Posts Tagged ‘indigenous peoples’

I’m quite a few weeks late on this, obviously. And, frankly, I’m not sure that I have that much to say. But I just wanted to share a collection of videos I found, mainly from TikTok, highlighting different indigenous individuals and peoples represented at the 2021 (oops, I mean 2020) Tokyo Olympics, especially since many – whatever their relationship with and feelings towards their country may be – are obliged to represent that country, flying its flag, receiving medals to that country’s national anthem, rather than more overtly representing their own people.

So, first, a video from Connor, a Native American (Lumbee) TikToker from Lenapehoking (Lenape lands), talking about the Ainu, one of the indigenous peoples of the land now controlled by Japan, who were originally planned to have a bit more representation in the 2020 Olympics, but got less airtime in the postponed 2021 version of the Opening & Closing Ceremonies:

Uchinanchu (Okinawan) artist Dane Nakama expands on the above video to talk about the other major indigenous people of what is today controlled by Japan – namely, the Ryukyuan peoples:

Connor also posted a number of other videos during the Games, including this one about Carissa Moore, a Native Hawaiian surfer who won a gold medal in surfing, the first time surfing was included in the Olympics. I saw a bit of controversy on social media during the Games, about the whitewashing or appropriation or colonization of surfing… I’m glad a Wahine Kanaka Maoli (Native Hawaiian woman) won gold, dominating the sport pioneered by her ancestors, a “sport” that’s not just a sport but has deep cultural and spiritual meaning.

It is a shame that she was not (as far as I’m aware) permitted to display the Hawaiian flag in any way, let alone of course to be awarded her gold medal under the Hawaiian flag or Hawaiian national anthem rather than those of the United States, which continues to illegally occupy the Hawaiian Kingdom.

Connor also talks about Pita Taufatofua, the tae kwon do competitor from Tonga who was also that country’s flagbearer in the 2016, 2018, and 2020 games, attracting much attention for his bared, oiled, muscular upper body. As Connor explains in this video, in 2016 Taufatofua was told he couldn’t wear his traditional taʻovala wrap-skirt, but he did it anyway; I love the way Connor talks about this, talking about how Native communities and individuals are often encouraged to hide their culture, and how inspiring and powerful it is to see people proudly display their culture in this way.


I think I’m going to do some content highlighting Indigenous ppl at the #olympics 🥰 #olympicspirit #tokyoolympics #tonga #indigenous #firstnations

♬ Sunset – Chillthemusic

Connor also highlighted Patty Mills, an Australian Aborigine / Torres Strait Islander who was the first Native person to be flagbearer for Australia at the Olympics. He also plays in the NBA, on the San Antonio Spurs. I know next to nothing about basketball fandom – I wonder how well-known it is among NBA fans that he’s Australian Aborigine. Here’s your regular reminder that not all Black people are descended from slaves, or from otherwise relatively recent immigrants from Africa. Aboriginal folks from Australia, Torres Straits Islanders, Melanesians from places like Fiji and New Caledonia share many of the features we typical associate with Africans or African-Americans. Diversity means not only recognizing Black Lives, but the incredible diversity within, and beyond, Black Lives.


got some more content coming soon about Indigenous ppl at the #olympics 🥰 #tokyoolympics #olympicspirit #aboriginal #indigenous #firstnations #fyp

♬ Triangle – Clutch

The Australian women’s football (soccer) team also honored and recognized Aboriginal peoples by posing with an Aboriginal flag and linking arms in a show of solidarity. I won’t pretend to know the history beyond the most minimal surface level, but Australia has a pretty heinous history of racist and colonialist policies, persecution, and so forth, in addition to the broader fact of the country as a White settler colony; and many of these racist attitudes and policies, sadly, remain in place today, as they do to one extent or another in many other parts of the world (e.g. the US, Canada).

Thanks to my friend Dr. Yuan-Yu Kuan, I also learned of a few heartwarming moments of representation by athletes from Taiwanese aboriginal backgrounds.

In this brief clip, boxer Chen Nien-chin, from the Pangcah/Amis people, shouts “I am a child of Pangcah” at the cameras in his native language. As Kuan points out, one of the few times a Taiwanese aboriginal language has likely ever been spoken (or, more to the point, broadcast on camera) during any Olympics Games.

