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What Does It Mean To Be Indigenous?

What Does It Mean To Be Indigenous?

Merriam-Webster defines the term Indigenous as, “of or relating to the earliest known habitants of a place and especially of a place that was colonized by a now-dominant group.” Within the scope of this definition, one cannot begin to imagine the heterogeneity woven throughout Indigenous ancestry and identity. This is because eurocentric amalgamations of Indigeneity condense Indigenous ethnic groups into monoliths, void of their inherent intricacy.  Centuries of colonization and genocidal practices have left Indigenous groups displaced and their cultural traditions debased by the masses. A widespread lack of information contributes to ignorance about the many intersectional ties of Indigeneity, and many are working to reconfigure the eurocentricity with which we view Indigenous culture.




Some Indigenous people have intersecting identities, such as those who identify themselves as Afro-Indigenous. A recent Side Barre conversation between Nude Barre founder Erin Carpenter and  Afro-Indigenous model, writer, and activist, Kara Roselle Smith aimed to dispel myths about intersectional Indigeneity. Smith, challenged by those who figured her Afro-centric features invalidated her Indigenous lineage stated, “You have to challenge the idea of what Indigenous looks like... we kind of live in this white imagination and we really need to step outside of that.” Afro-Indigenous people may be mixed with both Indigenous and African blood, or they may be Indigenous to regions of Africa such as the Pygmy people, Masai people, and San people. Many have a monolithic idea of what it means to be Indigenous, and it is important to recognize the versatility of Indigenous people’s appearances and experiences throughout the world. 

The Afro-Mexican community of Oaxaca personifies the complexities left behind by trans-Atlantic slave trade and colonization. Many people think of Mexico’s population to be majority Mestizo (classified as being of both European and Indigenous descent), however Spanish colonization brought a large African slave population to Mexico creating an Afro-Indigenous population. This population of both African and Indigenous descent has been routinely persecuted for their Afro-centric features and traditions. Many have had their Mexican heritage challenged by those who deem them immigrants or outsiders. Despite the attempted erasure of Mexico’s Afro-Indigenous people, troupes such as the Obatala, perform throughout their home of Oaxaca in an effort to keep tradition alive. Using art to exemplify the complexity of intersectional Indigeneity, the Obatala troupe continues to bridge the representational gap for Mexico’s Afro-Indigenous communities. 

Photo courtesy of 

Creating a culture of Inclusivity

 Colonization has left many Indigenous groups displaced and impoverished, with minimal help from government resources. In order to combat the erasure of Indigeneity, it is important to recognize how multi-faceted Indigenous communities can be. To learn more about what it means to have an intersectional Indigenous identity, watch our Side Barre conversation with the Chappaquiddick Wampanoag tribe’s own intersectional activist  Kara Roselle Smith. You can also check out her article on Afro-Indigenous representation in the beauty industry here.

Photo courtesy of Kara Roselle Smith

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