Indigenous Culture & Preserving Cultural Heritage

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  • 0:04 Indigenous vs.…
  • 1:05 William Denevan & Depopulation
  • 1:40 Papua New Guinea
  • 2:56 Hawaii & Revitalized Identity
  • 4:07 African Indigenous…
  • 5:12 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Benjamin Olson
This lesson offers a general definition and several examples of indigenous cultures. We explore the ideas of geographer William M. Denevan as well as several geographic areas in our discussion of the unique struggle for preserving indigenous heritage.

Indigenous Cultures vs Globalized World

In an increasingly globalized world, preserving the cultural heritage of indigenous peoples remains a problem. The term indigenous refers to any ethnic group that resides in its original location, practices a traditional culture, and speaks a minority language. However, this definition is not all encompassing. Some indigenous groups may have lost their traditional language but are otherwise considered an indigenous ethnic group. Other ethnic groups may have been displaced from their original homeland but have retained most of their indigenous culture.

Cultural, technological, and economic changes have eradicated many indigenous groups throughout the world. Innumerable indigenous cultures died out because of European colonialism leading to the unintentional spread of infectious foreign diseases, but also genocidal practices and forced resettlement between the 16th and 20th centuries. Today, environmental pressures, economic incentives, and religious missionary work continue to endanger the existence of indigenous cultures. Let's take a closer look at some examples.

William M. Denevan and Depopulation

In his influential book The Native Population of the Americas in 1492, geographer William M. Denevan challenges many prevalent myths about the, ''pristine,'' and ''sparsely populated,'' landscape of the Americas at the time of European contact. He argues that there were far more indigenous people living in the Americas at the time of European contact than is typically assumed.

After European contact, indigenous populations were decimated by disease. Denevan argues that the Americas were probably more sparsely populated in 1750 than in 1492 due to massive depopulation.

Papua New Guinea

Papua New Guinea, which comprises the eastern half of the island of New Guinea, is home to one of the richest concentrations of indigenous cultures on earth. A primary reason for Papa New Guinea's impressive cultural diversity is its geographic isolation to the north of Australia, meaning that it is separated by natural land features, making it completely secluded. Additionally, the highlands of Papua New Guinea remained untouched by European cultures until the middle of the 20th century. It is believed that Papua New Guinea has been inhabited by humans for roughly 50,000 years, making it one of the first places that humans settled outside of Africa.

Today, about 836 unique indigenous languages are spoken in Papua New Guinea, comprising 12% of indigenous languages in the world. The country's numerous ethnic groups have distinctive cultures, providing a rich treasure trove of anthropological heritage.

Due to Papua New Guinea's late contact with the outside world, the indigenous peoples were spared many of the most egregious excesses of 18th and 19th century European colonialism; however, its indigenous groups face serious threats from mining companies, missionaries, and other modern economic forces. While the preservation of Papua New Guinea's indigenous cultures is an official government priority, the future of its traditional cultures remains uncertain.

Hawaii and Revitalized Identity

Although there is some uncertainty regarding exactly when Polynesian peoples arrived in the Hawaiian Islands, it is believed that the first group of settlers arrived around 1025 CE. In the years between the original settlement and contact with European explorers, Hawaiians developed a sophisticated culture that shared some similarities with members of the Polynesian language group.

In 1778, the British explorer Captain James Cook arrived in the Hawaiian Islands. In the following years, a tragic series of events befell the Hawaiian people. They mirrored the experiences of many indigenous groups of people around the world. Disease, repression, forced religious conversion, economic exploitation, and eventual annexation by the United States almost brought the demise of indigenous Hawaiian culture.

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