Are Tibetans Indigenous?

Are Tibetans Indigenous? It depends who you ask. Although the People’s Republic of China (PRC) recognizes the rights of Indigenous people by voting in favor of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in 2007 (UN General Assembly 2008), they also claim there are no indigenous populations in China. Instead, Tibetans are categorized as minzu (ethnic minority) under the PRC. In popular print media, Tibetans have been framed by non-Tibetan photographers, writers, or journalists as indigenous. But what about Tibetans? Do they identify as Indigenous?

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In Emily Yeh’s article “Tibetan Indigeneity,” Yeh engages the question of indigeneity in the Tibetan context (2007). Yeh argues the framing of Tibetans as indigenous has largely been imposed by western and Chinese environmentalists due to Tibetan assertion of environmental stewardship and ecological wisdom. However, Tibetans in exile, according to Yeh, have largely rejected identification with indigeneity due to the term’s limitations. For Tibetans living in the PRC, the limitation of indigeneity manifests as their classification as minzu under the state, which makes it legally impossible for them to identify as indigenous. For Tibetans in exile, indigeneity was understood as “sovereignty without secession,” which limited separation from China. However, Yeh does not dismiss the possibility of change on Tibetan stance regarding indigeneity since she acknowledges shifts in the category. My presentation will emphasize this shift to propose indignity as an evolving terminology fluctuating through time with political consequences depending on who is doing the defining. I use Tibetan rejection of indigeneity in the late 1990s to illustrate this fact. This will involve an analysis of indigeneity as a legal and theoretical concept contested between settler-states and Indigenous movements.


If the term Indigenous, Native, or Indian, emerged in tandem with settler colonialism, then the term was itself a colonial construct. This is stressed by Aileen Moreton-Robinson, who argues that the category of “Indian” was a colonial invention (2015). According to mainstream Indigenous discourse, prior to colonial invasion, no one introduced themselves as “Native” to one another. Instead, many identified and continue to identify based intersectionally on names of clans, tribes and/or homelands. Similarly, prior to the Chinese invasion, Tibetans too identified based on clan names, hometowns or regions. No one went around introducing themselves as Native. Under the settler state, argues Moreton-Robinson, the category of the “Native” or “Indian” was invented and assumed new and changing legal and discursive meanings. These meanings, which framed Indigenous peoples as backward and incapable of producing surplus value off their land, sought to reframe them as primitive and/or other. These reformulations of indigenous populations provided settler states with the basis for taking Native territories. In other words, the racial category of the “Native” or “Indian” had no real implication for how specific tribes actually identified. Instead, the construction of this category provided settler states with the legal and discursive justification to take possession of Native lands and bodies. Thus, early political concepts of Indigeneity revolved around settler state definitions, which sought to racially define Indigenous peoples within settler state hierarchies who granted Indigenous populations rights to their own previously sovereign lands and life ways. In Tibet, racializing Tibetans under the “autonomous” settler territorial governance as a backward minority in need of Chinse modern civilizing development provide the legal and discursive framework through which settler elimination/assimilation of Tibetan lands and bodies are justified and achieved.

As Yeh stressed, it was the confusion surrounding rights versus sovereignty that Tibetan organizational heads in exile found complexing. For them, the political movement for Tibet seeks complete sovereignty, not (settler given) rights. According to Mohawk scholar Audra Simpson, a rights based politics seeks recognition from the settler colonial state. Indigenous sovereignty refuses settler state recognition, and instead orient themselves towards Indigenous systems of authority and recognition (2014). In other words, sovereignty becomes the basis through which Indigenous communities refuse the settler state.

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To understand why Tibetans from Yeh’s discussion refused the categorization of Indigeneity, it is essential to consider how they understood the term. The Tibetan political organizations that Yeh chose to focus on happen to be based in India. Their understanding of Indigeneity is partially influenced by how India defines indigeneity. I turn to Sara Shneiderman’s Rituals of Ethnicity, to consider Thamgmi performances of indigeneity in accordance to Indian state definition in Darjeeling, India. Shneiderman explores the ways in which Thangmi leaders struggled to perform a version of Thangminess that would qualify them under India’s state category of “Other Backwards Classes” (OBC) in the 1990s (2015). India’s OBC category, influenced by colonial British definitions, is reserved for groups that consider themselves Native to a province. State recognition as OBC allows groups to access certain state given rights reserved specifically for groups that the state identifies as indigenous. In order for Thagmis to qualify for OBC, they had to also accept being classified as “backwards” (143). Alongside performing traditional and ritual versions of themselves, Thangmis also felt compelled to perform forms of backwardness that they thought would help their OBC qualification. For example, during their bid for OBC, Thangmi leaders asked community members to begin consuming rats because an early ethnographic book on Thangmis stressed how rats were considered a staple in traditional Thangmi food. Even though, Thangmi ethnologists later debunked that assumption by pointing out how rats were consumed during a particularly bad time when crops failed and starvation prevailed. Despite this clarification, the Thangmi group in charge of applying for OBC promoted the eating of rats as an incentive towards OBC qualification.

