The Chinese of Singkawang and the Politics of Indigeneity in Indonesia

Indigeneity and indigenous politics have been important fields of research in the social sciences for decades. And so too, in recent years, in Southeast Asian studies. The current issue of Sojourn, for example, is devoted to the question of “unpacking” indigeneity in Southeast Asia. At stake are at least three conceptual questions:

  1. what does indigenous mean as a political claim and as a social science concept?
  2. what makes a community an indigenous community, and on whose authority?
  3. how do concepts of indigeneity as invoked in settler colonial contexts (i.e. USA, Canada, Argentina, Australia, New Zealand…) relate to indigenous politics and indigeneity in the Global South?

In a new working paper, Risa Toha and I introduce these debates to the literature on ethnic politics and immigrant-native conflict in comparative politics. Here is the abstract:

Scholars of ethnic politics have long focused on conflict between migrant and indigenous communities, but the conceptual foundations of indigeneity as a social and political category remain poorly specified in political science. Drawing on recent advances in anthropological theory, we conceptualize indigeneity as a politically constructed category, arguing that communities express and attain indigeneity by performing a set of practices in concordance with the templates defined by the state. Focusing on the case of Chinese communities in Singkawang, Indonesia, we trace this performance in three spheres: political, cultural, and social. Culturally, Chinese in Singkawang perform their indigeneity by participating in festivals and exhibits that showcase Chinese culture in terms that are analogous to those performed by Dayaks and Malays in Singkawang. Politically and socially, ethnic Chinese in Singkawang experience politics in ways similar to other ethnic communities in town, as we demonstrate using original survey data. Our analysis contributes new insights into the conceptual and political foundations of indigenous identities, and suggests new directions for research into the comparative politics of indigeneity around the world.

There are a number of interesting questions at stake here, but for me as a political scientist, I find the conceptual issue of migrant identities in postcolonial contexts to be the most theoretically interesting and politically relevant. Ours is not a debunking project (PDF), to borrow a useful phrase from Sally Haslanger: we are not saying that claims about indigeneity are somehow false and need to be corrected, or that indigeneity is a completely arbitrary social category. But I do think political scientists ought to ask how people come to be understood as the indigenous people of a modern nation-state, and especially to distinguish between what Noah Tamarkin has called state indigeneity in the South Africa and what Tania Li terms the tribal slot in Indonesia.

For example, what if we understood white Christian nationalism in the United States not as simply a claim of racial or religious superiority, but rather who are the indigenous people of the United States (which is, after all, a post-colonial modern national-state), in Tamarkin’s sense of state indigeneity? As Risa and I write,

Although it might seem surprising to conclude that, as Adam Barnard (2006, p. 1) writes, “being indigenous to a place is not in itself what makes a people an ‘indigenous people’,” a state-centric view of indigeneity parallels other sociological constructs such as “citizen” and “refugee” that likewise are not defined with reference to the essential characteristics of human communities.

The question that is interesting to me, in other words, is not “who is really from a place,” but how we construct social systems that assign status to people, on what basis, and how people respond to the status assigned to them. The case of Singkawang helps us to see just how communities can challenge these social systems from within, using the state’s own language of indigeneity to claim their own position as full members of the national political community.