His shout, “O Wawa no Pangcah” (“I am a child of Pangcah,” or 我是邦查(阿美族)之子!in Chinese) comes around 1m35s in this video:

Finally, the Bulareyaung Dance Company recorded and posted this video of them watching the Olympics awards ceremonies from home in Taiwan. Amis weightlifter Kuo Hsing-chun took gold. Taiwan is, of course, barred from even representing itself at the Olympcis as a full proper country, with its proper national flag and national anthem, to begin with, because the government of the People’s Republic of China are all dicks and refuse to acknowledge Taiwanese autonomy and sovereignty even now, more than 70 years later. So, rather than celebrating the fake “Chinese Taipei Olympics team” flag and anthem that’s officially shown/played at the awards ceremony, this Dance Company sings over it a traditional Amis song. I don’t know the language or the song, or to be honest do I know that much about the people, but as someone with a special place in my heart for Hawaiian and Okinawan music, and for indigenous cultures more broadly, it really warms my heart and puts a smile on my face to hear it.

I’m sure these are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to indigenous representation at the Olympics. But these are the stories I saw.

These Olympics were, of course, more controversial than most. Here in Tokyo, a great many people were staunchly opposed to, and critical of, the city / the country going forward with holding the Olympics despite the raging Covid pandemic, and the government’s incompetence in getting the vaccines rolled-out more widely more quickly. Of course, many people are opposed to or critical of the Olympics anyway, for a variety of other very valid reasons. And I don’t challenge or deny those people’s valid opposition and criticism.

But I can’t deny that I’m a sucker for displays of international coming-together, of cultural pride, of global diversity. This is something I feel we don’t see enough of, and something we need more of in this world. People coming together, regardless of country, race, ethnicity, religion, interacting together across these divides, building or showing friendships, learning about and celebrating one another even if only for a moment, and just showing and celebrating the incredible diversity of our world. A diversity that goes beyond nation, that extends to indigenous peoples and ethnic minorities as well.

I apologize to leave on a negative note, but especially with me composing this post on Sept 6, the anniversary of the Munich massacre, I think it relevant and important to note that these 2021 Olympics were the first time that the terrorist violence that took place at the 1972 Olympics – in which 11 Israelis and one German police officer were killed – were formally commemorated in such a central, public, manner.

There are still far too many groups and governments in the world today who deny the peoplehood of other people, who deny their identities, their history, their indigeneity to their ancestral homelands, and who seek to deny them their rights to freedom, equality, safety & wellbeing, and self-determination as a people. Many peoples continue to fight courageously and persistently to gain, regain, or retain those rights. But there remain far too many who are powerfully determined to block them, oppress and persecute them, to claim their land as their own, and even to massacre them. I hope that someday we can see peace.

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I must admit, I’ve been kind of sitting on this link since Columbus Day. But, fortunately, it’s now Thanksgiving, so, it’s still sort of thematically appropriate. (Not that it would be horribly inappropriate to post about such things any other time of year.)

It’s a lengthy article from The Atlantic, and a slightly old one, dating back to 2002, but a very interesting one, by Charles Mann, long-time Atlantic contributing editor, and the author of the books 1491 and 1493, this article being a product of the process which eventually resulted in those books.

