Indigeneity across Borders: Rethinking Indigenous Belonging in the Urban Milieu

Indigeneity across Borders: Rethinking Indigenous Belonging in the Urban Milieu


Written by:

Dana Brablec and Sibylla Warrington

First Published:

27 Mar 2020, 3:28 am


Indigeneity across Borders: Rethinking Indigenous Belonging in the Urban Milieu

Indigenous woman in front of building


Dana Brablec

Teaching Associate in Latin American Studies and Affiliated Researcher in Sociology, University of Cambridge


Sibylla Warrington

PhD(c) in Geography, University of Cambridge


As highlighted a decade ago by UN-Habitat, indigeneity is an increasingly urban phenomenon. Indigenous presence in city-space raises questions as to how indigenous people experience and claim urban identities, belonging and rights across socio-spatial borders in the context of ongoing coloniality, discrimination and violence. On 7th November 2019, researchers gathered to discuss these questions in a one-day workshop. The papers, which addressed indigeneity in different urban contexts around the world, throw up the problem of defining indigeneity across borders. As discussed by the keynote, Andrew Canessa, how can we hold on to an understanding of indigeneity across difference without retreating into traps of cultural essentialism or ontological othering? Yet, thinking about indigeneity’s political meaning may provide a way to grapple with the shifting spatial and temporal complexity of indigenous belonging in the urban milieu.

Below is a summary of the findings and discussions that were held during the workshop. The names in bold correspond to the contributors who took part in the event.  


Identities, representation and socio-spatial mobility

With increasing migration from rural communities, urban indigenous peoples strategically negotiate their identity and claim political representation across porous socio-spatial borders in response to shifting forms of coloniality. In the Andean Bolivian city of El Alto, market women ambiguously represent themselves and others through liminal and relational categories of indigeneity, thereby both challenging and reinforcing entrenched racism across urban space (Aiko Ikemura Amaral). Caught between the Peruvian and Bolivian Amazon, the increasingly urbanising Ese Eja negotiate citizenship’s political and spatial borders. Yet, the construction of indigenous identities is intertwined with extractive capitalism as oil companies exploit divisions among the Ese Eja, portraying indigenous leaders as fat cat urbanites (Daniela Peluso). In the Alaskan arctic, however, it is non-indigenous migration into an Iñupiaq borough’s urban hub, facilitated by revenues from oil exploration, that raises questions around indigenous identity. A tribal college employs largely non-native migrants and encourages them to learn about Iñupiaq culture. However, migrant staff display limited interest in cultural activities, misunderstanding their colleagues’ call to form more intimate community relations as a request for their participation in the politics of recognition (Elizabeth Walsh).

Urban migration and shifting identity construction are also interlinked with questions around political representation for indigenous peoples. In Colombia, following a new multicultural constitution in 1991, indigenous leaders are similarly an increasing presence in urban spaces of political power, thereby reconfiguring state-indigenous relations. However, while these leaders advocate for territorial autonomy, paradoxically they are themselves increasingly integrated into the urban milieu and may become spatially and politically disconnected from their communities (Virginie Laurent).  In India, low castes from the Puvanchali ethnicity have migrated to Delhi to work as informal labourers in the context of widespread poverty and discrimination. However, this group are now an important political constituency in Delhi; politicians compete to attract their vote, while special provisions are made for the ‘Chhath’ festival which has been integral to forming Puvanchalis’ urban identity (Ameya Aatman).

Questions of mobility through urban space are also key to understanding urban indigenous identity and citizenship. In the Chilean film Play, a young Mapuche woman, Cristina, migrates to Santiago as a live-in carer for an elderly man. However, while Cristina explores and symbolically consumes the city as a flâneur, her socio-spatial mobility is constrained by her devalued status and limited resources as a domestic worker in the neoliberal city (Sandra del Valle). In Santa Cruz, Bolivia, peri-urban Guaraní women’s opportunities for (self-)employment are affected by uneven socio-spatial lifeworlds, networks and urban knowledge in unequal encounters. For some women, navigating city space and exclusionary urban infrastructures presents an intersectional barrier to economic citizenship (Sibylla Warrington).  However, urban mobility may also be reclaimed by indigenous actors. In Santiago, a participatory theatre piece retraces the migration of Mapuche women. In navigating the city young indigenous Mapuche participants create a new form of dynamic urban belonging through movement, thereby challenging essentialism. In the process, they link diasporic urban space with historical memory and ancestral territories (Olivia Cassagrande).


