Orgosolo, Sardinia the town of Murals

Rethinking Indigeneity: Peoples of Sardinia

Introduction

The definition of Indigenous is varied. Depending on who you ask, where you go, who you are, your definition of the term will be varied. Generally, being Indigenous means to be the original inhabitants of the land. In so being, the Indigenous people usually have a larger claim and connection to the land from which they originate – historically or presently. While this aspect of Indigeneity is largely a universal – the cultures, societies, appearances, and peoples as a whole who identify as Indigenous are wildly interdependent of each other and inherently unique. This is where rethinking Indigeneity becomes important.

The lives of Indigenous people are intersecting in new and profound ways with the advent of the ever-evolving 21st century. Post-colonialist political systems, the increasing rise of capitalism, and environmental issues are compounding yet contrasting concerns that acutely impact the lives of Indigenous peoples worldwide. Unfortunately, long-standing prejudices and stereotypes of Indigenous peoples has led to a challenging phenomenon where these groups are only recognizable if they behave in “properly indigenous” ways. As a result, it can be hard for these groups to break free of pre-conceived notions. This makes it challenging to effectively live in ways that align with beliefs or chosen way of life, regardless of relation to heritage or traditions.With this is mind, I believe that it is time to re-think Indigeneity as we move into this post-modern age.

About Sardinia

Map showing the country of Italy and to the left highlighted in red is the island of Sardinia
The island of Sardinia in relation to Italy. Credit: Wikipedia. (2011, March 7). Sardinia in Italy.

A perfect case study for rethinking biases associated with peoples who are native to their land would be the people of Sardinia. The small island of Sardinia is located off the southern coast of Italy, beautifully placed in the picturesque Mediterranean Sea. Its rugged and mountainous landscape is complimented by its vast coastlines and sandy beaches. Famous for its pristine and clear waters, travellers flock to this island paradise for summer and beach holidays. Tourists in the know arrive in the spring when the flowers are in bloom, the sea waters are warm, and the temperatures are balmy yet temperate.

Picture showing the interior of Sardinia where green rolling hills and blue clouded skies overlook a large lake reservoir
Showcasing the beauty of Sardinia’s landscape – featuring Lake Omodeo, the largest reservoir in Sardinia and in Italy. Credit: Wikipedia. (2005, May 6). Lago Omodeo.

The people who inhabit the island are almost as vibrant and robust and unpretentious as the landscape itself. The culture is rich in folk traditions and has a linguistically unique history. Although Sardinia is a part of Italy, Sardinians are their own distinct grouping, and their allegiance to the island comes before any other. The culture is truly a reflection of the landscape it is situated in. From the food, to the architecture, to the festivals, for people on Sardinia, their lives and society is based on the land, and as a result, they in turn shape the land to fit them. The art is beautiful, yet functional.

Children walk in a parade side by side in a line all holding hands and the children are dressed in brightly coloured folk costumes
Children dressed in traditional folk costumes during the Cavalcade Festival. Credit: Wikipedia. (2016, May 22). Costume di Ovodda.

The Village of Orgosolo: The Town of Murals

The village of Orgosolo with green hills in the background and the buildings are almost all multi stories with reddish roofs and they are clustered close together
The village of Orgosolo. Credit: Wikipedia. (2005, March 22). Photo by Rafael Brix.

Although the island itself and the people as a whole present a very distinctive way of life and culture, perhaps those most intimately tied to the land would be the peoples of the remote village of Orgosolo. Orgosolo is a small, poor central Sardinian town, of which the people are intimately reliant on the bounty that the land provides.

Additionally, Orgosolo is known as the Town of Murals. Murals became a major form of expression for locals of the town after political and economic changes in the 1960s and 70s. Political turmoil was followed by an economic boom. Frequently, the murals were a way for the locals to depict everyday life in the town. The murals use art to reflect the lives of the Orgosolo people back into their own eyes. As time has gone on, the murals fuel competition and creativity in the town. They are a huge tourist draw, and are even being consider for cultural heritage recognition, as well as the subject of various anthropological studies.

Orgosolo, Sardinia the town of Murals
Credit: https://www.italymagazine.com/

However, within the last decade or so, the people of Orgosolo have fought to maintain the rights to the land they have authority over, and ultimately are deeply entwined with. These people, many of whom are sheep herders, have for decades struggled against the establishment of a national park on their communally held land. They ruefully call themselves “Indians” from whom “the land is being stolen.” Comparing the local, often more traditional people of Orgosolo with Indigenous groups elsewhere is a direct way of rethinking Indigeneity in the modern age. This is largely because they are typically denoted as being significant historically and culturally seeded ethnic minorities.

