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Indigenizing International Law from an Inverse Legal Anthropology

Considering the philosophical, political, and artistic concerns that Naked Punch have been introducing over the years in order to unveil the plurality of philosophical languages that populate the world – echoing the interaction between Bruno Mazzoldi and Jacques Derrida – and projecting such a deconstructive endeavour as the interlocution of different philosophical traditions as equals, this piece introduces some preliminary ideas inscribed in the framework of my current research entitled Indigenizing International Law: Inverse Legal Anthropology in the Age of Jurisdictional Thinking. Indeed, my ongoing project is an exploration of the meeting between Western and Indigenous jurisdictions in the context of colonial encounters and across imperial networks, and it pays particular attention to the way in which colonial rule is constantly object of resistance, hybridity, and accommodation. Taking into consideration the emancipatory potential of indigenous thought as the basis to understand their interaction with international law and our own thinking about its history, I am examining both the strategies used by international law to silence indigenous peoples’ voices and the fields of struggle where different jurisdictional terrains have been and continue to be produced by indigenous legal thought.

Taking into consideration indigenous struggles in the Andean region and indigenous jurisprudences in other parts of the world, I am exploring two seemingly inherent paradoxes within the current framework of recognition which is central to international legal thinking about indigenous peoples today: firstly, international law’s ambiguous role in the current face of decolonization of indigenous rights; and secondly and more generally, the complexity of the relationship between colonial domination and indigenous resistance. On the one hand, the commitment of official international law norms and history to reject and obliterate indigenous knowledge while still claiming the recognition of indigenous peoples. On the other, the indigenous appropriation and re-appropriation of a violent past into their ever-changing future.

The task that I am proposing in this exploration  – while talking with indigenous leaders and organizations in Colombia and Bolivia – involves an ethnographic endeavor that at its basis pays attention to what indigenous voices can say about lawful relations, rather than departing from what Western Rule of Law says or not about indigenous peoples. This (international legal) anthropological approach attempts to move beyond of what ‘our society’ can say about social relations, to emphasize instead the way in which indigenous jurisdictions function in order to resist, diversified, and adjust their bodies of knowledge, such as their jurisprudences and anthropologies, within the daily life operation of international law.   

In conversation with Viveiros de Castro, this move aims to advance a serious dialogue between Western and Indigenous jurisdictions – one in which other cultures are not objects of our theory of social relations but ‘possible interlocutors of a more general theory of the social relations.’ Thus, if there is something that makes the anthropological discourse singularly outstanding, it is its capacity to localize its point of view in the same epistemological plane in which the subject of its discourse is resting. Based on this anthropological approach, termed by Viveiros Amerindian perspectivism, I envisage the projection of an anthropology of international law that acts as an alterity enhancer. Indeed, ‘[i]f Descartes taught us, the moderns, to say ‘I think therefore I am’ – i.e., that the only life or existence that I thought as being true is my own –, the Amerindian perspectivism starts from a doubly opposite affirmation: ‘the other exists therefore thinks.’

Thus, this ongoing project seeks to become an ‘heuristic device’ of anthropological inversion, aiming to deconstruct the epistemological trajectory by which Western jurisprudence in general, and international law in particular, have ‘shaped’ legal doctrines and jurisprudential concepts in relation to indigenous rights. Indeed, following this track, international law’s discourses have been assigning to indigenous jurisprudences, an apparent Western essence and look in order to be ‘recognised’. This process, which results in an obliteration of indigenous knowledge, hinders and deters every initiative to transform international law by challenging ‘who’ shall define the rule of the ‘intercultural game’. A perspectivist ethnographic approach here, remarks that it is the subject the one that belongs to a certain perspective and not in the opposite direction. In other words, the perspective is the embodiment of the ‘analytical angle’ that generates the subject, in fact, – as Viveiros usually maintains – ‘the point of view creates the subject’, which is precisely what sets the perspectivism apart from the Western relativism and constructivism, yet both ‘affirm, on the contrary, that the point of view creates the object.’ Consequently, a particular perspective and its subject only make sense through the lenses of the Other, which means simultaneously, that the subject should be ‘crafted’ by the Other to giving birth a perspective (‘the subject is thought out by the Other as subject’). That is why Viveiros, in a dialog with Roy Wagner, considers that anthropology is not a science of man but a science of the actualizations of man and human circumstances.

Therefore, anthropology as a comparative form of knowledge should start an epistemological program in which the ultimate objective is the comparison of its ‘own thinking’ in relation to the mind-set of non-Western cultures. This explains also the current association between the Amerindian perspectivism and the so-called ontological turn. Indeed, the first time that Viveiros used the term ontology in his celebrated 1998 Cambridge lectures on perspectivism, he had the intention to problematize the Western post-Kantian obsession to place ‘culture’ as a heuristic tool to classify and organize the world. The comparative light embodied in anthropology, antagonizing such ‘sociology of knowledge’, should then serve to parallel the ontological presuppositions that belong to different anthropological traditions. Hence, human cultures not only produce their own lives but also, and more importantly, ‘they produced, ipso facto, their own reflections on the production of their lives – which is to say, they produced their own anthropologies.’

