On Human Rights Day 1992, the United Nations proclaimed an International Year of the World's Indigenous People. A Decade for Indigenous Peoples was subsequently launched, to run from 1995 to 2004, and a Forum of Indigenous Peoples established. The inaugural meeting of the Forum, held in Geneva in 1996, was unfortunately disrupted by gatecrashers. A self–styled delegation of South African Boers turned up and demanded to be allowed to participate on the grounds that they too were indigenous people, and that their traditional culture was under threat from the new African National Congress government. They were unceremoniously ejected, and no doubt their motives were far from pure, but the drama might usefully have drawn attention to the difficultyof defining and identifying Indigenous People.

The loaded terms 'native' and 'indigenous' are the subject of much debate in activist circles. Native still has a colonial ring in many parts of the world, though it has become an acceptable label in North America. It is now always capitalised (Native), perhaps in order to suggest that it refers to a nation of some sort, and in fact the term First Nations is often used as an alternative designation in Canada and the USA. In international discourse, however, the term indigenous is usually preferred. This has a slightly foreign ring to English ears, but perhaps it comes across as more scientific. At the same time, the names used for particular indigenous peoples have undergone changes, so we now have, for example, Saami for Lapp, Inuit for Eskimo, and San for Bushman.

As is so often the way with this sort of relabelling, 'San' turns out to be a pejorative Hottentot — or Khoekhoe — term for Bushmen, connoting vagabonds and bandits. But the principle is defensible. It is a good idea to call people by names they recognise and find acceptable. Nevertheless, discredited old arguments may lurk behind new words. Culture has become a common euphemism for race. Similarly, the terms native or indigenous are often euphemisms for what used to be termed primitive. Indeed, one of the major NGOs in this field, Survival International, began life as the Primitive Peoples' Fund. It has since changed its name but, clinging to the same anachronistic anthropology, it now promotes itself as a movement 'for tribal peoples'. Once this equivalence between 'indigenous' and 'primitive', 'tribal', 'hunting' or 'nomadic' peoples is grasped, it is easier to understand why the first UN Indigenous Peoples Forum (from which the Boers were ejected) was dominated by delegations speaking for Inuit, San, Australian Aborigines, Amazonian peoples, etc. These areprecisely the quintessential 'primitive societies' of classical anthropological discourse.

Not only has the ghostly category of 'primitive peoples' been restored to life under a new label. The UN Secretary General of the day, Dr Boutros Boutros–Ghali, identified common problems that all these peoples suffered in the modern world. Pushed into marginal lands, they seemed in many cases to be "doomed to extinction". Governments treated them as "subversive" because they "did not share the sedentary lifestyle or the culture of the majority". However, the Secretary General noted that "a welcome change is taking place on national and international levels." The unique way of life of indigenous peoples had at last come to be appreciated at its true value. Organisations of indigenous people had been formed. Collective rights in historical homelands were being recognised, and land claims pressed with some success.

The Secretary General was certainly right to identify new international thinking on these issues. The ILO Convention no. 169 (1989) concerning Indigenous and Tribal Peoples in Independent Countries laid down that national governments should allow indigenous peoples to participate in making decisions that affect them, that they should set their own development priorities, and that they should be given back lands that they traditionally occupied. This convention has been ratified by Denmark and Norway among European states, and by Bolivia, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Paraguay and Peru in Latin America. However, no African or Asian state has adopted it. More recently a United Nations Draft Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples has been negotiated, but particularly because of strong opposition from a number of African states it has not yet been put before the General Assembly.

The rhetoric of the indigenous peoples movement rests on widely accepted premises that are nevertheless open to serious challenge. The initial assumption is that descendants of the original inhabitants of a country should have privileged rights, perhaps even exclusive rights, to its resources. Conversely, immigrants are simply guests, and should behave accordingly. These propositions are popular with extreme right–wing parties in Europe, although the argument is seldom pushed to its logical conclusion since it is well–known that the history of all European countries is a history of successive migrations. Even in the most extreme nationalist circles it is not generally argued that, for instance, descendants of the Celts and perhaps the Saxons should be given special privileges in Britain as against descendants of Romans, Vikings, Normans, and, of course, all later immigrants.

Hunters and nomadic herders are sometimes taken to represent not merely the first inhabitants of a country but the original human populations of the world. They are a world–wide First Nation, and theirs is the natural state of humanity. If that is so, then perhaps it follows that their rights must take precedence everywhere. However, while Upper Paleolithic hunters and gatherers operated in a world of hunters, every contemporary community of foragers or herders lives in intimate association with settled farmers. In certain cases, including the Kalahari Bushmen and the Congo Pygmies, they interacted with farming neighbours for centuries, probably for at least a millennium, before the colonial period. Exchanges with farmers and traders are crucial for their economy, and their foraging activities are geared to this broader economic context. The divide between a foraging and a farming way of life is not necessarily hard and fast. People may forage for some seasons, even some years, but sign up as farm labourers when times are tough. For their part, farmers may be driven back on foraging as a result ofwar or natural disasters. All this suggests that the way of life of modern hunters or herders may be only remotely related to that of hunters and herders who lived thousands of years ago.

