Getting comfortable with Gaelic’s indigenous side – a few things to consider

NYFGSome of the advantages that accompany engagement with one’s Gaelic heritage are the wonderful and useful bits of relevance that a Gaelic past brings to modern life. That’s right. Lessons learned from a Gaelic perspective can be productively relevant to difficult problems we face today. Consider the following:

  • Gaelic tradition introduces community oriented and inclusive perspective in an increasingly exclusive and inward looking modern world.
  • Study of Gaelic culture encourages appreciation of diversity and an open, curious nature in a world with growing numbers of closed minds and an intolerant outlook.
  • Gaelic tradition recognizes and celebrates the fact that humans are an integral part of the “natural” world and because we depend upon it for a vast array of values, we should pay very close attention to its health.

There is little question that Scottish Gaelic identity remains distinct from other cultures existing within the UK and Scotland. Certainly it bears a distinct history and tradition. To some observers, Gaelic distinctiveness shows most clearly through Gaelic society’s indigenous characteristics and experience and its historical existence within a larger not-very-indigenous dominant culture.

From the perspective of some in the Gaelic Diaspora, these indigenous characteristics of Gaelic tradition are of great interest. They allow us to begin to place our Gaelic heritage more closely and honestly within the histories of our own nations. Approaching Gaelic history and culture from an indigenous perspective opens windows and invites wonderful discussion.

But before diving too deeply into discussion of particular aspects of indigenousness, it is worth taking a moment to understand what it is, exactly, that links indigenous peoples’ experiences across the world, today and in their respective histories. What is an indigenous culture? It does not necessarily mean the first or only humans to set foot on certain soil.

The United Nations 2007 Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples includes this description:

Peoples … are regarded as indigenous on account of their descent from the populations which inhabited the country, or a geographical region to which the country belongs, at the time of conquest or colonization, who retain some or all of their own social, economic, cultural and political institutions.

Further guidance from the United Nations:

Considering the diversity of indigenous peoples, an official definition of “indigenous” has not been adopted by any UN-system body. Instead the system has developed a modern understanding of this term based on the following:

  • Self-identification as indigenous peoples at the individual level and accepted by the community as their member.
  • Historical continuity with pre-colonial and/or pre-settler societies
  • Strong link to territories and surrounding natural resources
  • Distinct social, economic or political systems
  • Distinct language, culture and beliefs
  • Form non-dominant groups of society
  • Resolve to maintain and reproduce their ancestral environments and systems as distinctive peoples and communities.

You can read more about what the United Nations has to say about indigenous people and characteristics here.

A Few Things To Consider. Regarding consideration of Scottish Gaelic as an indigenous culture, here are five things – from a Diaspora perspective – that might be worth keeping in mind:

1. Gaelic Culture Is Not Just About Language and DNA. Although language and DNA can be seen as the entire shelf rather than just useful bookends, Gaelic identity is about so much more than language and DNA. In the void existing between those two things one finds all the rest of culture, socio-political institutions and spiritual outlook and learning, and basic life ways. Much of that has already been swept away in prior Scottish de-Gaelicicization efforts. What remains is threatened. Ultimately, however, these kinds of cultural markers are the things that remain of interest and about which we are still learning and trying to reclaim. Language is an incredibly important and enlightening element of culture but not the only one. It is important in its own right and for what it tells us about its mother culture. Language is also the key that opens the treasure chest of Gaelic historical perspective. If you cannot understand what Gaels have said in their own language – through your own study or by accessing some other reliable study – you cannot understand all of what you need to understand. Nevertheless, although language is the key tool, the ultimate prize is deeper cultural understanding.

2. Indigenous Does Not Mean Isolated. Indigenous cultures are not necessarily genetically pure or isolated from the outside world and from the additive cultural influence that warfare, trade and social interaction bring. Gaelic culture has enjoyed immigrant and trade influence as has almost every human culture and society including many indigenous ones. Pictish and Norse and Welsh and Irish influences make Gaelic a very rich and diverse culture today – but the admixture is still called Gaelic and diverse cultural influences do not necessarily argue against indigeneity nor do they make recognition of Gaelic less important.

3. “There can be only one.” NOT. Indigenousness is not a geopolitically exclusive status. Recognition of one culture as an indigenous culture does not mean that it has claimed exclusive right to that status throughout, in this case, Scotland and the UK. The many coexistent indigenous cultures in the US provide good examples, as does the history of North Britain itself to a certain extent. Fear of wiping out recognition of, or interest in the people that pre-dated and co-existed with the Gaels is unsupported. There is nothing about the idea of a recognized indigenous Gaelic culture that should lead to such an outcome. That, however, leads to the next really important thing to remember about indigenousness.

