Reconstructing the Indigenous: The Wrong Way and the Right Way

A letter to my fellow pragmatic dreamers.

There is a strong sentiment, almost a movement, across the West and among progressives around the world—even some traditionalists: to reconnect to the ever-present tribal origin; to make life and society come alive again, to make the universe into a more human homestead once again.

This is in and of itself an understandable and honorable impulse. If modern life, or modernity, has disconnected us from nature, from our direct surroundings, from one another, from our bodies, from spiritual life, from the cathedral that is always present in earth and skies, the longing for and admiration of the remnants of tribal and animistic ways of life seems to offer a vital remedy. While we appreciate the freedoms and comforts of modern life, we all notice that we have piece by piece become creatures of the Internet, electronically mediated and photographically constructed cyborgs. No wonder we cannot save the environment from ourselves—and no wonder we feel alienated and lost in a world too artificial and confusing.

Our Problematic Longing for “the Indigenous”

Let us, before we go on, briefly reconstruct this newfound popular fascination with indigenous cultures. It entails:

  • A shift in aesthetics, with expressions such as Afropunk (like the Afropunk festivalwhich attracts as many as 60k visitors.) On a wider scale yet, you have the increasing tendency to mimic (or co-opt or appropriate) native costumes and rituals in hippie/hipster festival occasions, not least as a part of the Ayahuasca tourist industries.
  • An appreciation and honoring of indigenous lifestyles in the books of anthropologist David Graeberand aboriginal professor, Tyson Yunkaporta.
  • The growth a vibrant scholarly counter-narrative to the economic “development” under the leadership of thinkers like anthropologist Arturo Escobar. Briefly stated, this position holds that it is a mistake to think of indigenous roots and cultures around the world as “under-developed” and that development itself cannot be thought of solely in terms of “extractive” economic growth. Rather, it is often the indigenous life forms that can and should inform the design of and solutions for humane, inclusive, and ecologically viable societies. Check out Pluriverse: A Post-Development Dictionary — it’s got something for everyone!
  • In connection with the above note, the growing use of indigenous technologies and practices as sources of design for homes, communities, and even infrastructure.
  • The growing awareness that the defense of indigenous rights to land and conservation of lifestyles goes hand in hand with protecting vulnerable and vital ecosystems—see for instance the Amazon Sacred Headwaters Initiative.
  • The increased fascination with indigenous wisdom and spirituality, often with the impulse to try to include representatives of such qualities in conferences and summits.
  • The increased coverage of indigenous struggles for native rights and alliances in the mainstream media.
  • And other elements you could add, I am sure…

By and large, this must be viewed as a kind of public awakening and there is good reason to celebrate it as an increasing awareness of the importance not only of our shared past and rootedness in ways of life that went on for tens of thousands of years, but also of the key role that can be played by the tribal societies around the world in the cultivation of multifarious expressions of genuinely vital and desirable—protopian — ways of life for people around the world.

Yet, I cannot escape the feeling that there is also something rather unsavory going on in our shared way of “grasping for” the indigenous. It is as if we all, even if out of very reasonable longings, cannot quite leave “the indigenous” alone—and that we tend to mash up too many, too different, and too rich and contextually situated cultures into one and the same concept. To push this line of argument further, I almost feel that we have developed an underlying vampiric relationship to animist cultures: like the archetype of an old, stagnated person wishing to steal the elixir of youth and vitality from a younger and less privileged person.

Have we subtly become the Wicked Witch of the West?

I don’t believe that this “vampiric” tendency is necessarily rooted in exploitation and ill-will. Rather, I believe that it emanates from a shared naivety on “our” (Westerners and others part of late modernity) behalf: The indigenous ways of life have become so foreign to us that we cannot help but to view them through an exotified, hyper-essentializing lens—one that subtly carries our post-colonial and orientalist heritage forward in new guises. In our eagerness to “be more indigenous”, to be wiser, more embodied, more at home in the world, to become ecologically sane, we tend to forget that the indigenous cultures of the world are not ours to simply take. This creates a somewhat awkward dynamic through which we want something from the members of indigenous cultures around the world—not as unique expressions of themselves, but as expressions of our ideas and ideals of “the indigenous”.

And need I point out, that whatever we Westerners and other late moderns seek to cram into this one single concept of “the indigenous” (and its purported “wisdom”) there is just no way that the term can encapsulate these wildly varied ways of life? From the San of southern central Africa, to the Mursi of Ethiopia (title image is of Mursi man), to the “Zuni” of Central America (not their indigenous name, for one thing), to the Inuit of Greenland, to the Ainu of Japan, to the Lue of Thailand (who are, by the way, “indigenous” but not tribal or animist just to make matters more complicated), to the Aboriginal Australians, to the folks of the Andaman Islands? I suppose, from an anthropological perspective, one could abstract certain qualities that these have in common—even if these elements often mix with modern systems of economic exchange. But when we apply our term “indigenous” to these contexts, we are of course only seeing each of these cultures through a certain lens—one that has nothing to do with their cultures, and everything to do with modern, Western, culture. Even if we all get degrees in anthropology and spend a few years writing ethnographies about “indigenous” ways of life, this will still be the case: the very idea to view them as anthropological is a modern concept.

