The Emergence of Indigeneity: Public Intellectuals and an Indigenous Space in Southwest China

Essay Excerpt

Old Wang squatted over a wild banana stalk, slicing it up to feed the pigs. He wore a knit polyblend cap and blue sports coat over his tall gaunt frame, and his machete maintained a rhythmic pattern as he told me of his youth. In the 1930s, Wang had lived in a small upland village. He would travel to a town near the banks of the Mekong River to buy supplies like salt, lead for bullets, and Thai cloth, and during one of these journeys he saw a group of men point at him. They talked among themselves, but loud enough to be heard by him and others. Wang put down his machete and repeated in a whisper what they had said about him decades earlier: 'Look, there is one, a tu zhu ren, from the mountains.' (301)

Hathaway, Michael. "The Emergence of Indigeneity: Public Intellectuals and an Indigenous Space in Southwest China." Cultural Anthropology 25, no. 2 (2010): 301-333

Editorial Footnotes

Cultural Anthropology has published many essays on China, including Shao Jing’s “Fluid Labor and Blood Money: The Economy of HIV/AIDS in Rural Central China” (2006); Judith Farquhar and Quicheng Zhang’s “Biopolitical Beijing: Pleasure, Sovereignty, and Self-Cultivation in China's Capital” (2005);  Pun Ngai’s “Subsumption or Consumption? The Phantom of Consumer Revolution in "Globalizing" China” (2003), and Yan Hairong’s “Neoliberal Governmentality and Neohumanism: Organizing Suzhi/Value Flow through Labor Recruitment Networks” (2003).

Cultural Anthropology has also published many essays that examine how indigenous knowledge has been constructed and validated. See, for example, Suzana Sawyer’s “Bobbittizing Texaco: Dis-Membering Corporate Capital and Re-Membering the Nation in Ecuador” (2002); Stephen B. Brush’s “Bioprospecting the Public Domain” (1999); Patricia Pierce Erikson’s “A-Whaling We Will Go: Encounters of Knowledge and Memory at the Makah Cultural and Research Center” (1999); and Charles V. Carnegie’s “The Dundus and the Nation” (1996).

About the Author

Editorial Overview

In the May 2010 issue of Cultural Anthropology, Michael Hathaway explores the politics of indigeneity in China, tracking "indigenous" articulations and transformations through environmentalism.  In "The Emergence of Indigeneity: Public Intellectuals and an Indigenous Space in Southwest China" Hathaway analyzes the shifting ways that minority and subaltern communities are configured as "indigeneity" is overtly and strategically produced rather than transmitted as a legacy. Hathaway puts forward the concept of "indigenous space" to provoke thinking about the conditions and work behind the emergence of indigeneity as an efficacious category in a given context. Such space can be created by locally focused scholars and activists of the sort Hathaway describes because they are able to draw on conceptual, political, and economic resources from the international sphere.  Local work—on how particular agricultural practices are understood, for example—must be done and authoritatively represented to forge connections with international idioms and valuations. Fostering an indigenous space, he insists, "is neither a top-down imposition of a foreign social category not a spontaneous bottom-up social movement. Rather, it works mainly in an intermediate space." Indigenous space is achieved and not ascribed, Hathaway shows, and a key task of critical scholarship is to track its continuing emergence.

"The concept of indigenous space allows us to go beyond legalist approaches of using particular criteria (such as genetics, or sociocultural and linguistic markers) to judge whether a certain group qualifies as indigenous. The rubric of emergence refuses to naturalize the concept, and instead encourages us to explore how different groups, in relationship to each other, invent, elaborate, and use this category. Whereas much scholarship on indigeneity has revealed the struggles and the success of various indigenous movements, it has paid less attention to the work that makes the concept of the indigenous salient, especially in places with less public and state sympathy, or the places where, despite great efforts, it has failed to gain a foothold."

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