In this article, Mann asks us to reconsider the myth that North America was only sparsely populated, and that indigenous peoples live in harmony with nature. In a broader sense, the idea that large-scale environmental impact is limited to the modern age is one of the classic ones perpetuated by the presentism of far too many disciplines (not to mention out in the world, outside of the academy), and is one that several of my History department colleagues, in their studies of medieval Europe and Japan, rail against in their work, to be sure. I don’t want to digress for too long, but just to give one example, my go-to example: by the end of the 18th century, Japan was severely deforested, had nearly exhausted its gold, silver, and copper mines, and had dealt a very severe blow to the wolf population, with the Japanese wolf finally going finally extinct by 1905. Of course, the more classic example of the dodo, extinct by 1700, is a fine one too. And how about moas, the large flightless birds endemic to New Zealand and killed off by the Maori – yes, by the indigenous people who live so in harmony with nature – by 1500, long before any Europeans ever arrived. Not that I mean to disparage the Maori. Okay, let me continue this digression just a little bit longer, to say this: it only just occurred to me as I was writing this, but I think it holds some merit. The idea that indigenous peoples – Native Americans, Maori, whoever, or non-Western peoples at all, e.g. the Japanese – are somehow in harmony with nature may seem benign or even a positive stereotype. In this age of environmental degradation, we all aspire to know how to live more harmoniously with Mother Earth. But, actually, this idea comes straight out of Orientalist / Social Darwinist notions of the 19th century, which contrasted “civilization” against being part of nature. In other words, even if the nuances may have changed today, and even if we intend a different meaning, by saying or thinking that anyone was living in harmony with nature, what we’re really saying is that they’re uncivilized, that they’re less advanced. I can’t remember precisely where I saw it, but I recall reading excerpts from European writings about somewhere in the Pacific (yeah, can’t remember the details – sorry) in which they fully lumped in the people with the natural environment, writing something to the effect of that the natural environment of that island – the climate, the plants, the animals, the Natives – was brutal, and would take a lot of work to be tamed. So, let’s maybe step carefully when we talk about other peoples having lived in harmony with nature.

Just a thought.

Now, returning to the Atlantic article. It opens with discussion of an area in Amazonia known as the Beni, an area where until recently, or perhaps still today, indigenous people live who have had only the most minimal of contact with any outsiders. Scholars Clark Erickson and William Balée believe that this area, and indeed much of the Americas, may have been far more densely populated than our conventional wisdom dictates, and further, that the indigenous peoples of the Americas may have imposed a far greater impact on the landscape – read: manmade lakes, hills, and so forth – than is traditionally believed. To be sure, I have heard, and find quite compelling, the idea that since disease killed huge numbers of Native Americans, perhaps as many as 90%, before the Europeans ever came more deeply into the continent, the European accounts of a largely empty land might not properly be able to reflect what was there before – before the Europeans were there to see it. Even the Plymouth colonists themselves acknowledged it, with William Bradford (1590-1657) writing “The good hand of God favored our beginnings, sweeping away great multitudes of the natives … that he might make room for us.”

But, Erickson and Balée’s work remains quite controversial, and understandably so. The article cites two prominent scholars, Betty Meggers of the Smithsonian, and Dean Snow of Penn State, as saying, respectively,
“I have seen no evidence that large numbers of people ever lived in the Beni. Claiming otherwise is just wishful thinking,” and from Snow, that “you can make the meager evidence from the ethnohistorical record tell you anything you want. It’s really easy to kid yourself.”

Perhaps the more important point is one articulated by scholar Elizabeth Fenn:

Whether one million or 10 million or 100 million died… the pall of sorrow that engulfed the hemisphere was immeasurable. Languages, prayers, hopes, habits, and dreams—entire ways of life hissed away like steam. … In the long run, … the consequential finding is not that many people died but that many people once lived.

Recovering the lost history of countless indigenous peoples is of course of incredible importance, and I wish luck to all of those working on such projects.

This particular one in Beni, focusing on the idea that the indigenous peoples profoundly altered the landscape, brings up some particularly interesting questions and implications. Firstly, by understanding the ways in which all societies have environmental impact, we can begin to understand one another as fellow humans better, so that we might stop seeing one another as those who supposedly “live in harmony with nature” and those who destroy it, and to instead start thinking about the ways that all human societies impact the natural environment. But, also, there is the question raised by this article: if the land was already profoundly altered by the people who came before (and who, in many cases are still here on the land), what exactly are we protecting and preserving in our National Parks and so forth, and to what state exactly should we restore things? In the Beni, it has been traditional practice for who knows how long to burn out the undergrowth, and to build causeways and weirs to trap fish. The Hawaiians, too, built fish ponds, and maintained artificially high, manmade, populations of fish within them, though I don’t really know the details of how extensively they altered the land to do this. Later in the article, Mann describes how many North American indigenous peoples used controlled burning, and other technologies, to shape the grasslands, and turn them into massive “farms,” essentially, for herds of wild buffalo, elk, and so forth. Quoting William Denevan, he writes, “Is it possible that the Indians changed the Americas more than the invading Europeans did? ‘The answer is probably yes for most regions for the next 250 years or so after Columbus, and for some regions right up to the present time.'”