Let us then compare the picture of Mursi man above to this image of the Tsaatan reindeer herders of Mongolia:

Tsaatan reindeer herders (and riders!) of Mongolia.

The two—the Mursi and the Tsaatan—are arguably more widely different than the lifestyles of any modern country, from China, to Mexico, to New Zealand. (I theorize about why this is the case in a former article on the relationship between chaos theory and cultural development).

Both of these images express ostensibly magical cultures (a wording I borrowed from a friend, Chuck Pezeshki. And it’s natural for us to long for magic in our lives. But is it the same magic across different cultures, and can it truly be caught with one word, “indigenous”? Can we “add indigenous and stir” to our progressive and transformative practices, hanging another dream catcher on our porch? Or are we being creepy?

With these points in mind, consider the following critiques of our growing tendency to long for the indigenous:

  • There is always a risk of “appropriating” the indigenous cultures, meaning that the unique identities and expressions of these become part of our larger, commercialized systems, which in turn can harm the self-distinction and dignity of minorities.
  • If tribal cultures are fetishized, large swathes of majority populations will “want something” from them, and this something may not even be there to begin with. This can be excruciating and frustrating.
  • Our longing for the indigenous can often be expressed as “token” representation, either through musical performances at festivals or with just a few people brought in to the summit. This kind of artificial interpretation turns people into a kind of living museum objects to be collected. Gotta catch ’em all, right?
  • The grasping to reconnect to the indigenous subtly ignores what they want—while refocusing on how we want their qualities to save us.
  • Our engagement with postcolonial values (through universities mostly) can make Westerners (or other moderns) into the spokespeople for indigenous causes, supplanting their own voices (the “sub-saltern”, to use Spivak’s term).
  • And, again, the very notion of “the indigenous” arguably makes the Mursi and the Tsaatan and the Inuit invisible to us: we just see our own concepts that smash them together, not them.
  • We infantilize our fellow human beings by projecting upon them an aura of innocence, purity, and authenticity. The lives and ways of life of the multiplicity of animist and tribal cultures contain all the struggle, strife, evil, manipulation, violence, tragedy, and brokenness of human existence along with those qualities we find enchanting. It’s not for kids.
  • We disrespect whole cultures and ways of life when we “want the cake and eat it too” by wishing to keep the perceived (or imagined) coziness of and magic of animist life, but at the same time not wishing to dispense with the comforts and freedoms of modern life. How is this disrespectful? It fails to see that these cultures are responding to the real pressures and demands of life, and that their unique beauties and communities have grown from that. If you rip out the nice part but ignore the challenge, you disrespect the suffering and hard work that goes into creating and upholding the beauty of that particular culture.

Our admiration of “the indigenous” and the discourse it brings in progressive and countercultural circles is certainly preferable to our recent history of viewing our fellow human beings, often of the oldest and most refined cultures on earth, as savages, and “natives” to be “civilized”. Of course, this view still occurs among less progressive people: a young Christian missionary, John Allen Chau, was killed in 2018 as he came to convert the uncontacted Sentinelese (after traveling there illegally).

But even with this apparent step up, all of the above critiques still seem to hold.

The Ever-Present Origin Revisited

The irony of it all is that, psychologically speaking, we perhaps never left our indigenous, animistic, or tribal homestead. I have thus come to believe that our search for a home in the universe is actually not about an exotifying anthropology (itself being a modern and distancing and abstracting way of seeing, which of course in and of itself takes nothing away from its value as a kind of knowledge, but does highlight that anthropology is unlikely to lead to a reconstruction of the indigenous in our lives).

Instead, I have come to believe that making the universe our home is about a very subtle but brutally honest introspection: it’s about seeing how the tribal, the animist, the indigenous element lives within us. It’s about noticing what is already there. What was there all along: it was our home for tens of thousands of years, and for many of us, since about ten millennia, it faded into the background of our awareness.

If we trace the lines of Jean Gebser’s 1950s work, The Ever-Present Origin, (without necessarily buying his whole framework or its details) we can note that Gebser held that consciousness has restructured itself throughout history:

  1. from the Archaic world where everything seems to be One (where we live in a cave, under a close and intimate sky, undifferentiated from much in the natural world)…
  2. to the Magic world where the inner world is differentiated from nature, here in the guise of spirits, magic, ancestral union with nature, and ecstatic ritual practices—all of which is expressed, of course, through art, an art that is naturally genuine, expressive, and beautiful (for the cave paintings in France to today’s rich animist expressions)…
  3. to the Mythic world of religions and more elaborate and systematized mythologies of chiefdoms and civilizations, where magic is at one further remove from everyday life—belonging to a celestial, distinctly other realm…
  4. and from there on to what Gebser calls a Mental world and an Integral 

Let us disregard for a moment that this early theorist of the shifting modes of consciousness (in arts, science, philosophy, and so on) had a somewhat different model than later scholars. (For an excellent introduction, see Jeremy Johnson’s book on Jean Gebser.)

