Contested identities of indigenous people: Indigenization or integration of the Veddas in Sri Lanka

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  • Contested identities of indigenous people:Indigenization or integration of the Veddas in

    Sri Lanka

    Chamila T. Attanapola1 and Ragnhild Lund2

    1Administration, Faculty of Humanities, Norwegian University of Science and Technology2Department of Geography, Norwegian University of Science and Technology

    Correspondence: Chamila T. Attanapola (email:

    Traditionally, the identity of indigenous people was defined in relation to closeness to nature and

    use of wildlife resources. Such an identity has been put under pressure due to development

    programmes, neo-liberal policies and increasing market economy, forcing these people to redefine

    their identity within new socio-economic and geopolitical contexts. Based on ethnographic

    research, the situation of the Vedda people in Sri Lanka is analysed. First, we unravel how they

    define their identity through a meaningful relationship with the place in which they used to live

    prior to their displacement because of a large scale development project. Second, we analyse how

    the Veddas (re-)negotiate their identity in a context of limited access to land, lack of education,

    unemployment, and an increasing demand for indigenous tourism. It is found that the Veddas

    redefine their identity by pursuing two survival strategies: tourist development and

    re-indigenization, and integration into mainstream Sinhalese society. Both strategies pose chal-

    lenges and opportunities.

    Keywords: indigenous identity, re-indigenization, integration, Sri Lanka, Vedda


    Indigenous people have been historically linked to land as their main source of survivaland as an essential element in the preservation of their culture and distinctive identities.Indigenous people are known variously as ethnic groups, ethnic minorities, and in thecase of South Asia, adivasi. They are normally associated with a definite geographicalarea, and have a distinctive culture that includes a wide spectrum of ethnic ways of life,including language, customs, traditions and religious beliefs. They are often character-ized by having livelihoods that are closely connected to nature, lower levels of educationand technological development, and being less integrated into the market economy.However, indigenous people are not monoliths and their levels of deprivation andintegration with mainstream society vary greatly (World Bank, 2010). As they developtheir identities based on meaningful relationships with land and the places in whichthey dwell, work on and move about in during everyday life (Bolanos, 2011), itbecomes necessary for them to redefine their identities when their relationship with theland is disturbed (Relph, 1976; Bhabha, 1994; Rose, 1995).

    The strong perceptions of the ethnic identities of indigenous people are not neces-sarily respected or recognized by state administrations, which may try to play down thedifferences in order to integrate them into mainstream society (Pholsena &Banomyong, 2004). Even though indigenous people are marked by their distinctiveculture, often the contextualized and nuanced differences have not been taken intoconsideration in some of the national studies on indigenous people. Rather, they arepresented as exotic (especially women) or blamed for being backward. The identities



    Singapore Journal of Tropical Geography 34 (2013) 172187

    2013 The Authors

    Singapore Journal of Tropical Geography 2013 Department of Geography, National University of Singapore and

    Wiley Publishing Asia Pty Ltd

  • and culture of indigenous people can thus be an object of exotification and commer-cialization, rendering their communities as living museums (Xu & Salas, 2003).

    Recently, a discourse has emerged on how indigenous has become a marker ofstrategic importance for people to justify their claims to their rights, as well as claimingan identity with a new strategic meaning (Bijoy, 1993; Rao, 2003; Bauer, 2010; Idrus,2010; Bolanos, 2011; Lund & Panda, 2011). Some scholars have termed the ability ofindigenous people to strategize on their ethnicity professional primitivism (Bastin,2003), referring to activities whereby they make a living from their cultural identity,such as through tourism. This generally happens in areas where indigenous people havebeen denied their access to ancestral lands and resources, as has been documented forall continents (Bauer, 2010; Erazo, 2010).

