Neoindigenism versus the autonomies of indigenous peoples

Indigenous Triqui boys basketball team wins international tournaments. Photo: Chicago Tribune.

By: Gilberto López y Rivas

If anthropology, as a science, was born with the original sin of being strictly linked to colonialism, and to the efforts to impose capitalist relations in the global ambit, anthropological discipline in Mexico arises from its fundamental link with indigenism. Indigenism has its origins in the years after the revolutionary armed movement from 1910 to 1917, when the Mexican school of anthropology, headed by Manuel Gamio, began to elaborate the conceptual contexts that would give content to State policy for the indigenous peoples.

Starting with the first Inter-American Indigenist Congress that took place in Patzcuaro, Michoacán, in April 1940, indigenism, particularly integrationist, is extended to the Latin American level starting with its influence in countries like Peru, Ecuador, Guatemala and Bolivia, with the creation of national indigenist institutes, whose function was to devise and put governmental indigenist action into practice. Strictly speaking, indigenism tries to erase ethnic-cultural diversities and to incorporate indigenous peoples into the labor market, in the countryside and in the city.

Specifically, one of the victories of the indigenous movement headed by the Zapatista National Liberation Army (Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional, EZLN) and the National Indigenous Congress (Congreso Nacional Indígena, CNI) has been to identify in the national debate the paternalistic, authoritarian and alienating nature of indigenism.

Antagonistic to the self-governments of peoples and communities, indigenism is developed from contradictory and complementary policies from state apparatuses and dominant national and regional groups that –according to needs and economic and political conjunctures– affirm an assimilationist integration policy of the states’ ethnicities differentiated from the “Mexican” nationality, or they establish a segregationist differentiation, both policies being deniers of indigenous cultures and peoples.

The verification of this thesis in the indigenous movement and the betrayal of the San Andrés Accords provoke a rupture with the Mexican State that gives way to autonomic processes of historic depth, like the Zapatista Rebel Municipalities-Good Government Juntas, and very different experiences in Oaxaca, Guerrero, Michoacán, Jalisco and Chihuahua, among other states. It was considered with all reason that the funerals for indigenism had taken place in the San Andrés dialogue. The recognition of free determination through autonomy breaks with the umbilical cord of indigenism and with the corporate policies of the State party’s regimen that for many years subjected the original peoples politically and ideologically.

Anthropologists have contributed to the theoretical and practical development of these policies, ever since Gamio defined anthropology as “the science of good government,” initiating an organic relationship between anthropologists and the Mexican State whose rupture begins with the 1968 student-popular movement, which created the conditions for critical anthropological currents to show themselves and denounce the ethnocidal processes contained in indigenism, defined by the beloved Rodolfo Stavenhagen as an “apparatus of bureaucratic and political control of the indigenous peoples on the part of state authorities… (And a) form of recreating hierarchic, authoritarian, state systems of clientelism.” [1]

The development of indigenism has passed through different phases and its ideologies adapt and persist in time; howeer, its specificity is that it’s about a creole-mestizo State policy towards indigenous peoples and, consequently, in all its variants, has been authoritarian and hierarchical in nature and constitutes a theoretical-practical system that is imposed on the peoples from bureaucratic apparatuses, as an objectively oppressive, manipulative and dissolving force. Indigenism is characterized by the use of the rhetoric of respect for indigenous languages and customs, with a practice of destruction of the ethnic structures of the Indian peoples.

With the coming National Institute of the Indigenous Peoples (Instituto Nacional de los Pueblos Indígenas, INPI) and its 132 “regional co-ordinations,” now, “in charge of members of the ethnicities themselves,” the old ghosts of indigenism return as forms of mediation of the State’s welfare assistance, imposed from above and from outside. These co-ordinations will divide the peoples and could hardly support the autonomous struggles against the re-colonization of their territories on the part of capitalist oil, mining, wind, water and tourist corporations, given that they hierarchically depend on a government agency.

What position would the brand new INPI take if mobilizations take place against the new government’s announced megaprojects? Will the voices of the indigenous peoples be heard or will State neoindigenism be imposed?

[1] Clientelism involves the giving of gifts (money, food supplies, productive projects or social programs) in exchange for something. The gifts may come from a government agency or a political party, but require something in return: political parties expect votes and attendance at rallies in return; government agencies of the State party in power also expect something in return.


Originally Published in Spanish by La Jornada

Friday, August 24, 2018

Re-Published with English interpretation by the Chiapas Support Committee



One Comment on “Neoindigenism versus the autonomies of indigenous peoples

  1. Pingback: Zapatista News & Analysis September 2018 | Blog of Zapatista Support Group Wellington, Aotearoa/New Zealand

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