What does it mean ‘to Indigenize’?

As someone fascinated with words, I find myself puzzled by the use of the word “indigenous” as a verb, as in the action word “to indigenize.”

As someone fascinated with words, I find myself puzzled by the use of the word “indigenous” as a verb, as in the action word “to indigenize.” My Webster’s Third New International Dictionary says that “indigenize” means “to cause to have indigenous characteristics : adapt to indigenous conditions or practices,” and “to cause to be chiefly of an indigenous personnel.”

Looking up the word “Indigenous” provides various results: “Native,” and “originating or developing or produced naturally in a particular land or region or environment.” We also find, “of, relating to, or designed for natives,” “inborn, innate, inherent.” Yet something is missing from the expressed desire on the part of some people to “indigenize” more things in the world, such as college curriculum materials.


The context missing from the typical use of “indigenize” is found in the Foreword to Indigenous Peoples A Global Quest for Justice, “A Report for the Independent Commission on International Humanitarian Issues” (1987). After discussing the stereotypical notion of “indigenous,” which the report authors say “evokes” an image “of ‘primitive’ people,” the report authors further say:

Hidden behind the stereotypes, however is the stark reality which calls for empathy and challenges our humanity. It [that stark reality] is at once grim and bright: on the one side colonization, genocide, and a constant struggle for cultural and physical survival; on the other, a glorious past and a future which is slowly but surely beginning to look bright.

The report authors are being imprecise by saying that the term “indigenous” has two “sides.” The more important point is that the ongoing and unceasing context for the category “indigenous” peoples is, as they put it, “colonization, genocide…and a constant struggle for cultural and physical survival.” The report authors attempt to avoid that point by mentioning “a glorious past” and “a future” which is “beginning to look bright.” But bright in comparison to what? Bright as compared to the darkness of “colonization and genocide” (extermination) which makes “the struggle for cultural and physical survival” necessary? And given that all nations and peoples termed “indigenous” are still locked in an institutionalized setting of domination and dehumanization, on what basis is the “future” looking bright?

Placing a narrow focusing on the words “native,” “inborn,” “innate,” or “inherent” is not going to give us a clear or complete mental picture of the concept “indigenous.” This is because the meaning of the term “indigenous” is very much inclusive of a dark and deadly context of invasion by foreigners, and inclusive of efforts to destroy the original nations and peoples (our ancestors) that, prior to that invasion, were still living “uncivilized” because they were living free and independent of any such invasion. The trajectory of Christian European “civilization” is a trajectory of Christian European invasion and domination.

When the authors of the report by the Independent Commission on International Humanitarian Issues mentioned “a glorious past” for “indigenous” peoples, they no doubt had that pre-invasion way of life in mind. But the pertinent imagery does not stop there. The full context for the term “indigenous” includes sinister governmental and corporate forces which have caused and continue to cause the domination and dehumanization of original nations: i.e., the context of the term “indigenous” is inclusive of the dominating forces that threaten the entire basis of an original nation’s or people’s cultural, physical, and political existence, which the report authors tacitly acknowledged with the phrase “the struggle for cultural and physical survival.”

How can the call for our existence, college curriculum materials, or anything else to be “indigenized” make sense as a term of liberation when the very context of the term “indigenous” means nations and peoples that have been forced under domination, which is the opposite of liberation? How can it make sense when a central part of the context of “indigenous” means having been subjected to the governmental and corporate forces of domination and dehumanization to the point that the very cultural and physical survival your nation or people is in question? Why not just call for our liberation from the forces and patterns of domination? Is the call for our existence to be further “indigenized” an attempt to separate out the pre-invasion existence of our nations and peoples and use that pre-domination imagery as a positive model for our contemporary lives?

Is the use of the term “indigenize,” or another academic buzz word, “indigeneity,” an effort to revitalize and emulate images of a “glorious past” mentioned by the report for the Independent Commission on International Humanitarian Issues? The call to “indigenize” our lives or to “celebrate” our “indigeneity” might make sense if it were intended to excludethe post-invasion era so full of death, destruction, and disintegration.

Yet how can we separate out and exclude that post-invasion era from the meaning of the term “indigenous” when our contemporary “indigenous” existence is by definition and experience inclusive of state and corporate patterns of domination and dehumanization masked behind the phrase “law and policy?” If you don’t believe me, name one nation or people called “indigenous” anywhere in the world today living free and independent of a context of domination and dehumanization created by states and corporations.

Steven Newcomb (Shawnee, Lenape) is co-founder and co-director of the Indigenous Law Institute, and author of Pagans in the Promised Land: Decoding the Doctrine of Christian Discovery (Fulcrum, 2008). He is a producer of the documentary movie, The Doctrine of Discovery: Unmasking the Domination Code, directed and produced by Sheldon Wolfchild (Dakota), with narration by Buffy Sainte-Marie (Cree). The movie can be ordered from 38Plus2Productions.com.