This case study of rethinking Indigeneity was originally presented by Tracy Heatherington in her ethnography “Wild Sardinia, Indigeneity and the Global Dreamtimes of Environmentalism”. Essentially, the discussion surrounds the question of: are you Indigenous enough to keep access to natural land and environments?

Historically, representations of Indigenous peoples can impact how they interact with and thus have influence over the environment and conservation practices of their own land. On Sardinia, this is no different. The people of Orgosolo have a profound local attachment to place. As Heatherington discusses in her book, many of the families in the area span generations back to the ancient history of the island. In many ways, their livelihoods have not changed with the times. Instead, they maintain their attachment to the land by transmitting their agro-pastoral heritage from generation to generation, including traditional pastoralism agriculture, and gathering.

Similar to other Indigenous groups who are deeply connected to the land, the locals of Orgosolo consider the land a type of “cathedral”. The places they depend on are rich with sacrifice, hard work, suffering, and reward. The maintaining and conservation of this land is inherent to the wellbeing and sustenance of these people. Keeping the ecosystems well-functioning, producing, clean, and mostly all-natural is just part of what the people of Orgosolo do.

Fighting for Land

However, these people have faced mounting pressure from governments and ENGOs to allow for the creation of a nature preserve on their land. The idea of the park was to help intersect conservation and community development with the possibilities of commercial tourism that comes with environmentalism. The people of Orgosolo resisted this park as it would result in the loss of their traditional territory, their cultural practices, and ultimately their livelihoods. The plight of the locals was compounded by the 21st century demanding call for eco-friendly practices and the ever-growing need to protect the Earth’s resources and biodiversity.

Ironically, the places that governments and ENGOs turn to in the name of environmentalism are often already mostly preserved, well protected areas of land maintained by those native to it. When speaking about Indigenous issues, a frequently used term is Traditional Environmental Knowledge (TEK). Basically, this is the almost inherited, innately enculturated  knowledge of the land. It also includes the very prospering from that natural wilderness that has been present amongst almost all Indigenous groups. When discussing the concept of rethinking indigeneity, it is important to understand some of the aspects that are similar among people who share this defining term. In the case of having a form of TEK, the people of Orgosolo are no different.

Showcasing the interior of Sardinia with rugged green hills dotted with shrubs where sheep graze in the foreground
Example of sheep herding lands in Sardinia. Credit: Wikipedia. (2005, March 22). Photo by Rafael Brix.

Part of the reason why the Commons (what this community-held land is referred to) was so appealing for a national park is how pristine the Orgosolo people had left it. Or rather, how well they had shaped and maintained it. Regrettably, the western ideal of pristine wilderness tends to exclude the former owners from the land, should they not fit in certain “tribal slots” of indigeneity. In many ways, these outdated “tribal slots” rarely exist in many parts of the world due to the large-scale assimilation of Indigenous peoples into mainstream society over the last few centuries. The picture of Indigeneity in the minds of most of the public is an image of times gone by. Naturally, the agricultural, village-dwelling people of Orgosolo don’t fit this image, which is why they struggled so hard to claim native rights to this land. Thus, how we think of Indigeneity needs to be changed.

This is a point that is crucial as it concerns Indigenous treatment in media and by global environmentalist groups and corporations. The idea of the park was to help intersect conservation and community development with the possibilities of commercial tourism that come with environmentalism. There is no doubt that Sardinia is an absolutely picture-perfect travel destination. Oftentimes, national parks are huge tourist draws in and of themselves. Maintaining a pristine piece of land in the interior of the beautifully rugged landscape would seek to earn a mighty profit from tourism.

Much to the chagrin of government and ENGOs, the people of Orgosolo resist this park as it would result in the loss of their traditional territory. Locals consider the park to be detrimental because it would prevent their free hunting, woodcutting, and pastoral herding on the Commons. The locals have been widely celebrated however, for protecting the local Commons from enclosure and privatization since the early 19th century and for since then vehemently opposing any projects that would put the Commons under the control of outsiders or in private hands.

