by Ronald Niezen. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2009. 240pp. Paper. $24.95. ISBN: 9780773535305. Cloth $95.00. ISBN: 9780773535299.

Reviewed by Anthony J. Connolly, Law School, Australian National University. Email: tony.connolly [at]


In the suite of essays comprising THE REDISCOVERED SELF, Ronald Niezen, professor of anthropology at Canada’s McGill University, offers an intriguing, multi-layered conception of the development of indigenous identity and the associated development of indigenous rights over the past two decades or so. On his account of things, the contemporary struggle for indigenous rights is a key component of a broader struggle to refine, communicate and defend the very identity of indigenous peoples as distinct social entities in the face of an increasingly cosmopolitan and homogenising world order. For Niezen, this broader struggle plays out most interestingly through its strategic engagement with the discourse and practice of national and international law, through its use of cutting edge modes of communications technology, and through its transnational collaborative orientation. The indigenous peoples of the world are forging a new conception of themselves – they are rediscovering themselves, in Niezen’s terms – and are achieving significant political success through their creative use of contemporary discourses, technologies and institutions.

Niezen’s book gives us a comprehensive, engaging and accessible view of this complex pattern of activity which in this and his earlier (also excellent) book, THE ORIGINS OF INDIGENISM: HUMAN RIGHTS AND THE POLITICS OF IDENTITY (2003), he terms indigenism. Niezen’s indigenism is a worldwide political and cultural movement of relatively recent origin which has relied upon and which continues to rely upon the discourse and practice of post-war international human rights law in fashioning its concepts, ideology and political strategies. In this book, Niezen takes us beyond the largely legal and political orientation of his earlier study of indigenism by exploring, in addition, its technological and mass cultural dimensions.

The project of indigenism is not, of course, without its risks. The maintenance of a collective identity in the 21st century is not a given for indigenous peoples (or anyone else for that matter), but rather an ongoing and highly contingent struggle, to be won or lost. A significant part of the value of this book lies in Niezen’s subtle sense of the myriad tensions and contradictions which inhabit this enterprise of a traditionally minded culture utilising the artifacts of modernity in pursuit of itself. One of these tensions lies in the collaborative forging of a globalised indigenous identity by geographically circumscribed indigenous groups in order to further their own local cultural and political ends. In order to become more fully who they specifically and uniquely are – in order to gain local autonomy, in the full [*123] sense of the word – indigenous peoples are reinventing themselves as members of a more general – generic, even – indigenous collective at the international level. Indigenous groups have gained and continue to gain power to better protect their own local cultural and political interests by being subsumed to some extent in the worldwide indigenous rights movement. But this subsumption threatens to efface their uniqueness within the global indigenous community of peoples and to render them something other than what they were (and are).

Whether the alteration of local identity in response to the development of an international identity and the pursuit of political empowerment is a good thing or not, or inevitable or not, are questions Niezen does not directly address – and it is not clear that he should or even could credibly do so. This is because on the terrain of his thinking about these issues the very ideas of local and global, specific and general, and, more importantly, culture and its boundaries are put under enormous pressure. Indeed, it is, I take it, one of Niezen’s key aims in writing this book to destabilise readers’ ordinary ‘common sense’ conceptions of how things are in the sphere of indigenous rights and culture. This is especially evident in Chapter 4 with its incisive analysis of ‘common sense’ judicial takes on the concepts of culture and tradition in the Canadian aboriginal rights jurisprudence. For Niezen, things are just not as simple or as clear cut here as they might seem. It is a function of our thinking about the social world that our concepts are contingent, contestable and unstable. We need to be more pragmatic and politically aware in how we construct and utilise them.

In any event, in forging a global identity, indigenous peoples have recognised that if they are to be effective, they need to engage strategically with and utilise a range of non-indigenous phenomena including law, technology, the media, and popular culture. This generates, says Niezen, a second significant risk in the project of indigenous rediscovery and self-determination – that of being appropriated by or assimilated into the very cultural and political matrix from which indigenous peoples seek to distinguish and liberate themselves. As he says (at p.8) “the importance of one’s distinctiveness as the central source of one’s worthiness of respect does not sit comfortably with the idea that one’s expressions of difference are arrived at through accommodation of the ideas and expectations of (often dominant) others.” Engagement risks co-option. This is not a new idea, but Niezen gives it a fresh spin, spending much of the book mapping the challenges posed here, the proposed solutions formulated by indigenous peoples in response to these challenges, and the successes and failures of several of these proposals – particularly within the Canadian context of his own personal and professional acquaintance. For example, Chapters 2 and 4 of the book convey a strong sense of the hazards faced by indigenous peoples in engaging with the discourses, practices and institutions of non-indigenous law, both national and international. Chapters 3 and 5, on the other hand, focus on the complexities of indigenous engagement with contemporary information and communications technologies and their audiences. In all cases, there are opportunities to achieve important things which are at the same time great hazards to be navigated through carefully. [*124]

