Home Features Recuperate our heritages from European epistemic violence
As Guyana commemorates “Amerindian Heritage Month”, let us reflect on the irony in that name. When the Spaniards “discovered” the “New World”, they encountered peoples with numerous cultures, each with its own perspectives, practices and products – ways of life; if you will, histories, languages etc, but they were all dubbed “Indians”. Later, they were “Red Indians, Indios, Amerindians”, but all still “Indians” – a name they had mistakenly imposed on the peoples from the land Columbus was actually seeking – India.
“India”, also ironically, was a mispronunciation by the ancient Greeks of the earlier Persian mispronunciation “Hindu”, to refer to the people living to east of the River “Sindhu”, the real name in Sanskrit. The British chose the Greek variant as they pretended, against all evidence, to be the inheritors of Greek civilization. At independence, Jawaharlal Nehru and India equivocated in their constitution to label themselves: “India that is Bharat”! They are finally grappling with some of the implications of that ambiguity.
The present “Amerindian” leaders accepted being labelled as such for the longest while, and we should examine why their demand to be called “Indigenous Peoples” has not been legalized. Very critically, those acts of naming are but one seemingly innocuous instance of the hegemony imposed by Europeans on all of us in the non-European world through the epistemic violence inflicted after their violent conquests of our lands. “Epistemic”, of course, refers to knowledge and its measure of validation. Whose name? What’s in a name? “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.” “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.” “The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master — that’s all.”
It is all a question of power: in this case, definitional power. Europeans were the masters, and their words since the initial encounter have served to define us so comprehensively that we have internalised them to accept whatever they are posited to mean by the Europeans. The European experience is now the measure of all things.
The power of naming is an aspect of the power to “other” us within Europe’s epistemic territory, and means we have no say as to what aspect of our being or lives fits and is allowed to be incorporated into “modernity”, and which is to be erased as “backward”. For instance, today “Amerindian” land is being demarcated to define “ownership”, but under whose definition? “When most Indigenous peoples refer to land”, as one writer notes, “they do not mean a measurable or quantifiable extension of land, an object of geography, and even less a commodity. (Land, for them) exceeds the modern limit of reality in presence, it implies the past, heritage, memory. (It) has to be defended, not for the sake of property, but for the sake of protecting the ancestors, of preserving an origin that is both “past” and always already “present”.
So, ironically, the Indigenous Peoples’ claim to land can be challenged by some African activists, who have been hegemonized like all of us were to a greater or lesser degree, as “reparations”. When, in fact, even by the European-imposed positivistic law, the land to which they are granted very limited “title” was incorporated in Annex C of our Independence Constitution subsequent to treaties between the Indigenous Peoples and the Dutch, which the British adopted.
What is rather poignant is that the epistemic violence inflicted on peoples from Africa, who were dragged from Africa to slave in the “New World”, was the paradigmatic case of erasure, in which the category called “race” was invented by Europe during a period they called “the Enlightenment”. Africa was deemed a “Dark Continent” from which nothing positive was ever created by the “race” that inhabited it. In India, Macaulay explicitly presented a “Minute” to the Indian Parliament (run by Englishmen, of course) in which he declared Indians had also produced nothing of value, and henceforth, all “knowledge” was to be disseminated in English and in English-run schools. This was in 1832, when the abolition of African slavery was being debated, and just in time for the Missionary schools and others like Queen’s College and Bishops’ to be established to impose mental slavery through epistemic violence across the Empire.
And the final irony is today we still use their definitions of us to denigrate and fight each other.