Distinguishing Types and Discourses of Indigeneity: A Conversation with Andrew Canessa, Winner of the 2019 Jack Goody Award

We are delighted to announce (again) that Andrew Canessa has won the 2019 Jack Goody Award for his essay, “Indigenous Conflict in Bolivia Explored through an African Lens: Towards a Comparative Analysis of Indigeneity” (CSSH 60-2). We thank our panel of judges – Julia Adams, Simon Harrison, and Andrea Muehlebach – for selecting Canessa’s piece from a formidable shortlist of excellent CSSH articles. In their own words, here’s what impressed the panel most about “Indigenous Conflict”:

“Andrew Canessa’s article analyses a substantial scholarly literature, and does so with admirable succinctness and clarity. At one level, it is a study of discourses of indigeneity in contemporary Bolivia under the presidency of Evo Morales, the nation’s first head of state to be recognised as ‘indigenous’. The article adopts a thoroughly comparative perspective towards its subject, however, giving the essay interest to a readership much wider than specialists in Bolivia or Latin America alone. It compares discourses of indigeneity in Bolivia (and Latin America more broadly) and Africa (primarily West Africa), and derives from this juxtaposition some original theoretical conclusions. Canessa argues that indigeneity, as currently practiced, needs to be understood as a global phenomenon. Moreover, it is one that has come into being relatively recently and is now growing rapidly in global significance. His comparison of Latin America and Africa enables him to distinguish between types of discourses of indigeneity, according to – crucially – their relationship with the state. Specifically, Canessa identifies five dimensions along which discourses of indigeneity can vary in this way. These are original and important contributions to a timely issue, and the essay is a novel demonstration of the enduring power and productivity of the comparative method.”

The essay is currently enjoying some well-deserved limelight, with a sharp spike in views on our Cambridge Core site since the award was announced in July. To further whet the appetite of potential readers, we’ve invited Andrew Canessa to answer a few questions about his essay, how he wrote it, and what he thinks is next for the study of indigeneity.

CSSH: Congratulations on winning the Goody Award. Your paper is fascinating, not only for your dissection of Bolivian and Cameroonian cases, but because there are so many ways to apply the argument elsewhere. The heuristics you’ve devised speak directly to language politics, intellectual property rights, heritage policies, public culture, and development studies. Scholars who analyze religious movements can use your comparative framework to make new sense of how confessional communities (Copts in Egypt, say) are turning themselves into indigenous, minoritized communities. The approach is equally well suited to ethnographic and historical approaches.

The point is, you’re onto something big, and it seems that a politics of rights guaranteed (or denied) by states is behind a lot of the comparability people sense in the essay. But there’s a related idea swirling through your paper, that of historical firstness as a quality that calls normal political processes into question and can be incorporated into those processes in a compensatory or privileged way. Indigeneity is made in relation to states, and it is often constituted as somehow prior to the state (even though, as you argue very convincingly, it is a political concept of recent vintage). Your approach does not privilege firstness, or priority.

Given that so much of identitarian politics is attuned to rights and in/equality, what makes indigeneity a special kind of relationship with the state?

Canessa: You are quite right that this goes to the very nub of the matter. Yes, indigeneity is not like any other ethnic or sub-national relationship with the state because it has a distinctive moral quality, a trump card, if you like. It is not simply a matter of historical priority but of historical injustice. One way of thinking about indigeneity is in terms of “we were here before you,” but this is deeply problematic since not only are there many examples of indigenous people who do not have historical priority, there is also the issue of the arbitrariness of deciding the key point in history after which you are not indigenous. I think it is much better to think of indigeneity as a challenge to power on the basis of justice and rights: what is inherited is not so much a pre-colonial culture (a deep, essentializing trap) but a historical consciousness of injustice. Indigeneity challenges the legitimacy of the state on a number of levels but the most obvious is by suggesting that those who control the state have usurped that right. This is a powerful argument.

CSSH: It’s even more powerful when one can claim that the contemporary state is itself a set of political and economic conventions unjustly imposed on – or designed to replace – social systems and populations that predate the state, or have been marginalized by it. Your paper is especially good at making us think about what can happen when claims of that sort are adopted as official state discourse.

Canessa: One of the conclusions of the paper is a caution that indigeneity is not necessarily a progressive movement and can be used to oppress various “others,” including other indigenous people. I think this is a difficult point because we are very used to thinking of indigenous peoples as essentially in the right, even the “moral guardians of humanity,” as Bolivian president Evo Morales has put it.

