American Ethnologist

Complexities of indigeneity and autochthony: An African example



In this article, I deal with the complexities of “indigeneity” and “autochthony,” two distinct yet closely interrelated concepts used by various actors in local, national, and international arenas in Africa and elsewhere. With the adoption of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples by the United Nations General Assembly in September 2007, hopes were high among activists and organizations that the precarious situation of many minority groups might be gradually improved. However, sharing the concerns of other scholars, I argue that discourses of indigeneity and autochthony are highly politicized, are subject to local and national particularities, and produce ambivalent, sometimes paradoxical, outcomes. My elaborations are based on in-depth knowledge of the case of the Mbororo in Cameroon, a pastoralist group and national minority recognized by the United Nations as an “indigenous people” although locally perceived as “strangers” and “migrants.” For comparative purposes, and drawing on related studies, I integrate the Bagyeli and Baka (also known as Pygmies) of southern and southeastern Cameroon into my analysis, as they share the designation of indigenous people with the Mbororo and face similar predicaments. [indigeneity, autochthony, identity, United Nations, Cameroon]