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Ethnic Tibetan groups living along the Tibet-India border are recognized officially by India as Bhutia. Bhutias are categorized under “Scheduled Tribe” under the Indian state. On the one hand, the OBC category stressed indigeneity as backwards. On the other, the Scheduled Tribe category recognized groups as tribes rather than sovereign entities. For the Tibetan leadership in exile, both definitions were unacceptable. Alongside considering Indian definitions, Tibetans were also thinking about indigeneity as a legal terminology trafficked in the international arena. The UN declared 1994 “International Year of Indigenous Peoples” to recognize indigenous people’s “human rights.” According to Carole McGranahan, this was the first time such a group was internationally named and recognized (2016). In accordance with UN action, the Tibetan Government in Exile understood indigenous peoples as just tribal rather than people with their own states. McGranahan was told by Tibetan government officials at the time not to use the term when describing Tibetans due to this limitation.

From this vantage point, it becomes clear why the Tibetan leadership in exile rejected this terminology in the 1990s. Accepting such definitions meant accepting an inferior classification of themselves. Further, it also degraded the Tibetan political goal for sovereignty. Rather than reject current understanding of indigeneity as defined by Indigenous sovereignty movements that roots itself in claims of sovereignty and decolonization, Tibetans in exile were rejecting indigeneity as defined by institutions such as the UN and modern states. Such institutions defined indigeneity as backwards and tribal, and rooted their politics in terms of rights rather than Nationhood. This is what major Indigenous sovereignty movements stress, that their movement is often misconstrued as seeking civil rights from the settler state rather than challenging violation of treaties, and thus Indigenous sovereignty, that the settler state signed with Indigenous Nations during settler state inception. The Tibetan example demonstrates that the term indigeneity operates under different discursive frameworks depending on who’s the one doing the defining, whether modern settler states or Indigenous movements. As such, Indigenous group’s rejection or acceptance of indigeneity as an identification depends largely on such definitions.

Native Indigeneity:

While the term Indigeneity has been defined by settler colonial states since its inception, continued Indigenous refusal through discourse and movements with legal impacts have consistently challenged such definitions. In so doing, they have decolonized the term in order to mobilize possible alliances and Indigenous anticolonial sovereignty movements that circumvent settler states and other capitalist institutions. Because the terminology was produced during settler colonial invasion, the term has become useful for Indigenous scholars in challenging settler state attempts to hide itself under neo/liberal discourses that erases settler colonial histories in efforts to rebrand itself a liberal modern state.

In the current era, Glen Clouthard argues that articulations of setter colonialism have moved on from colonial domination to governmentality (2015:15). Clouthard argues that the emergence of “Indigenous anticolonial nationalism […] force colonial power to modify itself from a structure that […] explicitly oriented around the genocidal exclusion/assimilation [my italics] double, to one that is now reproduced through a seemingly more conciliatory set of discourses and institutional practices that emphasize our recognition and accommodation.” He continues, that “[r]egardless of this modification, however, the relationship between Indigenous peoples and the state has remained colonial to its foundation” (6). The result is that you have two opposing forces, on the one hand settler states seeks to continually change its systematics while remaining steadfast in their original goals towards eliminating Indigeneity. On the other, Indigenous activists and scholars seek to continually challenge such structural changes through legal and discursive interventions that continually decolonize. Because settler state institutions continue to use and define the terminology of indigeneity to serve its own goals, Indigenous peoples have challenged such use with their own decolonized definitions through the interrogations of treaties signed between Native Nations and settler-states. This back and forth suggests that the terminology cannot be tossed out so easily, instead it becomes a discursive site for legal contestations between settler states and Indigenous Nations. It is a high stakes play that involves the right to define sovereignty, a concept that Michelle H. Raheja describes “as an open-ended process that involves critical and kinetic contemplations of what sovereignty means at different historical and paradigmatic junctures” (2015: 30). For Bonita Lawrence and Enakshi Dua, “At the heart of Indigenous peoples’ realities, then, is nationhood. Their very survival depends on it” (2005: 124). Indigeneity described from this vantage point becomes about sovereignty.

