Highlands of history: Indigenous identity and its antecedents in Cambodia



The notion that Cambodia's highland people may claim a distinct ‘Indigenous’ identity has emerged only recently in Cambodia. To date, advocacy for rights under the banner of indigeneity has produced few results for highlanders. Among the problems faced by advocates for Indigenous rights, problems of definition and translation represent an important challenge. Arguing that concepts like ‘Indigeneity’ are not simply adopted ex nihilo in new settings, but are rather incorporated into existing structures of meaning, this paper explores culturally produced understandings of who highlanders are, concentrating in particular on the way that the term ‘Indigenous’ has been translated into Khmer. The use of the Khmer word daeum, or ‘original’, to distinguish between Indigenous and other forms of ethnic belonging in the newly derived translation of ‘Indigenous Peoples’ points to historically sedimented beliefs about highlanders as living ancestors of modern Khmers.