In terms of methodology, my project understands anthropology of international law, as a result, as a comparative form of knowledge, one that calls for an attention to the right of indigenous peoples to think and speak in their own languages on all matters, including of course, the meaning and content of law, jurisprudence, jurisdiction, diplomacy, and rights. In so doing, I am looking for intersections between the ‘perspectival approach’ and the ethnographic exploration of the double bind, which is an epistemological way to apprehend the contentious appropriations and reappropriations between two subject positions that being interacting in a social field create and recreate simultaneous tensions. In this regard, the projection of my methodological apparatus is not only interested in the process of unveiling the pedagogical potentialities of comparing and changing our point of view through the thinking of Others, but also in the cultural appropriations and reappropriations rooted in the trajectory of such a contentious encounter. The ethnographic endeavour here, inspired by the feminist work of Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak and Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui, traverses my own tensions between the vital, i.e., my process of learning with indigenous organizations and friends; and the institutional, considering the fact that I am a Western scholar placed in a system where ‘not everyone’s imagination tantamount to ‘proper knowledge.’

In this line of analysis, the final objective of this endeavour is valuing the option to look at indigenous laws as an affirmative possibility of the double bind between international law and indigenous jurisprudence. To do this end, and being aligned with the potentialities of an aporetical space marked by the experience of undecidability, I follow an epistemological trend that not only value the chance of training ‘the imagination to reimagine a specific situation’ but which also considers that the ‘basic principle for social action is the ability to see another’s position as potentially substitutable for one’s own in the script of life.’ In that sense, my reading of a variety of double-sided interactions between colonial domination and indigenous resistance proposes the reaffirmation of ensuring the capability to hear indigenous law as law, enabling at the same time, the possibility of recognising the legal status of indigenous jurisprudences – what I call indigenizing international law.

I trace this trajectory as a jurisdictional arrangement in terms of the ‘manufacture’ of lawful relations – or of modes of belonging to law in which the living laws of indigenous peoples call into question ‘the representation of everywhereness’ of the Western Rule of Law and its international endeavours, which tantamount to dismissing indigenous jurisdictions. This ‘anonymity’ of indigenous jurisdictions produced by the overrepresentation of sovereignty does not occur in a legal vacuum; in this meeting of laws, the contextualization of plural jurisdictions by national and international courts, among other bodies, constitutes a performance of silencing the jurisdictional speech of indigenous peoples. As has been pointed out by Edward Mussawir, this matter is at the core of theories of legal power in modern jurisprudence. While the Western Rule of Law raises its head to talk about the origins of State authority; an ‘archaeology’ of jurisdictional arrangements, for its part, redirects the problem of metaphysics of sovereignty in terms of the expression of legal authorities. Therefore, ‘[t]he concept of jurisdiction implies a certain relation between expression and representation in jurisprudence,’ which offers the possibility of opening up the imagination to dialogue with different jurisdictional landscapes ‘without higher values (values superior to one’s jurisdiction).’              

In a pioneer text edited by Anne Orford and dedicated to the critical reflection on International Law and its Others, Connal Parsley has set out the political agenda of such an enactment using a Derridean approach. According to Parsley, the aim of this agenda, which pivots on the silencing of indigenous voices vis-à-vis the allocation of their knowledge in an empty space incapable of setting a ‘fair dialogue’, presupposes not only the imposition of the timbre of Western voice but also ‘a remark about, and a re-marking of, the being of sovereignty.’ On the one hand, an ‘unequal communicative environment’ based on the language of the state (its laws and international treaties); on the other, a translation mediated by ‘Western metaphysical rules of being,’ namely, a hierarchy marked by the priorities of sovereignty and the blatant disregard of indigenous ontologies. In such a legal landscape, there are not clear traces of justice in law and; in that regard, the relationship between justice and silence becomes especially intriguing.

In this context and following a series of calls made by legal anthropologists and historians such us Bartolomé Clavero, Peter Fitzpatrick, Oscar Guardiola, Luis Eslava, Christopher Tomlins, and John Comaroff, among others, I am accepting the ‘methodological invitation’ to participate in an anthropological exploration of international law’s dimensions in all its multiple complexities and levels of operation. From my part, I propose, that the ethnographic process should not just concentrate on the study of international law on its own terms but also what it ‘silences’, for example, indigenous thought and their jurisprudence. Importantly, I argue that in paying attention to indigenous jurisprudence the main preoccupation of ethnographic theory is not and should not be to unpack indigenous thought. On the contrary, a ‘serious’ ethnographic gaze should imagine the representations of indigenous thinking directed at us. This practice is what I have termed, following the footsteps of Viveiros de Castro, Roy Wagner, and Tim Ingold, inverse legal anthropology, indeed, the ‘back methodological side’ of my proposal of indigenizing international law.

Image credit: Amanecer, Carlos Jacanamijoy – Inga Nation, Putumayo, Colombia (1997). Oil on   Canvas, 120 x 110 cm

Courtesy of Jacanamijoy (

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