After we landed, I asked Balée, Should we let people keep burning the Beni? Or should we let the trees invade and create a verdant tropical forest in the grasslands, even if one had not existed here for millennia?

Balée laughed. “You’re trying to trap me, aren’t you?” he said.

From here, the article moves on to talk about the issue of virgin soil epidemics, and of pre-contact population, more broadly. While no article of course could ever be as thoroughly informative as a whole book, this 11-webpage-long piece is really quite thorough in its scope, touching upon a lot of really interesting information. Mann covers so much here, I can hardly begin to imagine what he covers in his book. I started writing a running summary of the article, noting interesting points as I came to each of them, but this blog post, which is meant chiefly to just point to the article, is already getting quite long itself. No one wants to read a super lengthy “summary” of something that’s only 11 pages in full.

So, this Thanksgiving weekend, go take a look at Charles Mann’s 2002 article in The Atlantic, “1491.” It’s a really fascinating glimpse into what this part of the world might have looked like before (for most of us) our ancestors came here, and what happened to that world.

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I have just returned from a screening of the first of two parts of the 2011 Taiwanese film “Warriors of the Rainbow: Seediq Bale” (賽德克·巴萊), and I am still somewhat in shock. The film depicts the 1930 Wushe Incident, in which a number of Taiwanese aborigines of the Seediq Bale tribe rose up against Japanese colonizers. Over 130 Japanese were killed (including women and children), while hundreds of Seediq Bale (lit. “true men”) died in the fighting. I understand that the second half of the film, which I have yet to see, depicts (in part) the Japanese response, in which a great many aborigines were killed. It is certainly an incident about which we hear very little – it is completely overshadowed by events such as the Marco Polo Bridge Incident, the Mukden Incident, and the Nanjing Massacre, which occurred several years later, in mainland China. Yet, within the contexts of Taiwanese history, the history of Japanese Empire, indigenous & colonial studies, and the like, it is actually quite interesting and important; certainly, within a historical narrative of a series of encounters between the Japanese and the Taiwanese aborigines, stretching back as far as 1871, if not earlier, it seems an incident of some considerable importance and interest.

There is so much to this film that I scarcely know what to say. In fact, I hesitate to say anything at all, because anything I say would need to expounded upon, expanded out, explained fully, and balanced out by additional statements as well, over the course of many pages. All of the issues this film touches upon are quite complex, and if there is a side or a stance to take, I do not know where I stand. So, rather than risk misrepresenting myself, or influencing your experience or interpretation of the film, I suppose I shall just leave it at this, and allow you to draw your own conclusions, and your own thoughts and questions.

I am very thankful to Profs. Kuo-Ch’ing Tu, Kate McDonald, and Anne-Elise Llewallen, for their comments after the film, putting it somewhat into context, and helping us begin to think about some of the issues this film raises. This review by scholar Darryl Sterk likewise discusses a number of those issues, and is quite thought-provoking; I am sure there are plenty more reviews out there taking a variety of different stances and expressing a diversity of reactions.

US Version Trailer:

The film was shown earlier this year in a limited release in a handful of major East and West Coast US cities, as well as in various British, European, and Chinese cities, in an “international version,” cut down to about 2 1/2 hours. I am glad that the Center for Taiwan Studies here at UCSB is showing instead the full, uncut, Taiwanese version of the film, even if it is closer to 4 1/2 hours. The second half will be shown here at UCSB’s Multicultural Center Theatre sometime in January. I look forward to it, and to the discussions which might emerge out of it.

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I still have not been to the National Museum of the American Indian in New York, but took some time last week to check out the “main branch,” as it were, on the National Mall in Washington DC.