CSSH: Obviously, a lot of political effort goes into preventing, or orchestrating, the transition from indigeneity as social justice to indigeneity as a kind of nativist populism that can be nationalized or linked into hegemonic trends in global political economy. As indigeneity is woven more tightly into new forms of governmentality, what do you think will happen to the concept?

Canessa: ILO 169 (The Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention, 1989), which recognizes the rights of indigenous peoples in international law, and various World Bank directives and UN declarations give people who identify as indigenous (and all three institutions insists on self-identification as the key diagnostic criterion) certain instruments in law and policy. This means there is a status and a potential advantage to identifying as indigenous which did not hitherto exist. Not surprisingly the numbers of people identified as indigenous by the UN and World Bank have increased almost exponentially in the last thirty years. So one answer to your question is that there will be many more identified groups, and this is why it is so important to have analytical tools to distinguish between discourses and groups. In particular, it is important to distinguish them along the lines I have laid out so as not to be blinded by indigenous discourses which oppress minorities, for example. The various discussions which get into the most extraordinary twists to avoid pinning anything down at all are becoming more sterile and inadequate, in my view.

CSSH: This is what the judges liked best about your paper, the fact that you pin things down. We won’t give away all five points of comparison you discuss, but we hope future CSSH authors will explore them all, especially the extent to which forms of indigeneity are majoritarian or minoritarian, hegemonic or counterhegemonic, territorialized or de-territorialized, and how they make claims on the state or against the state. You take us far beyond the standard assumption that indigenous politics is always and inevitably rooted in a subaltern position.

Canessa: I knew this would be a challenging comparative project, which is why I sent it to CSSH. I thought you would like this kind of discussion and would give me the space I needed to develop it. The germ of the idea was the almost counterintuitive one of drawing on African indigeneity to understand Latin America because the former seems to have a much shorter history of indigenous politics than the latter. I wanted to turn this on its head. It is much easier to focus on Bolivia or Latin America, and doing comparative work in African contexts was simply a lot more work.

CSSH: I hope you don’t mind if we share with our readers the fact that you originally submitted your manuscript to CSSH in 2013, then spent roughly five years revising it. Clearly, the extra time was worth it! What was the argument like originally, and how did you arrive at the winning version of it?

Canessa: Was it really 2013? Yes, I suppose it was. I remember having an extraordinary number of reviewers (seven), and some of them wrote very lengthy responses. Two things came out of the process: one is that I needed to do more work on African scholarship (perhaps unsurprisingly); the other was that my argument was insufficiently clear. Dealing with the second problem took longer than the first. One of the reviewers said it was badly written, which was painful to hear but got me thinking. I believe I spent the better part of an entire year just thinking about it and then tackled it again, giving the paper as a lecture in a couple of places, especially to audiences of Africanists. Through that process, the arguments sharpened. Eventually I came upon the five nested pairs that helped me think about indigeneity in a more robust way and offered a lens through which to scrutinize all kinds of issues.

CSSH: There seems to be a direct relationship between careful, innovative comparison and slow work of the kind you describe. Last year’s winners, Cerutti and Grangaud, made an explicit point of this. The Goody Award recipients are now 2 for 2 on the virtues of slow analysis. Clearly, this is not just a matter of temporal pacing – although slowness does take time. The challenge is not to give up on these projects.

Canessa: I am a little embarrassed it took me so long, but I really do believe that some things take time. Sometimes I write an article and wish I could go back to it. This is not the case with this one. I think it is finished, it feels complete, and I am really quite happy to have taken the time over it, even though I have written several books much more quickly than it took to write and publish this article. And the thinking about this article does not stop with its publication. I am collaborating with political scientist Manuela Picq on a book-length project which theorizes the state from the perspective of indigenous people. You can see how the ideas in this article would feed into that – and I bet it will take us much less time to write the book than it took me to publish this article. This is how it should be really: we should be able to spend time working on ideas and enjoying the luxury of thinking. So I am very grateful CSSH gave me the space and time to think things through.

CSSH: You’ll get nothing but agreement from us! We’re glad you stuck with the project, and we hope the essay attracts a growing readership. It’s a superb example of comparative analysis.

Andrew Canessa is Professor of Anthropology and Head of the Department of Sociology at the University of Essex, UK. A social anthropologist, he has worked for many years with Aymara speakers in highland Bolivia. More recently he was the PI for an ESRC funded project looking at the evolution of a British Gibraltarian identity over the course of the 20th century. Among his books are Natives Making Nation: Gender, Indigeneity, and the State in the Andes (2005), Intimate Indigeneities: Race, Sex, and History in the Small Places of Andean Life (2012), and Bordering on Britishness: National Identity in Gibraltar from the Spanish Civil War to Brexit (2019).