Comparative Indigeneities

Ruben Arellano's picture

Dear Colleagues,

I'm proposing a special topics course for the upcoming fall semester on the topic of Comparative Indigeneities. I've never taught it before and working on developing the course description and syllabus. My idea is to look at indigeneity through a global and comparative approach and address issues concerning culture, identity, sexuality, territoriality, politics, etc.

if anyone here has ever taught a similar course, I would really appreciate any suggestions you may have. If you have a course description or syllabus you'd be willing to share, that's even better. Thank you in advance.

Ruben Arellano
Visiting Assistant Professor
UT-El Paso

Good luck on your course.

My own teaching is mainly about indigenous peoples in Asia. You could bring something in as contrast to the usual, tired West-and-the-Rest formula. In Asia, the picture is often very similar to the US, Australia etc. (indigenous peoples' land is stolen; they are discriminated against; their languages discouraged, etc.), BUT there is often the striking difference, that the very "indigeneity" of those peoples is denied -- because that would give them a platform and a voice, distinct from the majority that's oppressing them.

Some groups and activists try to claim the term "indigenous" anyway, but, in the current-day very harsh political atmosphere and censorship in China, any kind of independent civil society group is struggling to have a voice or a platform at all (not just the indigenous peoples).

For example, in China, officialdom prohibits the use of 'indigenous' to refer to indigenous peoples -- because it would expose Chinese historical imperial expansionism and conquest, Chinese settler colonialism, current-day land-grabbing etc., framed as 'development.' One nice article discussing this is Sturgeon, Janet C. "Pathways of “Indigenous Knowledge” in Yunnan, China." Alternatives: Global, Local Political, 32.1 (January-March 2007), pp. 129-53. [Special Issue: The Political Economy of Development in Indigenous Communities, guest edited by Hokulani K. Aikau and James H. Spencer]

As for the grossly misleading West-and-the-Rest framework which helps make Chinese imperialism and colonialism invisible, and helps enable grandiose falsities like "China was always peaceful" and "China did not conquer anyone" (despite conquering half of Asia!), I have written to expose it and criticize it, here:
“The Legacy of the Chinese Empires: Beyond ‘the West and the Rest.’” Education About Asia 22.1 (Spring 2017), 6-10. Special issue on “Contemporary Postcolonial Asia.” Downloadable: Find article title, at:

All this is much more relevant now, because recently, China has turned to an even more harsh line, against the ethnic minorities.

It is worst in the western parts of the country, where a new genocide is now under way, targeting about 12 million indigenous people in the region of Xinjiang, who are being given a total collective punishment because radicals did some terrorist attacks in the past. The state has launched a policy to instil fear in everyone, and built total surveillance systems (DNA, face, etc etc of everyone), which some have called 'terror capitalism' since it is a state terror campaign. As part of this, they force-assimilate everyone into Han majority Chinese culture, with very heavy discrimination against local culture (Uyghur, Kazakh, Kirgiz, etc), by prohibiting the indigenous languages as well as everyday popular religion, and so on. Anyone who tries to protest or is deemed suspicious (indigenous cultural leaders, teachers, beloved artists, etc.) is sent to concentration camps, that now hold an estimated 1.5 million detainees.

I recently wrote about the situation, including the mass arrests of indigenous cultural icons, here:

China's Thousandfold Guantánamos. With China's assault on scores of leading academics and intellectuals, business as usual is no longer possible, writes Magnus Fiskesjö. Inside Higher Ed, April 8, 2019.

More info here:

In that list, you could see especially the writings of the Seattle-based anthropologist Darren Byler, who's written on aspects of the forced assimilation campaigns, the denigration and prohibition of indigenous languages, etc. Others have, too, most are listed there.

There is now considerable speculation that China is headed towards de-legitimizing indigenous ethnic minorites as such, and cancel the formal recognition of their very existence.

Not least because of that, the Xinjiang situation is worth incorporating in a course on indigenous peoples today, because it represents the currently most large-scale active genocide and repression against indigenous peoples in the world right now this moment.

Best wishes,
Magnus Fiskesjö

Course Update:

First of all, thank you to everyone that replied to my call for help. I will be responding to your emails soon. Apparently, there was a mix-up in the department, and someone forgot to mention to me that another instructor is already teaching a very similar class next semester. Needless to say, I will not be teaching this course after all, but there's a silver lining in that at least I have a better idea on how to develop this course if I'm ever given the opportunity to do so. Again, thank you to all who reached out to me.