Several generations — in some cases many centuries — of European settlement have also greatly complicated the picture. World–wide, the only constant is that local ways of life and group identities have been subjected to a variety of pressures, and they have seldom, if ever, remained stable over the long term. It is nevertheless often assumed that each local native group is the carrier of an ancient culture. In familiar, romantic fashion, this culture is associated with spiritual rather than with material values. It is unique, and expresses the genius of a native people. To be sure, it is conceded (even angrily insisted) that the authentic culture may survive only in rural enclaves, since (again in good romantic style) native cultures are rpresented as being everywhere under threat from an intrusive material civilisation associated with cities, with stock markets, and with foreigners. However, it is argued that the essence survives, and can be nursed back to health if the resources are provided. The alternative is represented in the bleakest terms. The loss of culture is sometimes spoken of as a form of genocide. Even in less apocalyptic discourses it is taken for granted that a people which loses its culture has been robbed of its identity, and that the diminution of cultural variation represents a significant loss for all humanity.

Dr Boutros–Ghali accordingly insisted that the indigenous peoples movement is not only about land, or hunting rights. It is, even more fundamentally, concerned with culture and identity. Indeed, beyond the conventional list of individual human rights something new was at issue. "Henceforth we realise that human rights cover not only individual rights," Boutros–Ghali claimed, "but also collective rights, historical rights. We are discovering the 'new human rights', which include, first and foremost, cultural rights… We might even say that there can be no human rights unless cultural authenticity is preserved." He did not consider the possibility that 'collective rights' might undermine 'individual rights'. Nor did he face up to the fact that very often people may claim a particular 'indigenous' identity by descent, but live in towns, speak English or Spanish, and marry outsiders. No culture, no rights?

Finally, there is a strong ecological thread in the indigenous peoples rhetoric. According to the dogma, hunters are in tune with nature in a way that the exploitative and greedy farmers are not. Some activists hope that if only their lands were returned to them, the Inuit would take up hunting again, and restore an ancient environmental balance. Such hopes are not justified by experience. In Greenland, the Inuit–led Home Rule government regards hunting as anachronistic and objectionable, and favours the exploitation of non–renewable resources. In Alaska, the Native Claims Settlement Act (1971) created twelve Native–controlled profit–making corporations, but there are now bitter conflicts between those who became shareholders in terms of the Act and local people born after 1971, and known locally as New Natives, who do not share in the profits of the corporations. Industrial timber and pulp producers in south–eastern Alaska supported Native claims for tactical reasons, since this helped them to evade environmental laws, and the Native corporations themselves export natural resources on a huge scale to Japan and Korea. Recently the Inupiat of Alaska's North Slope have supported oil drilling on the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (although they are opposed by the Gwich'in Indians).

Leaving aside the question of how the land might be used, land claims on behalf of former 'nomads' typically raise very tricky issues. American, Australian and Canadian courts have found that it is difficult to establish the boundaries of lands hunted by former generations, or to grasp how ancestral populations understood rights to resources and rights in land. They must also judge whether rights exercised by hunters are in some way equivalent to rights that arise from clearing virgin lands for agriculture, or to other common law entitlements. Finally, they must decide whether native chiefs legally entered into treaties that alienated some or all of their lands.

Even if these questions are settled, the courts have to establish precisely whose ancestors came, and when, and where they may be said to have settled. Over the centuries communities migrated, merged, died out, or changed their languages and altered their allegiances. Ever–changing colonial and national contexts have added layers of complexity to the histories of populations that derived from the precolonial communities. With the best will in the world it may not be possible to return to a pre–Columbian state of nature.

Then there are the most agonising problems of all, which, however, are in general less frankly discussed. How to establish that a person is in fact a Native? How to decide precedence between Natives? And then other sorts of claims (even rights) may have to be overridden. In Labrador, for instance, an organisation called the Innu Nation demands the restoration of ancestral lands. One difficulty they face is that the northern portion of their claim overlaps land claimed by another ethnic movement, the Labrador Inuit Association. A further complication, however, is that this area is also home to another category of people, originally of European stock, known locally as the Settlers. Their presence raises another sort of problem, one of principle. There have been several generations of intermarriage between Settlers and Inuit; both Inuit and Settlers are often bilingual; and their way of life is similar. If the phrase has any meaning, one might surely say that they share a common culture, though apparently not a common identity. Under certain conditions, Settlers are accepted as members by the Labrador Inuit Association, but the Innu Nation regard them as their main adversaries, and the government excludes Settlers from collective land claims and treats them as squatters because they cannot prove aboriginal bloodlines. On the other hand, a person who has lived his or her whole life in, say, St John's in Newfoundland, and does not speak a word of a native language, may be granted aboriginal status in Labrador if they can claim a sufficient proportion of aboriginal ancestry.

The Canadian government, like many American and Canadian courts, resolve this issue by granting native claims to land on the basis of descent. However, descent is often hard to establish, and seldom pure, so that they end up applying a calibrated measure of descent. You have rights only if you have a certain number of appropriate grandparents. This might fairly be called the Nuremburg principle. A drift to racism may be inevitable where so–called cultural identity becomes the basis for rights, since any cultural test (knowledge of a language, for example) will exclude some who might lay claim to an identity on grounds of descent. In the indigenous peoples movement, descent is tacitly assumed to represent the bedrock of collective identity.

