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By Jason Michael
IN A RECENT GUEST ARTICLE on the Barrhead Boy website by Professor Alf Baird I was interested to read the term ‘the indigenous people of Scotland.’ The author was quoting this from a speech given at the inaugural Alba Party conference by my friend Garther Wardell (‘Grouse Beater’), and it caught my attention because there have been a number of people on social media over the past few months talking about Scots as an ‘indigenous’ people and citing the United Nations’ Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (2007) as a possible avenue to securing an independence referendum in which only Scots or ‘born Scots’ can vote. Taking up this language of indigeneity, Baird writes:
According to the UN, independence and decolonisation represents the ending of the scourge of colonial oppression over a downtrodden indigenous people; is this not then the real justification and hence ‘the case for freedom’ of any people seeking national liberation?
However, there is no mention of independence in the Declaration. Yet, I think we can agree on the sentiment. Independence does represent the end of the scourge of colonial oppression — but, and importantly, not for indigenous people. Independence is the endpoint of colonial oppression of a nation or an ethnic group, but not for indigenous people because independence is not on the cards for indigenous people (not yet anyway) — and this is why independence does not feature in this UN Declaration. Neither do the words ‘vote,’ ‘elections,’ and ‘referendum.’ ‘Freedom’ is mentioned, but only in regard to general human rights and freedoms. There is no hint in the Declaration that indigenous people have a right to freedom qua independent statehood.
The Declaration does say that indigenous people have the right to ‘self-determination,’ but this is qualified as the right to ‘freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development’ (Art. 3) ‘in matters relating to their internal and local affairs, as well as ways and means for financing their autonomous functions (Art. 4).’ What this is, is the right to self-government and limited autonomy within the state, not as a state. This is neither sovereignty nor independence.
So, there appears to be some confusion. Some people — Baird among them — have taken up this idea of the Scots being an indigenous people and therefore protected by the UN as such. Arguably, it is true that the Scots as a nation, people, or ethnic group are indigenous to Scotland, but this does not mean that Scots are indigenous people as the UN Declaration understands and uses the term. Now, in fairness, no UN body has adopted an official definition of ‘indigenous’ because of the great diversity of indigenous groups and their social and political natures, but a framework of understanding has been developed based on two particular commonalities and a number of attributes.
Indigenous people practice ‘unique traditions, they retain social, cultural, economic and political characteristics that are distinct from those of the dominant societies in which they live’ and ‘are the descendants of those who inhabited a country or a geographical region at the time when people of different cultures or ethnic origins arrived. The new arrivals later became dominant through conquest, occupation, settlement or other means.’
Before thinking about the list of possible attributes of an indigenous people let’s consider these two characteristics. Scots do not have unique traditions and customs or retain economic and political characteristics that are distinct from those of the dominant societies in which they live. Scots are the dominant society in Scotland. Many people of different ethnicities have come to Scotland over the ages, but they have not become dominant through conquest, occupation, settlement or other means. Again, in Scotland, Scots are the dominant ethnic and cultural group. We share none of these characteristics with ‘indigenous people’ as understood by the UN Declaration.
What about the attributes? ‘Self-identification as indigenous peoples at the individual level and accepted by the community as their member?’ Well, I suppose we can self-identify as indigenous people ‘at the individual level,’ but as the Scots as a community are not an indigenous people according to the characteristics listed above there is no community to accept us as a member. ‘Historical continuity with pre-colonial and/or pre-settler societies?’ This might work. We do have historical continuity with pre-colonial Scottish society, but Scotland’s experience of colonisation has not resulted in us being subject to a dominant ethnic group in Scotland. Again, we are the dominant group. ‘Strong link to territories and surrounding natural resources?’ Yes. This one works. We do have strong links to territories and surrounding natural resources — but, then, so do all dominant groups in every country. ‘Distinct social, economic or political systems’ and ‘distinct language, culture and beliefs?’ Distinct from who, other Scots? No, as the dominant ethnic or national group in Scotland, the Scots are the people others are distinct from. ‘Form non-dominant groups of society?’ No again. Scots are the dominant group in Scotland. ‘Resolve to maintain and reproduce their ancestral environments and systems as distinctive peoples and communities?’ Once again, distinct from who, other Scots?
The bottom line, then, is that we do not fit this definition of an indigenous people — and for good reason; it was not written with us in mind. Scotland is a developed European nation, and Scots are the dominant ethnic or people group in Scotland. In the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples the UN uses ‘indigenous people’ to mean a people or ethnic group subject to colonisation or settler-colonisation in a situation in which they are dominated by the coloniser group in their own territory. This is a people who have no realistic expectation (at this point) of full independent statehood, and this is why the Lakota, the Mayas, the Inuit, and the Saami are given as examples. We have to think here about what makes a people like the Guaraní in South America different from Scottish people living in Scotland. The political realities of colonial domination and oppression of indigenous people are entirely different from those experienced by us.
So no, the Scots — ‘indigenous’ to Scotland as they are — are not an ‘indigenous people.’ But what does it matter? People have asked me on Twitter why this is important, as though it is simply unimportant how we — as a dominant European ethnic group in our own country — frame our particular political and cultural oppression. Well, it does matter. The historical experience of indigenous peoples — as dominated ethnic groups subject to a colonial domination in which the coloniser group has become the dominant group — has been for the most part indescribably awful; they have been denied their human rights, hunted like animals, treated like pests and vermin, and subject to genocide.
Gareth has said he uses the term satirically, but others are really trying to argue the case. At best this is a serious lack of understanding. At worst it is an attempt to appropriate the special victim status of indigenous people — and this is extremely bad. It is an extreme form of white privilege in action (yes, it is) and even racism. Scots claiming indigenous status has about as much merit as the Kentish or the Cornish or the people of Wessex claiming indigenous status. If this is the case, then everyone can claim to be an oppressed indigenous people, and if everyone is an oppressed indigenous people then no one is an oppressed indigenous people. The UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples was formulated so as to protect actual indigenous people; people like the Aboriginal Australians, the Maori, the Tupi, and other pre-colonial societies. It is there to protect these people from annihilation, and that is something Scotland is not facing.
Indigenous – explained l CBC Kids News