“Indigenous” means native or original inhabitants as opposed to colonialists, but also refers to nonindustrial societies distinct from and marginalized by the dominant society of a given place (Hughes 2003: 11). It is admittedly problematic to refer to diverse peoples around the world under one term that only exists because of colonialism. Yet, the International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs uses a fundamentally political definition of “indigenous,” a cultural identity that has to be defended from outside forces: “the disadvantaged [my italics] of those peoples who inhabited a territory prior to colonisation or formation of the present state,” culturally distinguished from the dominant group, and often “marginalised and discriminated against” (IWGIA). The preservation and transmission of ancestral territories and cultural heritage, as well as self-identification as “indigenous,” is a political objective for indigenous people. As Suzanne Owen notes, the definition of “indigenous” referring only to the objects of colonialization and marginalization creates a dichotomy of “mutually exclusive categories” that are defined on the grounds of ethnicity. Indigenous activists take the “ethnic exclusivity” of the term and use it to their own ends “to reclaim land and human rights that had been denied them on largely racial grounds in the first place” (Owen 2008: 1).
However, discussion of indigenous animism involves an acknowledgment of certain cultural commonalities that exist in many, though by no means all, indigenous societies. The key is traditional worldviews arising from nonindustrial ways of life, and hence a particularly direct relation to the land and climate, whether the means of subsistence is pastoral, or hunting and gathering, or through small-scale farming (see Hughes 2003: 21-6). David Abram, using language that exemplifies the romanticization of both indigenous cultures and animism discussed in this chapter, proclaims the relation between animist worldviews and nonindustrial ways of life in terms of those “[c]ultures whose reliance upon the animate earth is not, as yet, mediated by a crowd of technologies” and who are thus living “in close and intimate contact with undomesticated nature” (Abram 2013: 127-8). While today indigenous peoples such as Native Americans, Aboriginal Australians and the Maori of Aotearoa/New Zealand may have urban lifestyles broadly similar to those of the descendants of European colonizers, they will commonly have worldviews shaped by their recent ancestors’ nonindustrial ways of life.1