Debunking: Indigenous Leaders

3 Feb 2019

Indigenous people are not a homogenous group, and we do not have a centralised or universally recognised leadership group.

I wrote a semi-parody article recently called ‘White leaders condemn Kerry-Anne Kennerley over racism row”.

It was a direct response to an article in the australian of an almost identical title (I swapped ‘Indigenous’ with ‘white’ in mine).

More broadly though it was a parody of a phenomena that has been ongoing in media for a long time now – the habit of referring to Indigenous people as ‘Indigenous leaders’ when it suits the story.

Sometimes it is done out of journalistic or editorial laziness (important to note that often a journo doesn’t write their headlines so if it’s in the heading but not the article then it was likely the work of an editor).

Other times though it is done to minimise or dismiss Indigenous voices on a given topic by showing that ‘real Indigenous people’ aka ‘Indigenous leaders’ disagree with what many more Indigenous people are saying, usually via social media.

Indigenous people are not a homogenous group, and we do not have a centralised or universally recognised leadership group. There are however some broadly defined collective experiences and shared sensibilities that, while not universal, are still very common. This does not mean that anyone who does not share these experiences, sensibilities or understandings is by default ‘less Indigenous’ but it also doesn’t mean that you can dismiss widely shared Indigenous views or opinions with a small number of hand-picked individuals just by calling them ‘Indigenous leaders’.

It may be possible to say that someone is a leader in a particular industry, or is the leader of an organisation or of a campaign. In a cultural context you might be able to say that someone is a leader within a particular nation or cultural group. But that’s about it.

The use of the phrase ‘Indigenous leader’ in a national context is problematic for a number of reasons.

  • It promotes a pan-Indigenous identity that doesn’t really exist.
  • It places journalists and editors (usually non-Indigenous ones) as the arbiters of who is worthy of being an ‘Indigenous leader’.
  • It runs the risk of creating the impression that the individuals in question refer to themselves as ‘Indigenous leaders’, potentially causing any number of problems for these people.
  • As mentioned above, it is often used to attempt to minimise or dismiss people and groups of people who are sharing their opinions or are rallying behind an issue.
  • It creates the impression that there are select individuals nominated to speak on behalf of all Indigenous people on any and all issues.
  • It creates unnecessary arguments, tensions, and divisions.
  • It is commonly used as a cheap ploy to dig racists out of trouble for saying racist things.
  • When was the last time you heard someone talk about ‘white leaders’ in mainstream media?

It should be seen as an automatic red flag if you are reading an article that refers to ‘Indigenous leaders’ without providing any qualifying context to how or why this term is being used for a particular individual.

Most people have jobs titles, qualifications, or other labels they would prefer to have themselves described by – using ‘Indigenous leader’ suggests the interviewer either doesn’t know them or never even bothered to ask what they prefer (which is highlighted in my parody article by not including one person’s real name and for another casually saying I ‘don’t actually know who he is or what he does’).

Most people got the point of the article I wrote, but there were a few who missed the point claiming that I was only speaking out against the term because the ‘Indigenous leaders’ in question were ones I disagreed with.

So, to be clear, there is no context where I think this term should be used. It is one that could easily be retired altogether and nothing would be lost from the national dialogue. This is just as true when the ‘Indigenous leaders’ in question are people I agree with on a given topic, or even when it is me who is being referred to as such (actually, especially when it’s me). I even got the double whammy for my one though – leader and activist!



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