Why are First Nations people still considered outsiders in history?

For as long as “History” with a capital ‘H’ has been written, Indigenous peoples have been placed outside its circle. Consequently, whole groups of peoples, whole continents like Australia, and whole spans of human time, are missing from history’s scope.

Why have Indigenous peoples become History’s outsiders? One reason is the formal discipline of history originated in Europe and was based on analysing written texts.

Traditionally History has used books and articles to share its findings. It has also relied on documentary archives for its data. Yet Indigenous cultures the world over had their own methods of maintaining History: story telling, art, ritual, dance and song. Many cultures still practice these today.

In our collection, The Routledge Companion to Indigenous Global History , we reveal no truly global history can be written unless we take account of the depth, scale and scope of Indigenous histories.

Our book assembled a wide range of contributors (Indigenous and settler), working across a vast array of geographical locations, including Africa, Asia, Northern Europe and the Americas. The collection spans many time-zones – from the human journey out of Africa hundreds of thousands of years ago detailed by Martin Porr to the forced migrations of North American peoples in the 1820s and 30s, to the intermixed groups arising from slavery in the Caribbean.

Indigenous authors include Paulette Steeves, May-Britt Öhman, Kirstine E. Møller, Kella Robinson, Judi Wickes, and John Maynard. These authors reconnect with their traditions through an exploration of early Native American archaeology, Saami fishing stories, and the hidden stories of Australian Indigenous identity. These personal accounts repeatedly show us we have much to learn from Indigenous histories. Not only in their content, but also in their ways of telling.

Indigenous peoples histories

Over aeons, Indigenous peoples have developed a vision of a world shared by people and their environment – the animals, plants and their entangled stories. It is one that is mutually interdependent and intimately interconnected. It is emotional and nurturing.

During the age of discovery – when imperial and colonial powers mapped, documented and occupied their lands – Indigenous people were observed, but often as a background, fast disappearing presence. Expected to soon disappear, in Australia they were the “dying race.

Traditionally, Western historians have focused on change, key moments and events. As a result Indigenous peoples prior to European arrival have been seen, incorrectly, as unchanging people confined to a timeless zone, a kind of limbo before History itself began.

Indigenous people were not unchanging, but rather, they were inventive and dynamic. Indigenous people’s long custodianship of their forests, rivers, and seas offer pathways to a more sustainable future. In the mounting climate emergency that the world faces today, Indigenous people’s knowledge is more important than ever.

In recent decades, much has been written about the arrival of colonialism as a huge rupture, a dramatic turning point after which nothing could be the same. Consequently, historical writing has focused upon the plight of Indigenous peoples after Europeans arrived on their lands: the violence, the massacres, the disease, the appropriation of lands, and destruction of cultures.

Acknowledgement of Indigenous peoples’ rights on a global stage

With their tragic histories now better known, in 2007 the United Nations endorsed the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. This declaration represented the culmination of meetings of over 700 Indigenous representatives, the participants hailing from many diverse environments and regions around the world. Indigenous peoples had long demanded their fundamental human rights be reinstated. Now they were heard in an international arena.

It is noteworthy that Australia and its English speaking allies, United States, New Zealand and Canada initially opposed the declaration. Eventually agreeing to sign, they remained concerned about its potential impact on their national sovereignty.

The UN Committee recognised Indigenous people as entitled to a special category of rights. In the Declaration they shared a common entitlement to what they had held historically and was still under threat:

their political, economic and social structures and […] their cultures, spiritual traditions, histories and philosophies, especially their rights to their lands, territories and resources.

Our Routledge Companion to Indigenous Global History takes a few more steps to recognising that historical suffering and ongoing injustice on a global scale. But the Companion does not overlook the richness, power and strength of Indigenous peoples.

They have developed their own historical interpretations and modes of historical practice through millennia. In our collection, authors Paul Lane, Chris Ballard, Peter Veth and colleagues, Paulette Steeves and John Maynard explain the deep stories held in the land, the sea and the sky.

The history of the deep pasts and modern presents of Indigenous peoples is the story of peoples who are the custodians of the planet upon which we all live. They have left, and continue to leave profound legacies.

On a planet where waterways, seas, lands and skies are being exploited ever more destructively, Indigenous people’s respect for the environment offers inspiring insights for future generations.

Ann McGrath receives funding from the Australian Research Council for the Laureate Project Rediscovering the Deep Human Past: Global Networks, Future Opportunities. She is a Kathleen Fitzpatrick Australian Laureate Fellow and the WK Hancock Distinguished Professor at the Australian National University.

Lynette Russell receives funding from the Australian Research Council. She is a Kathleen Fitzpatrick ARC Laureate Professor at the Monash Indigenous Studies Centre, School of Philosophical, Historical and International Studies.


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