Tibetans and indigeneity:

Another reason Indigenous movements and scholars have not completely thrown out the terminology is due to its salience in generating global solidarities between Native peoples and their anticolonial stance against settler state encroachment. Judging from its evolutionary trajectory, indigeneity has gone from being a colonial construct to a terminology operationalized by global Indigenous movements to advance solidarities and sovereignty claims against settler nations and capitalist institutions in cahoots.

In “Analytics of Indigeneity,” Maile Arvin’s articulation of Indigeneity “refers to the historical and contemporary effects of colonial and anticolonial demands and desires related to a certain land or territory and the various displacements of that place’s original or longtime inhabitants” (2015: 121). Arvin’s concept of indigeneity stresses colonial histories and territorial expulsion of native inhabitants, a framework Tibetan political movements in exile also stress through their insistence on Tibetan sovereignty. It could be argued that Tibetans can actually identify as indigenous. However, my purpose is not to insist whether Tibetans are in fact indigenous. Instead, recent trends among Tibetans in exile suggests that indigeneity, as defined by indigenous nations and movements as mobilization against settler-states and imperial capitalism, has become an important framework for considering the Tibetan political movement for sovereignty.

Tibetans living in North America, for example, have contemplated these possible solidarities by promoting Indigenous movements such as the Idle No More in Canada, and recently the No Dakota Access Pipeline campaign in the US in communal spaces. These movements also became avenues for Tibetans like myself to reflect on indigeneity as a decolonial praxis that could prove useful for Tibetans in addressing settler colonialisms, sovereignties, refusals, and potential solidarities. While the Tibetan leadership in the recent past have turned away from settler-state construct of indigeneity due to its sovereignty limitations, non-organizationally based Tibetan civilians in North America are presently considering indigeneity as defined by Indigenous movements to address Tibet’s recent histories of settler colonialism and ongoing histories of Tibetan Nationhood. Suggesting indigeneity as a terminology has been experiencing shifting definitions, and because of such shifts, Tibetans have rejected it in the past and accepted it now.

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So, can we assume Tibetans identify as indigenous? It depends. But my point isn’t to argue whether they do or don’t. A more interesting question is to ask where, when, and why Tibetans do or don’t identify as indigenous. As I have shown, indigeneity is not just about categorizing people symbolically, but leveraging international movements and creating strategic solidarities for Native Nations mobilizing against the mechanics of settler governmentality. It is this political potential of indigeneity that civilian Tibetans are presently considering.

[I presented the following essay at the 2017 American Anthropological Association conference for the panel, “Asian Settler Colonialisms and Indigineities,” which I organized. I’ve decided to share it due to a few requests. However, I do plan to work on this further. In the mean time, I’m making it available for those who asked. If my arguments resonate with your work, feel free to use. But do make sure to source. Thank you]

Works Cited:
Arvin, Maile. 2015. “Analytics of Indigeneity.” Native Studies Keywords, p.119.

Coulthard, Glen. 2014. Red Skin, White Masks: Rejecting the Colonial Politics of Recognition. University of Minnesota Press.

Lawrence, Bonita, and Enakshi Dua. 2005. “Decolonizing Antiracism.” Social justice 32, no. 4: 120-143.

McGranahan, Carole. 2016. “Refusal and the Gift of Citizenship.” Cultural Anthropology 31.3: 334-341.

Moreton-Robinson, Aileen. 2015. The White Possessive: Property Power and Indigenous Sovereignty. University of Minnesota Press, 2015.

Raheja, Michelle H. 2015. “Visual Sovereignty.” Native Studies Keywords, p.25.

Shneiderman, Sara Beth. 2009. “Rituals of Ethnicity: Migration, Mixture, and the Making of Thangmi Identity across Himalayan Borders.” PhD diss., Cornell University.

Simpson, Audra. 2014. Mohawk Interruptus. Duke University Press.

Yeh, Emily T. 2007. “Tibetan indigeneity: Translations, Resemblances, and Uptake.” Indigenous Experience Today 2:69.