What is striking is that Gebser points out that there appear to be deep structures to human consciousness itself, expressed in and through the types of culture we are part of and live by. And these structures can only emerge in and through one another. Thus, any one structure is never truly left behind.

What if the Archaic, Magic (often corresponding to tribal/animist/indigenous), and Mythic structures are still present in us—right here, right now? What if they’re just repressed, downplayed, shamed, hidden in plain sight? What if we never left magic behind in the first place? What if God only appeared to die?

There is almost a mystical element to Gebser’s thought here: The “later” structures of consciousness are always-already embedded within the earlier ones, just as the earlier ones are always-still present within the later ones, without which they would not be possible. I say “mystical” because it thus follows that the omega point of where consciousness travels is already inherent in the earliest expression of consciousness (presumably also non-human consciousness) while the alpha point is never lost however far consciousness travels and shifts. (And, indeed, due to this mystical element of his social philosophy, Gebser’s oeuvre was never quite as respected and known as it might have been).

The source of our consciousness, the basic “universe as a home”, is an ever-present origin. The endpoint is a return. Forward is backwards.

Upwards is inwards.

Evolution is involution.

Better understanding of “you” is better knowledge of the great “it” of the universe, which is ultimately a better understanding of me. So science is introspection—just by a wide and necessarily detouring arc.

It all leads back to the ever-present origin. To the primordial home: That life is beautiful and this world is worth living in, and it is a home, despite all of its apparent harshness.

Maybe, then, looking for the magical within small and relatively foreign cultures is a fool’s errand. Maybe we need to find the pensée sauvage, the wild manners of thought, feeling, and being, within our own cultures, within ourselves?

No—indeed, I should like to go farther still in this argument: Could it be that our obsession with “the indigenous” is in and of itself a kind of denial?

Now, consider the work of those “gone native” anthropologists—some of whom explicitly say they’ve had sex with gnomes (when on spiritual journeys with indigenous rituals, etc.). My favorite is the somewhat hyper-sexual work of Hans-Peter Duerr. This guy—gotta love him—wrote five very thick books just to disprove one book by an influential sociologist, Norbert Elias. And he pretty much failed to disprove Elias’s brilliant theory (on “the civilizing process”) and, by the way, missed the point with it.

Anyway, Duerr describes in his books the radical and dramatic entrance into a world more beautiful and alive than anything modern life can offer. This is Dreamtime; it is access to altered states, and it is a kind of understanding of the world that animists may understand but modern people lack.

No wonder he never quite came back from wonderland. Would you have?

Now, again—there is something subtly hysterical and unsavory about Duerr’s story. But could we, hand in hand, reconstruct that journey he took? Could we retrace those steps?

I know I am not being entirely realistic here, but let me finish the thought for the sake of completeness:

  • Could we reconstruct the Archaic in our lives by creating spaces in which we strip down everything but the most essential? When was the last day when you didn’t quantify anything, seek to achieve anything, seek to play a role? Probably it was before you were two years old.
  • Could the Magic be reconstructed by time away in neo-tribal settings, where we live close to nature and only have a small group to cooperate with and find meaning with? Could we dance rather than think so much? Sing rather than discuss? Who knows—maybe we would find that the Magic, the animist, the indigenous, is not entirely lacking in us after all? Either way, whatever we find, it would be real and come from us, not from what we tried to extract from the last few tribal cultures on earth, destroying them in the process.
  • Could the Mythic be reconstructed—monastic time spent searching for our own truths and an intimate relationship to something bigger than ourselves? How many of us even quite know we have this opportunity? Could many more be offered it?

And, of course, to integrate all of that with “modern” life is what Gebser called “Integral”. I would like to call it metamodern or protopian.

The indigenous we’re looking for is closer than we think. Protopia is closer than we think. Not as in “it’s in a nearer future”. It’s more intimately weaved into our lives.

The “pensée sauvage” (Wild Thought) was originally a play-on-words by the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss: It referred to a flower, a wild pansy flower. The rare and wild flower, the thought that springs up out there in nature.

Well, as Henri Matisse once said: There are flowers everywhere, for those who deign to see them.

Stop looking for magic: It’s already here. Let’s just create space for it in our societies.

Hanzi Freinacht is a political philosopher, historian, and sociologist, author of ‘The Listening Society’, ‘Nordic Ideology’ and the upcoming books ‘The 6 Hidden Patterns of History’ and ‘Outcompeting Capitalism’. Much of his time is spent alone in the Swiss Alps. You can follow Hanzi on Facebook, Twitter, and Medium, and you can speed up the process of new metamodern content reaching the world by making a donation to Hanzi here.