You are human, too: Ethnic relations and indigeneity after anthropology’s phenomenological turn
Around the world, indigenous peoples often refer to themselves with terms that simply mean “human,” e.g. Anishnabe, Bunun, Dene, Runa, or Seediq. To hunter-gatherers, this often meant first and foremost that they were human as opposed to being birds, fish, deer, bears, or other animals. Yet, each group also attributes profound moral and ontological implications to being truly human. These claims, as well as the ontological implications that arise from them, open up to reflection on what is arguably the central question of anthropology from the beginning of the discipline: “what does it mean to be human?”
Cultural anthropologists have tended to attribute a unique culture or mentality to each human grouping, often with Herderian notions that each people or incipient nation is animated by its own spirit or mentality. Since the ground-breaking work of Fredrik Barth, social anthropologists have instead looked at how ethnic identities are formed through interaction between such human groupings, ethnic boundaries being maintained even as they are permeated. In this context, “culture” becomes the malleable stuff from which ethnic identities are constructed and reinforced. As state sovereignty has been extended around the planet, moreover, reified boundaries of ethnicity have become part of regimes of governance that need to make human populations and territories as legible as possible. This has led to the emergence of ethnic entrepreneurs, new ethnic identities, and diverse expressions of indigeneity. The study of these phenomena has enriched various theoretical paradigms in the history of anthropology.
The recent phenomenological turn generates new insights. Instead of following the modular logic of modernity, studying cultures or ethnic groups as the content that colours squares on Cartesian maps, this new anthropology examines life as it is lived through the body, with all of its senses and emotions. This expands to the ways in which individuals perceive and interact with other beings – human or otherwise. In this lecture, I look at the potential of phenomenological anthropology to explore what it means to be human in a world filled with many other living forms – including other people. The ultimate goal is to take seriously the claims of many indigenous peoples to be “truly human” – or Seediq balae! What does phenomenology offer for studies of ethnic relations and indigeneity? How can being with indigenous peoples provide insights into what it means to be truly human?