Discussing the National Museum of the American Indian means discussing complex and controversial issues. It’s the sort of thing that should take up a lot of space, as one negotiates, or struggles, with the material, or at least, as one covers one’s bases and includes tons of disclaimers. Once, not so long ago, as I’m sure you can tell by some of my past posts, I would have been that guy. I would have gone on for pages and pages criticizing or questioning, getting involved in other issues, big issues, of race and history, of colonialism, of progress and identity. But, today, I find that I feel I have argued these things with myself enough. Have I fully worked out precisely how I feel on this complex set of topics? No. But, I find myself more open-minded and accepting than ever before, more appreciative of native cultures and native struggles, and more willing to accept these issues without taking them personally, as attacks upon my country, or upon myself as a white person. I’m not saying I’ve necessarily made a decision exactly where or how I stand, or that I’ve “switched sides”, or that I think the sides should be so clearly defined. But, I do think that I’ve managed to obtain a certain emotional distance that allows me to see descriptions of circumstances and events without thinking them to be attacks.

I went into NMAI expecting to find something disorganized, or something otherwise misguided or failing from an exhibit design point of view (not that I’m a design expert or anything), or failing in terms of my experience as a visitor. I expected to find something very politically charged, and perhaps inappropriately unbalanced, in either one direction or another. Since many sections of the exhibits are curated by disparate groups of amateur curators representing their respective Nations, each with particular political goals and complex personal issues of identity, I had been told by others who have visited the museum that the end result is a rather disorganized and disoriented mish-mash of content. That many of the areas overlap, that many contradict one another, and that there is no clean, single narrative for the visitor to follow through the exhibit, i.e. from beginning to end, or entrance to exit. But, honestly, who needs such a simple narrative anyway? Life is complicated. History is complicated. And if we pretend it’s clean and simple, cut and dry, who are we fooling but ourselves?

In the end, I really don’t think that I can say that the museum is too disorganized, nor too politically charged. Yes, it’s true that it is way too easy to walk in the exit of each exhibit, thinking it to be the entrance, and to then find yourself experiencing the whole exhibit backwards. And it is true that by leaving much of the curation to amateurs, and to multiple different groups of people, the exhibits do lose some degree of cohesion and consistency, that they do get repetitive, and that they do at times reflect a group’s political motives or their particular identity politics in ways that an exhibit designed by a professional and ostensibly objective (though we know that doesn’t exist) curator, even a sympathetic one, would not. Still, I think that all one really needs to do to understand and appreciate NMAI is to understand where these people are coming from – their goals and motives, what the museum represents for them, in terms of historical precedents, symbolic recognition, the opportunity to have a voice and to present themselves rather than being presented, for a change. If you come into NMAI thinking about what the Native American curators and administrators are trying to do, what they want to accomplish, and why it is important and significant, and take it within that context, I think the whole thing will make a lot more sense. It is a very different museum in that way from the other museums on the Mall, and it must be visited in a different way, or with a different mindset.


That said, I can’t deny that I have some constructive criticisms. For one, while the museum does a fine job of showing the great diversity of native peoples, including not only exhibits on Sioux, Cherokee, and Iroquois, but also displays on the Aymara of South America and Inuits of Nunavut, there is still a strong idea within the museum that all of these different peoples are merely examples or aspects of “Native” or “Indigenous” (or whatever you wish to call it) identity and culture. Many of the exhibits tell a single narrative, applied in an umbrella sort of way to all native peoples of the Americas, citing examples from a range of different cultures as if they’re all examples of the same thing; as if one could choose different examples, from different tribes, and still prove the same point. The “break-out” exhibits that focus on individual tribes certainly bring some individual, distinct identity to each tribe, and show diversity both in their content and in the very style of the exhibit, but, nevertheless, I think one comes out feeling they have learned something about Native American culture, as if it were a single, cohesive thing, rather than an artificial umbrella term incorporating a wide variety of very different peoples. I found myself thinking, what if we had a museum of [East] Asia which spoke about Asian issues and Asian history and Asian culture and identity, making points about East Asia in general and citing examples from China, Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Vietnam, to back them up? “As you can see from this Japanese artifact, in Asian cultures they do XYZ. For example, in China they do such-and-such. Insert quote from a Korean historian here.” Imagine if there were a museum describing all European/Western history and culture as if it were a single entity. “All European cultures are like XYZ, as you can see from these examples from Scotland, Holland, Bulgaria, and Spain.”

Are all indigenous cultures of the Americas really that similar to one another? Or is this just something that we teach ourselves, to make it easier to understand?

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