    In this article we discuss the ability of indigenous people to (re)define their culturalidentity as part of a survival strategy. We aim to unravel how they strategize to surviveby claiming identity as Veddas in marginalized positions. When previously culturallydefined boundaries of land have become politically contested territories due to coloni-zation, modernization, neo-liberal policies and market adjustments, their practices andidentities change. The Veddas in Sri Lanka have faced deteriorating livelihoods andrelative deprivation compared to dominant ethnic groups in the country throughouthistory, and particularly during the twentieth century when large-scale irrigation,colonization schemes and conservation projects were implemented (Lund, 2000; 2003).We ask how the Veddas themselves define and redefine their identity within a rapidlychanging socio-economic and geopolitical context, which play a decisive role in thisprocess, and also how important the Veddas ability is to (re)negotiate their culturalidentity as part of a survival strategy.

    By describing the case of the Vedda communities in two villages, Dambane andHenanigala South,1 we will first present how indigenous groups, including the Veddas,define their identities through a meaningful relationship with the place in which theyused to live. A brief methodological section follows, before we describe how indigenouspeople have been understood in Sri Lanka and how the Veddas themselves perceivetheir identity. The empirical investigation of the two villages shows that they handletheir identity differently. In Dambane, Veddas (re)negotiate their cultural identitythrough professional primitivism, which is understood as encompassing processes ofre-indigenization. In Henanigala South, Veddas attempt to integrate into mainstreamsociety, but with great difficulty as they are marginalized in almost every aspect of theirlives.

    Identity re-indigenization through professional primitivism or integration

    Identity is not only changeable over time and through space but is also potentiallyvoluntaristic in that individuals may work out new forms of identification and differ-entiation within and against the social relations of their everyday lives (Katz, 2003).According to Pratt (1998), a place-based identity results when powerful meanings ofthe landscape influence people to the extent that their behaviours and self-identity ortheir collective group belonging become equated with a particular locale. Processesof colonization and modernization have changed the habitats and daily lifestyles ofindigenous people and marginalized them in many societies. They have becomepoorer and landless, their traditional culture is under threat of becoming extinct(Lund, 2003), and they are forced to adopt new livelihoods and lifestyles in order tosurvive.

    Contested identities and professional primitivism of Veddas 173

  • Several scholars have documented how indigenous people transform or strategizeon their identity. Scotts (2009) seminal study on indigenous people in Southeast Asiaexplains the capabilities of indigenous people and documents that they always haveknown how to strategize on their identity. He argues that highland indigenous peoplesin Southeast Asia have been able to efficiently manage their linguistic variety, swiddenagriculture and ethnic identity by avoiding state control over agriculture and labourthroughout history.

    Tookers (2004) study of Akha people in northern Thailand also shows that duringthe 1980s, increased capitalist penetration, including the introduction of cash cropproduction and wage labour in agriculture, establishment of settlements and urban-ization, media and new political structures, have changed their everyday practices andlivelihoods. Akha identity is presented as hybrid, consisting of elements of Christianity,mainstream Thai culture and political structure, and to some extent traditional Akhaethnic cultural practices that are relegated only to special occasions and social domainsand observable in dress styles, ritual practices and language use. Similarly, Escobar(1995) points out that many traditional cultures survive through their transformativeengagement in modernity in Latin America. Indigenous people recognize the mar-keting opportunities and value of their culture rather than perceiving them as authen-tic survival from their past. Such adaptation to modernity creates a new senseof indigenous identity, which is a combination of the traditional and the modern.Indigenous people reinsert traditional cultural elements into a new setting (re-indigenization). By exploring the case of the Ecuadorian coastal village Macaboa,Bauer (2010) studied how an indigenous community was successful in resisting priva-tization of land by emphasizing their indigenous identity through rights to land. Suchre-indigenization was necessary to mobilize the community and to convince the stateof the communitys right to access their land and maintain their livelihoods. Other-wise, the communitys struggle against capitalist land buyers and the state would justbe articulated as a class struggle alone, which cannot be won in an era when capitalismand neoliberal policies dominate every aspect of peoples everyday life. Thus, anemphasis on indigenousness becomes important. Similar