Exploring the hidden history of Indigenous exchange in Asia

July 13, 2023

Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences Research Spotlight:
Michael HathawaySociology & Anthropology

For over two decades, Michael Hathaway has been following a trail of breadcrumbs.

In a dusty archive in rural southwest China in 2002, Hathaway was doing anthropological fieldwork when he encountered a letter welcoming First Nations delegates from British Columbia—in Mandarin.  

Flabbergasted, Hathaway tried to learn more about the historical event referenced in the document, but without much luck. He would be unable to locate any other written sources for several years.

Hathaway finally picked up on the trail again when he accepted an appointment as professor of anthropology at Simon Fraser University’s (SFU) Department of Sociology & Anthropology

Almost five years after the archival encounter in China, Hathaway met colleagues at the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (FASS) who were well-aware of the “hidden history” he tried so hard to piece together. Some even personally knew the Indigenous leaders that had participated in the B.C. First Nations delegation to China.

By slowly assembling these accounts over the years and interviewing delegates and their families, Hathaway has now built the cross-disciplinary research project Transnationally Indigenous, supported by a prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship. The project is an ongoing Indigenous-majority led collaboration with professors Aynur Kadir (Uyghur), Rick Colbourne (Anishinaabe) and Glen Coulthard (Yellowknives Dene), as well as doctoral researcher Cheyanne Connell (Dunne-Za Cree).

The Transnationally Indigenous project explores the hidden legacies of a pivotal series of visits from all-Indigenous groups to China in the mid-1970s, including First Nations delegates from British Columbia and Ainu delegates from Japan. By interviewing the delegates and their family members, the project has discovered important insights about the cross-national Indigenous diplomacy of the 1970s. 

Hathaway says that China played a huge—though unintentional—role in helping to foster global Indigenous rights and Indigenous connections.

“What is perhaps least appreciated is how going to China helped delegates to reimagine themselves as global subjects who were connected to other Indigenous people,” says Hathaway.

The official Chinese state line is that it has no Indigenous peoples; instead, China recognizes 55 ethnic minorities. Hathaway’s first book, Environmental Winds: Making the Global in Southwest China, argues that Indigenous politics nevertheless emerge in China through environmental policies and global nature conservation efforts.

The Transnationally Indigenous project underscores this finding. The Indigenous delegates returned home inspired to envision new kinds of activism and diplomacy in their settler states witnessing how the Chinese state seemed to support Indigenous languages and create space for their political participation.

We want to add to the recognition that even before contact, Indigenous folks were working and thinking at an international and multilingual level and have traveled and made treaties with many people—and continue to do so.

Michael Hathaway | Sociology & Anthropology professor

Making worlds

The Transnationally Indigenous project also aims to unsettle the persistent stereotype of Indigenous people as passive subjects of a colonial global history. Hathaway is excited that Transnationally Indigenous contributes novel accounts of how Indigenous people have actively traveled and explored the world.

"A dominant narrative about Indigenous folks is that they are victims of colonialism or people who more or less stay in one place,” Hathaway explains. “We want to add to the recognition that even before contact, Indigenous folks were working and thinking at an international and multilingual level and have traveled and made treaties with many people—and continue to do so.”

A crucial theory that undergirds the Transnationally Indigenous project is Secwépemc leader George Manuel's notion of the “Fourth World,” which describes the liminal place occupied by Indigenous nations within colonial nation-states. The concept emerged out of another significant cross-national Indigenous exchange in 1972, when Manuel met Indigenous peoples in New Zealand, Australia, Tanzania, and Finland to discuss ways of uniting Indigenous nations under a grassroots notion of collective sovereignty.

Transnationally Indigenous seeks to better understand the unanticipated legacies of the widespread Indigenous transnational activism and diplomacy of the 1970s, and how it quietly fostered a new political category of Indigenous identity across nations, languages, and cultures that extends to the present.

“It's another way to highlight the hidden histories that show forms of cross-cultural and cross-language agency that are utterly critical to world-making projects,” says Hathaway.

To learn more about the project, visit:

Transnationally Indigenous

Image courtesy of Transnationally Indigenous