4. It’s Alive!!!! Indigenousness is, primarily, an element of a living global cultural structure that is actively and physically present today. Discussion of indigeneity is firmly hooked to living people and their contemporary lives. As demonstrated by the UN resources quoted above, whether there exists a logical basis for a culture to self-determine its own indigenous status is typically measured by historic continuity and status of living people. Reasonable claims to real rights are involved and so the determination is an important one not made lightly.

It is certainly wonderful news that some cultures that had gone missing from contemporary Earth have been successfully revitalized in recent years and even reclaimed from “sleeping beauty” status.  Check out this great article on language (cultural) revival and video about the experience of the Barngarla people in Australia. These movements are difficult and sincere and they often demonstrate best how much is lost when a culture and society are thoroughly and intentionally suppressed as well as what amazing things can be achieved by people today who work to bring them back.

5. “I’m Gaelic, We Suck” Said Nobody Ever. Erosion and Anglicization of Gaelic culture and society did not happen without the need for consistent episodes of severe repression applied by various non-Gaelic kings over the course of several centuries to force ethnically stubborn Gaels to accept Anglo/Scottish incentives – or to leave Scotland. Near loss of Scottish Gaelic culture has not been an accident of history. In the largest of all nutshells, Gaelic culture and society have been specifically targeted for eradication and if not that, then severe containment. Gaelic society has been historically perceived by most Anglo, (non-Gaelic or anti-Gaelic) Scottish, and many American observers as barbaric, savage, uncivilized, backward, etc. Thus, under the general guise of “civilizing” the uncivilized, national policies have openly attempted to rid Scotland and America of significant and meaningful Gaelic influence. Culture-killing policies and projects have been clothed as beneficent reform and improvement. Such has been the imperial pattern across the globe.  Did you watch that video linked above? You should. Gaelic culture, like many others, survives today because it has proven extremely stubborn in the face of centuries of repression.

In the event.  Clearly, the Scottish Gaelic indigenous experience was broadly similar to other indigenous experience, but also different in a few stand-out ways. Scottish Gaels were some of the very earliest victims of the invasive Anglo influence flowing up from the south. Gaels are also closer geographically to England than indigenous people on other continents. Perhaps more interestingly than all of this, however, is the fact that Gaels look like the Europeans that they are and that makes the Gaelic indigenous experience its own. Gaels aren’t the only white indigenous people on the planet, but there aren’t all that many left.

Light skin and European features did not automatically provide keys to Anglo respect for Scottish Gaels. Nevertheless, those European physical traits did place Scottish and Irish Gaels in a peculiar posture as far as Anglo imperial victims generally go. Anglicized Gaels could be more readily and somewhat more deeply accepted by Anglos than were Anglicized dark skinned aboriginal peoples. Yet there is no evidence that suggests that giving up an ancient culture and way of life, pulling up roots and leaving a homeland under varying levels of duress was always easier or created less loss for Gaels than for other victims of similar cultural pressure elsewhere in the British empire.

There are many great reasons why it makes sense to examine Gaelic culture with an indigenous lens. In the end, it may be impossible for some people to attach the label “indigenous” to Scotland’s last remaining distinctly pre-Anglo culture. If so, at the least take a moment to appreciate the great variety of experiences and cultural characteristics that Scottish Gaelic culture shares with those people across the globe who have chosen to join the indigenous family.

One important indigenous marker has to do with the question of how humanity understands itself relative to the non-human world and how humans interact with that world. Questions such as whether we will continue to fuel extreme climate instability and how we adapt to climate changes that we fail to avoid are perfect opportunities to consider and integrate indigenous ideas. There are a growing number of people on the planet who recognize great personal and global value and potential in indigenous ideas and approaches to the world and are therefore keen to understand them more completely. Scottish Gaelic offers opportunity in this regard.

Speaking of land, heritage and indigenous souls, a far better McIntosh than I, Alastair McIntosh, along with a handful of other scholars in Scotland and North America, have been forging new ideas on the topic of Gaelic relationships with landscape. Especially through interdisciplinary insight and understanding offered by Alastair McIntosh’s climate and human ecology perspective, exploration of traditional Gaelic relationships to land and other “indigenous” Gaelic qualities has already contributed not just to the interests of Gaelic heritage but to humanity’s better understanding of itself and the planet.

More on this topic coming. In the meanwhile, some really great reading:

Soil and Soul: People Versus Corporate Power by Alastair McIntosh (2004)

Warriors Of The Word: The World Of Scottish Highlanders by Michael Newton (2009)

Seanchaidh na Coille / The Memory-Keeper of the Forest: Anthology of Scottish-Gaelic Literature of Canada by Michael Newton (2015)

We’re Indians Sure Enough: The Legacy Of Scottish Highlanders In North America by Michael Newton (2001)

On The Other Side Of Sorrow: Nature And People In The Scottish Highlands by Jim Hunter (1996)

White People, Indians And Highlanders: Tribal People and Colonial Encounters In Scotland And America by Colin Calloway (2010)

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