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Thoughts on the representation of the 'native'

Updated: Jan 24, 2023

I have traveled around the world quite a bit. I spend much of this time looking for different representations of indigenous people. I spent many months in the Americas, Africa, Asia, and Europe and conducted in-depth research on 'Indianism' in Israel. In most places (with slight variations in climate and circumstances, of course), I find pretty much the same thing. The image of the 'native' is almost always portrayed as a sort of a noble savage, a wise old woman, once a lost princess longing to learn the ways of the 'new world', her face is painted, she is wearing an impressive headdress and wielding a simple but effective tool. She is keen in traditional secrets. A noble member of the people of peace and the earth. This flexible image is used in a wide range of uses and by an even wider range of users. At one end, there is the often critical academic knowledge, which uses it (sometimes more consciously and sometimes less) to build more and more knowledge structures. On the other end, the tourism industry uses it (often with a simulated sensitivity) to market an exotic experience of 'authenticity' - you are no longer a tourist. You are an explorer of hidden cultures.

In most cases, regarding 'native' cultures, we are leaning on biased information that has been influenced continually by power structures and interest parties. In most cases, our image is built on partial information, frequently perpetuating colonialist concepts of an ultimate "other". That partial image sometimes brings up the discussion of cultural damage, sometimes an informed self-criticism, and sometimes a well-formulated excuse to avoid an honest and close encounter with reality. Again, however, in most cases, it is based on partisan news, presuppositions, and prejudices.

Years of academic papers and organized vacations present more or less the same vision - some do it more gracefully or complexly than others. Still, like many other things in our lives, even in the company of 'foreign', we rely on something familiar. Maybe out of choice, maybe out of laziness, perhaps because that's how we learned to do it, maybe out of fear. But, like many other things in our lives, we never stop asking ourselves why. And in the case of the native, Why does it look like that? Who does this image serve, and why? Although, after all, culture does not depend on an image someone gave it, she is entirely free to shape herself in any given direction at any given moment, and there is no evidence that this process has ever stopped or slowed down in history. In fact, it is Somewhat evident that the opposite is true.

I am not writing this to take sides in the debate about the impact of encountering ethnic groups. I'm not sure I have the right to decide in this discussion. Likewise, I have no ambition to enter the debate on the reproduction and adoption of objects, symbols, or crafts that are defined popularly as "native" or "authentic" (such as dream catchers, natural medicines, power-animal ceremonies, etc.). I'm writing all of this only to remind ourselves - those who voyage the world in search of knowledge - to try to refrain from reducing distinguished, complex, and diverse histories and cultures to trivial anecdotes. To demand from ourselves to take one more step outside the limits of our knowledge and insist on understanding in an unmediated way. To invite ourselves to a much closer observation, not only through the binoculars we are used to.

Laos, Nong Khiaw. 2022


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