The Canadian situation is not unique. Courts in Australia, New Zealand and the USA have also been persuaded to grant land rights to indigenous peoples. In many Latin American countries there are also movements of small minorities of 'hunting peoples' who demand the return of ancestral homelands, and their claims have been sympathetically considered by some governments. In most Asian and African countries, however, government policy has been firmly (not to say oppressively) assimilationist with respect to minorities of foraging peoples and nomads. Occasionally, as in the case of the Bushmen of Botswana and Namibia, they have been treated as victims of poverty, who require economic aid.

The South African case is particularly instructive, since the ANC government was at first extremely reluctant to recognise special ethnic claims to land. The change of ANC policy is at least in part a response to agitation by NGOs, with their international connections. The government could not ignore these pressures while it harboured ambitions to recognition as Africa's leading actor in the field of human rights. Symbolic acts of solidarity with San have accordingly become popular, and on the occasion of South Africa's Sixth Freedom Day, on 27 April 2000, President Mbeki unveiled a new national coat of arms, whose centre–piece was made up of two figures from a Bushman rock painting. Below is a text from an extinct Cape Bushman language, !ke e: /xarra //ke, which has been translated as 'Unity in Diversity', the motto of the New South Africa, though the precise meaning of this passage in an obscure, dead language is a matter of some scholarly controversy. (The motto of the old Union of South Africa was Unity is Strength.) The advantages of this official gesture are nevertheless apparent enough. None of South Africa's eleven official languages is being privileged. The only ethnic group that is given special status has long vanished from the scene. And the new symbol may boost South Africa's reputation in the field of human rights, since in some circles today the litmus test is a government's policy on indigenous peoples.

On another front, however, the South African government departed more fundamentally from the traditional policies of the ANC, taking practical steps that inevitably landed them in difficulties. A Khomani San Association was making claims to rights in the Kalahari Gemsbok Park, an enormous game reserve which had been proclaimed in 1931. There were only about a dozen people in South Africa who could still speak the Khomani language, but the movement was strongly supported by an NGO based in Cape Town. The government handed over vaguely specified rights of 'ownership' in the park to the 'Khomani people', in practical terms allowing people classified as Khomani to hunt and graze stock in certain areas. The grant of grazing rights was crucial. As one observer, Steven Robins, has pointed out, while "San livestock farmers are often perceived to be less authentically San by donors, for many Kalahari San, goats and sheep have been, and continue to be, their main strategy for survival."

Unfortunately, these privileges have created tensions between those classified as San and other local residents, who had been classified as Coloured under apartheid. And just as under apartheid, people have been obliged to reformulate their ethnic identities in order to get access to resources. Another observer, William Ellis, describes, for example, Oom Frik who "says he is not a San, but he is part of them by virtue of his grandmother having been a 'pure San'; she had according to him the correct phenotypic features." Just as under apartheid, people are being driven by the logic of the new policy to make claims to rights on the grounds of a supposed racial identity. And as under apartheid, it was the ambiguous category of Coloured people, neither one thing nor the other, who lose out.

The indigenous peoples movement has been fostered by the UN and the World Bank, by international development agencies and NGOs. Despite the fact that the ideas behind the movement are very dubious, the motivation is surely generous. Whatever the reasons behind it, a grant of land to poor people may be a good thing, even if very large tracts of land are sometimes being handed over to extremely small communities — or rather, to small categories of people defined in terms of descent. But I am doubtful about the justice or good sense of most of these initiatives. Policies based on false analysis distract attention from real local issues. They are unlikely to promote the common good. And they will certainly create new problems. Wherever special land and hunting rights have been extended to so–called indigenous peoples, local ethnic frictions are exacerbated. These grants also foster appeals to uncomfortably racist criteria for favouring, or excluding, individuals or communities.

Why have these discredited ways of thinking become so influential once again? As always, our conceptions of the primitive are best understood as counters in our own current ideological debates. The image of the primitive is often constructed today to suit the Greens and the anti–globalisation movement.

Authentic natives represent a world to which we should, apparently, wish to be returned, a world in which culture does not challenge nature. At the same time, the movement exploits the very general European belief that true citizenship is a matter of ties of blood and soil. In Europe today, this principle is used to justify anti–immigrant policies. The obverse of this, however, is the painless concession that faraway natives should be allowed to hunt in their own Bantustans. And so the indigenous peoples movement garners support across the political spectrum for a variety of different, even contradictory reasons. (The founder of Survival International, Robin Hanbury–Tennison, recently achieved new prominence as leader of the Countryside Alliance, a movement formed to oppose the banning of fox hunting in Britain.) But whatever the political inspiration, the conventional lines of argument currently used to justify 'indigenous' land claims rely on obsolete anthropological notions and on a romantic and false ethnographic vision. Fostering essentialist ideologies of culture and identity, they may have dangerous political consequences.