Environment, Tradition, and Indigeneity

Environmentalists view Sardinian landscapes as pure, untouched, new land, while ignoring that the locals have historically tended to and developed the natural land around them. No land on earth is really truly untouched by human hands. But to corporations and governments and other powerful stakeholders, selling the idea of pure land in the name of conversation skews the ideas of what it means to be Indigenous in the wrong direction. Heatherington also investigates the problematic ways in which the people of Sardinia are said to be of indigeneity, but as a result of their unconformity with nostalgic, romantic views of tradition, are subject to outsiders claiming that they are not legitimate enough to claim authority over their cultural territory.

This is not unlike the plights faced by Indigenous peoples around the globe. Native North American groups are consistently challenged by majority groups in relation to their connection the land, and for how much ownership they should really have to it. Considerable in these arguments is the referencing to either being too Indigenous, or not Indigenous enough. At the root of it, these groups are being judged on their authenticity and rights by people so far removed from their culture that their only exposure to it has fit into stereotypical “tribal slots”, instead of the modern and malleable definition that rethinking Indigeneity has inevitably become.

During the contesting of the national park being built on the commons, the sheep herders were goaded by powerful groups for damaging the land and being unwilling to keep up with the times. Those in power couldn’t understand the arguments of the locals that they needed this land, that they were good to the land, and that this was their home and they couldn’t just leave it. A large part of this could be attributed to bias against already marginalized peoples present in the region, but it can also be seen as a lack of comprehension for what indigeneity can mean, and the importance of rethinking indigeneity and our traditional and stereotypical notions of the term.

Perhaps, if the people of Orgosolo had been perceived of differently in relation to their land, they might’ve had an easier go about claiming their rights. Unfortunately, all too often, indigenous groups are only recognizable if they behave in properly indigenous ways; if they are slottable as eco-saints seamlessly aligned with what is deemed to be appropriate ecological behaviour. Since the people of Orgosolo did not have aligning beliefs about environmentalism with those in power, they were immediately viewed through a skewed lens.

For Consideration and Rethinking Indigeneity

Rethinking indigeneity will become crucial in dealing with Indigenous issues in the future. As the people of Orgosolo demonstrate, many of these issues will be environmentally related. We need to move past misappropriating or misinterpreting cultural identities to fit some sort of confirmation bias. When considering this case study of the Orgosolo people of Sardinia, an important theme that arose was the idea of being Indigenous enough and what that means concerning identity, power, society, and the ability to adhere to traditions as one sees fit. The people of Sardinia and Orgosolo have been struggling to distinguish an ‘authentic’ Sardinian identity based on the uniqueness of cultural and biological factors. In typical ideas of what indigeneity is, the history, monuments, language, and landscape of Sardinia would be self-evident representations of a group of people native to a land who differ greatly from the outside majority.

This is not to say however that the people of Orgosolo are marginalized in the same ways as all Indigenous peoples are. In Heatherington’s discussion, their feelings and identification of indigeneity was largely self-identified. However, it brings up incredibly pertinent questions about this important topic. What is clear is that the 21st century is no place for outdated notions or fixed perspectives on what it means to be Indigenous. Rethinking indigeneity and ideas about identity, origin, connections to land, rights and ownership, are all part and parcel to shifting our ideas about this topic.

For many Indigenous peoples, their power and their voice is simultaneously both amplified and silenced by how well they fit into nice little boxes of public thought and opinion. In a changing world, it would be impossible to have your identity only authenticated if it fit into specific parameters of tradition and heritage. Being Indigenous is not a “tribal slot”, it is not intrinsically exotic, nor is it always connecting with your heritage on a deep level. Ultimately, there is no wrong or right way to be Indigenous.

Bibliography

Britannica. 2007. “Sardinia”. https://www.britannica.com/place/Sardinia-island-Italy. 

Greca N. Meloni. 2018. “Making Indigeneity: The Beekeeper’s Perspective”. On_Culture 5: https://www.on-culture.org/journal/issue-5/meloni-making-indigeneity/

Minority Rights Group. n.d. “Sardinians”. Minorities and indigenous peoples in Italy. https://minorityrights.org/minorities/sardinians/

Tracy Heatherington. 2011. Wild Sardinia, Indigeneity and the Global Dreamtimes of Environmentalism. Seattle: University of Washington Press.

Trips2Italy. n.d. “Sardinia Travel Guide”“. https://www.trips2italy.com/sardinia/main-t2i

University of Chicago. 2020. “Ancient DNA from Sardinia reveals 6,000 years of genetic history”. ScienceDaily. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2020/02/200224131137.htm

Valentina Serra. 2017. “Island geopoetics and the postcolonial discourse of Sardinia in German-language literature”. Island Studies Journal 12 (2): 21-290. 

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