Intersectional and state violence

In indigeneity’s crossing of borders, the threat of violence also travels, and this may have gendered effects. In the Ecuadorian Amazon, Shuar young women move to the cities to access opportunities for education, work and activism. However, patriarchal structures and intersectional violence constrain women’s reproductive pathways and urban options, while indigenous movements for cultural and political autonomy may exacerbate gendered inequalities (Natalia Buitron). In Canada, indigenous women moving from their reservation to the Vancouver area face unemployment and homelessness, often working in prostitution as a survival mechanism, while also confronting racial and sexual violence. However, indigenous women also show resilience through practicing self-defence and participating in artistic projects as a way of healing (Aurélie Journée Duez).

State practices of elimination and assimilation are also resisted by indigenous peoples. In the US, indigenous groups living on land vulnerable to climate change are subject to top-down urban relocations, revealing the ongoing assimilatory logic and bio-political violence of the settler-colonial state. In Louisiana, however, one community without federal recognition precariously resists through withdrawing from the relocation process (Bennett Collins). Violent practices towards indigenous economic migrants to the US may also be challenged collectively. Undocumented Zapotec migrants to Los Angeles reclaim their indigenous identity in the context of state violence and manifold discrimination. Through family reunifications, the Zapotec diaspora collectively draw on traditional practices to confront state logics of elimination (Michelle Vásquez).


Claiming collective rights in and through urban space

Indigenous peoples are also increasingly coming together to claim rights to land, urban space and resources, challenging exclusions in urban ontologies, despite the complexities of and constraints on collective action. In Colombia, the Muisca people’s ancestral lands have become part of Bogota’s urban periphery. Following a process of ethno-cultural recuperation and identification at the end of the 1990s, the Muisca have struggled for recognition and voice in urban planning. A recent agreement with the municipal government plans the development of a hybrid indigenous urbanisation based around indigenous cosmologies (Giulia Torino). In Hawai’i and New Zealand, young indigenous urban activists struggle to protect sacred land from developers while confronting divisions within their own communities. This mobilisation not only involves struggles over land rights, but also around language, meaning and collective identity (Shaaroni Wong). In Chile, Mapuche associations formed by rural migrants to Santiago apply for state funds for cultural workshops, thereby re-creating indigenous collective identity and belonging in urban space. However, such processes of fragmented claim-making are also inimical to wider cooperation between associations, while political demands for redistribution, such as to land, are reframed in less radical ways (Dana Brablec).

While living outside of urban space, rural territorialised indigenous groups are not exempt from exclusions of rural-urban hierarchies, as experienced and contested through interactions with urban state and legal bodies. In Brazil, indigenous schools have been provided with unhealthy processed foods according to urban eating habits, which also overlook the symbolic importance of traditional foodstuffs for indigenous groups. However, state bodies are now working with indigenous peoples in Amazonas through participatory workshops and consultations to acquire traditional foods from indigenous farmers (Douglas Souza). Indigenous claim-making is also taking place in urban courts. At the East African Court of Justice in Arusha, Tanzania, Masai Loliondo villages contest land evictions with the support of NGOs. Yet, in the elite urban space of the courts, evidence is selectively heard across hierarchies of education-language-ontology-gender. Masai women are particularly affected by evictions from rural land, yet most excluded by the urban legal process (Aline Rabelo).


Final reflections

As provocatively raised by the workshop discussants (Francoise Barbira-Freedman, Beatriz Marin-Aguilera, Anjali Bhardwaj-Datta and Sian Lazar), researching indigeneity and belonging across urban borders brings to the fore many difficult questions around identity, agency, claim-making and rights. For example, how is indigenous identity negotiated and performed through the embodied materiality of the city? How can we locate indigenous resistance, while also staying attentive to unequal power hierarchies and marginality? Does increasing state support for indigenous rights slide into new forms of unequal patronage or depoliticisation? How can indigenous groups claim individual and collective rights together? How is gender performed and experienced across the public-private divide, and how can indigenous women be supported to resist violence without individualising responsibility? Thinking about these and other complex issues will provide fertile ground for ongoing and future research around urban indigeneity.