I’ve spent a lot of time speaking with people about By Tribal and the gist of what it’s trying to solve. To that end, I’ve often had to convey all of my research and the complexity of Native American culture and social issues in short “sound bites.” One of the things I’ve been saying a lot lately is that indigenous means, ” the people who were here before all the other people.” I could have chosen to say “the people who were here first, ” but there’s a reason why I chose not to make that distinction.
Indigenous is often synonymous with Native American or First Nations in the United States and Canada. There is a strong understanding that we all came here from elsewhere and settled down in a foreign land and sometimes displaced the original inhabitants. Americans, Canadians and our friends from down under are painfully aware of this. We learn about it in history class in school, watch movies about it, and one of our major holidays, Thanksgiving here in the US, is inextricably tied to Native American history.
We here in the US tend to think this dynamic is unique, but what if I told you that it isn’t and that there are several nations today that have similar origins? The most surprising one that came up in my research was Japan. The forerunners of the Japanese people today settled on the islands of Japan as recently as the 9th century largely displacing the native inhabitants, the Ainu. The Ainu have largely been assimilated into Japanese society and many are unaware of their origins. However, officially a population of 25,000 currently reside in the Hokkaido region that maintains key elements of their distinct culture.
The Ainu had lived on the island of Japan for thousands of years before the arrival of the Yamato-jin, ancestors to the modern Japanese, spoke their own language and were ethnically and physically distinct to the new settlers. Acknowledgment of the Ainu in an official capacity by the Japanese government and efforts to preserve their culture is something that has only taken shape in recent decades. Yet, no one would consider a Japanese person not native to the islands of Japan.
Another similar case to the Ainu is that of the increasingly visible Sami, thanks to Frozen, in Finland and neighboring Scandinavian nations. The Sami have lived in the northern parts of the regions currently known as Norway, Sweden, Finland, and the Russian Kola Peninsula since as far back as 10,000 BC. Like the Ainu, many of the Sami were assimilated into the greater Norwegian population and they were targeted by the dominant culture’s government into giving up their native language and way of life. Like the Ainu, the Sami were ethnically, culturally and linguistically distinct from the surrounding Scandinavian peoples
The Sami were eventually recognized as an indigenous people in 1990 in Norway, a key accomplishment in a long, arduous fight toward preserving the Sami people’s identity as a distinct people. However, just like the current zeitgeist with regards to the Ainu the dominant cultures of the Finnish, Swedish, and Norwegians aren’t considered invaders or settlers or non-indigenous vis a vis, ” the people who were here before all the other people.”
I wonder why that might be? Is it the passage of time that makes all the difference? Perhaps American history is too “young” and therefore the wounds too raw. This is not to imply that the people of Japan or Norway are illegitimate inhabitants but rather to highlight that specific thought patterns that we associate with certain phenomena are absent in certain regards and contexts despite the similarities. I don’t have a conclusion or definitive hot take on the parallels between the Sami, Ainu and our Native American tribes and I think I need to let this percolate in my mind for a bit before I can come to any meaningful insight.
However, anyone and everyone are free to share their thoughts in the comments below. 🙂