Much of the tension involved in the rediscovery of the indigenous self arises out of what Niezen terms ‘the politics of indignation’ (no pun intended, I take it). This ‘politics’ comprises a complex set of psychological, sociological and political strategies of cultural representation on the part of indigenous peoples, designed to engage and activate compassion and political action amongst the largely non-indigenous and middle-class public of mainly Western nation states. Drawing on the notion of the politics of shame which he utilised to good effect in THE ORIGINS OF INDIGENISM, Niezen points out how, in order to generate the requisite indignation of the general public about the state of indigenous affairs and by virtue of that indignation gain public support in the cause of indigenous self-determination, indigenous peoples are called upon to distinguish themselves and their claims from the many other groups and claims pervading the media and cyberspace. The paradox inherent in this, though, is that by optimally communicating in this manner the depth and distinctiveness of their historical suffering and political need, indigenous peoples only perpetuate pre-existing stereotypes of themselves as politically and culturally ‘damaged’ – perhaps even beyond repair. Apart from actually misrepresenting the cultural and political vibrancy of those indigenous groups, this tactic acts to undermine in the eyes of the general public their claims for recognition as a viable culture capable (and worthy) of exercising rights of self-determination. The more they represent themselves as uniquely and profoundly traumatised by colonisation in order to distinguish themselves and evoke concern from a non-indigenous public, the more they rationalise the denial of the very rights they are seeking. A dilemma, then, representative of the many Niezen identifies over the course of the book.

Though the ‘self’ in question in the book’s title refers predominantly to the collective self-identity of indigenous groups around the world who over the course of centuries have suffered the attempted erasure of their identity as distinct and distinctive peoples through the mechanisms of colonialism, it also invokes the individual self identities of the members of those groups who have each inherited the psychical consequences of that large scale process. Part of Niezen’s skill as a theorist and communicator of ideas is his capacity to implicate the personal in his discussion of the social. One of the most exciting and refreshing aspects of this book for someone familiar with the indigenous rights literature arises out of his talent for transcending the traditional theoretical orientation of the indigenous rights literature towards the institutional by demonstrating the personal consequences of struggling for and realising these rights. This book at various points conveys a strong sense of what is at stake for real people in the striving for cultural justice. This is most evident in Chapter 6 in which he courageously and sensitively reflects upon the historical, political, economic and ideological factors associated with youth suicide clusters within certain indigenous communities in Canada. In conceiving of these clusters as (amongst other things) pathological symptoms of the non-recognition of indigenous rights, Niezen vividly links the personal and the local with broader legal and political issues at both the national and international levels. [*125]

Lawyers, philosophers and political theorists engaged in the field of indigenous rights will not have had as much contact, perhaps, with this aspect of contemporary indigenous life as anthropologists, sociologists, medics and psychologists working in the field. Niezen’s book provides an opening for the former into the concrete realities of the indigenous rights struggle and makes clear the complex links between what we might conceive of as a ‘higher level’ human rights practice in the legal and political spheres and the day to day lives of many indigenous people on the ground. Chapter 6 provides only one illustration of this book’s capacity to cross and to provide pathways for others to cross disciplinary boundaries. This is a book richly and confidently informed by law, political science, anthropology, psychology, sociology and media studies. Its inter-disciplinarity arises out of Niezen’s finely honed and beautifully articulated sense of the interrelatedness of the subject matters of the various disciplines – personal psyche, group culture, political struggle, legal practice, contemporary mass culture, and global communications. It will appeal to and be of great value to readers – whether they be theoretically or practically oriented – across a range of disciplines.

Niezen, Ronald. 2003. THE ORIGINS OF INDIGENISM: HUMAN RIGHTS AND THE POLITICS OF IDENTITY. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

© Copyright 2010 by the author, Anthony J. Connolly.