-264.
Spivak, Gayatri 1990 Post Colonial Critic. Routledge.
Peteet, Julie 1995 “’They Took our Blood and Milk’: Palestinian Women and War” Cultural
Survival 19(1): 50-53.
Barnard, p. 7.
Kuper 2003, p. 395.
Approximately 370 million indigenous people belong to 5,000 different groups scattered across
90 countries. See United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. On
September 13, 2007, the UN General Assembly adopted a visionary text that set the global
standard for how governments must treat Indigenous Peoples. Global Response, a
nongovernmental organization, directed campaigns to protect Indigenous rights. Global
Response has developed relationships with Indigenous communities in order to help prevent
government abuse and exploitation of their lands and natural resources.
Clifford p. 7.
Peteet, Julie 2005 Landscape of Hope and Despair. Palestinian Refugee Camps. Pennsylvania
University Press, p. 42.
See UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues.