Which is the world’s most indigenous city?

Most cities are indigenous, insofar as they are built on the lands of dispossessed first peoples. Paul Daley, Guardian Australias leading voice on Indigenous history, explores whether a citys indigeneity is just a matter of population or if culture and equality count just as much

The perception of Australias indigenous people is that they live largely in deserts and other remote areas. And indeed, reflecting in part the necessity of Indigenous Australians to maintain strong physical links with traditional lands to retain native title, about four in 10 still live in traditional country, often remote from urban settlements.

But the flipside is equally telling: more than half of aboriginal Australians now dwell in the cities of the eastern seaboard. Long regarded as Australias indigenous capital, Sydney has been surpassed by Brisbane as host to the greatest number of Indigenous Australians (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people) as of 2011, there were 64,993 in Brisbane to Sydneys 64,184. Fifteen years from now, Nicholas Biddle of the Australian National Universitys Centre for Aboriginal Policy Research predicts Brisbanes aboriginal population will reach 133,189 compared with Sydneys 88,371.

Does this make Brisbane Australias most indigenous city? Certainly, neither Sydney nor Brisbane, nor any other Australian urban capital, has gone to any significant lengths to accommodate indigeneity, into either urban planning or cultural identity.

For that, you might have to look at Broome, on the Kimberley coast. (Although, with a population of 14,500, it probably doesnt quite qualify as a city.) In Broome, recognition of land custodianship and culture is central. The Yawuru people are the recognised native title holders of semi-bicultural Broome (Rubibi); their language is taught in primary schools, and citizenship ceremonies are conducted in Yawuru. Tourism is largely built around continuing indigenous culture.

A woman performs an indigenous dance called Huaylia marking the Day of the Dead holiday in Lima, Peru. Photograph: Rodrigo Abd/AP

So how do we go about measuring the aboriginality of a given city around the globe in 2016? After all, most cities are indigenous, insofar as they are constructed on the lands of dispossessed first peoples. Sovereignty, usually ignored by settler states though rarely formally ceded, does not dilute innate indigeneity.

To make matters more complicated, among the many negative legacies of colonialism for aboriginal people worldwide is what the geographer and demographer John Taylor calls the absence of indigenous data sovereignty. In other words: Research information about nations upon which first peoples still build their lives.

The aboriginal proportion of a citys total population might be one measure. Or as a proportion of a countrys total indigenous population. But both statistics must be qualified: urban indigenous communities are largely diaspora, very few are first inhabitants of the precise land upon which cities are built.

Another yardstick might be the overt cultural connection that a city has retained, or rekindled. Libby Porter, an academic at RMIT University specialising in urban land, property rights and dispossession, has written: Indigenous people whose traditional territory is now urban continue to exert a connection to their country in rich and diverse ways that represent the changing cultural expressions of that connection. Yet we rarely grapple with what it means to recognise coexistence in cities, and the kinds of challenges … to which such recognition gives rise.

Take Guatemala City as an example. The capital of the Central American country whose population is predominantly Mayan has bloated to more than 4.5 million since a rural exodus in the 1970s. More than half the citys people are Mayan, identified in part by their 26 languages including Qeqchi, Cakchiquel, Mam (Maya), Tzutujil, Achi and Pokoman. Yet they are concentrated most heavily in the semi-rural areas just north of the capital. How indigenous does that make Guatemala City?

Chores indigenous people from the Mexican Zoque region demonstrate against an education reform. Photograph: Hector Guerrero/AFP/Getty Images

The countrys Mayans, despite numbering at least 6 million, have a long history of dispossession, cultural and political oppression. They are behind non-indigenous citizens on most social indicators: 73% of the indigenous population are poor, and on average they have markedly lower life expectancy and fewer people reach higher education.

Significant proportions of the Mayan diaspora also live in Mexico and the US. In Mexico, about 15% of the population identifies as indigenous including more than one million of the estimated 21 million residents in Mexico Citys metropolitan area. By sheer numbers, it is Mexico City and Perus capital, Lima, that are the cities with the highest aboriginal populations.

About 45% Perus 31 million people identify as belonging to one of the countrys 51 indigenous communities. Indeed, Peru is home to more indigenous peoples than any other South American nation, and Lima, with a population of 8.5 million, reflects this. Over the latter part of the 20th century, oppression, poverty and violence, as well as the clearing of native forests, forced hundreds of thousands of rural indigenous Peruvians to migrate to cities, including Lima. Many still live in large pueblos jvenes (shanty towns), some of which lack basic amenities, including running water and power.

Certainly, both Mexico City and Lima host a plethora of cultural institutions celebrating Mexicos indigeneity. Lima has numerous museums dedicated to aboriginal culture the most celebrated among them being Museo Larco. But indigenous culture over the world is frequently preserved more generously in collecting institutions than it is reflected in a genuine appreciation of traditional lifestyles, not to mention ownership of tribal property, including land and water. Indeed, despite Perus significant Amerindian population and its high representation in Lima, indigenous land rights are at best tenuous for Peruvian people, especially in the cities.

Ainu men hold a traditional praying ritual called Kamuinomi, as part of the 2008 Indigenous Peoples Summit in Hokkaido, Japan. Photograph: Dai Kurokawa/EPA

In some cases urban aboriginal people may as well not exist at all for all the recognition they get. In notoriously monocultural Japan, the indigenous Ainu, concentrated in Hokkaido, officially number more than 24,000 in a population of 127 million. But Japan only recently recognised that its indigenous people exist at all, and centuries of oppression and aggressive assimilation policies are believed to have inspired many Ainu to deny their indigeneity. We dont know how many there might be.

One country that makes some attempt to celebrate a vibrant indigenous presence is Canada. Half of Canadas First Nations, Inuit and Mtis (a distinct culture of mixed-race descendants of indigenous people) people live in cities. And more First Nations and Mtis people live in Winnipeg than in any of the countrys other cities: compared to about 4% country-wide, indigenous people account for about one in 10 Winnipeggers (25,970 First Nations, or 3.6%, and 46,325 Mtis, or 6.5%).

Whats more, their voices are heard in the cities. Canada recognises aboriginal rights and title in the constitution, and the urban shift of First Peoples and Mtis has inspired new dimensions of indigenous cultural expression. But the parallels with so many other countries not least Australia are acute: urban aboriginal people in Canada, despite their traditional associations, are seen and treated, culturally and sometimes officially, as less traditional than their rural countrymen and women. And Winnipeg, despite official displays of pride in its significant aboriginal population, is still marred by racial tensions and indigenous disadvantage.

In New Zealand, the Maori have dramatically urbanised since 1936, when roughly 7% lived in urban areas. Now it is closer to 80%. About a quarter (143,000) of the countrys Maori population live in the Auckland region. The British colonial occupiers struck the Treaty of Waitangi with the Maori in 1840, but mass indigenous dispossession and violence followed. Despite New Zealands comparative biculturalism in Auckland and the capital, Wellington whose national museum, Te Papa, boasts impressive celebrations of aboriginal culture Maori access to traditional lands remains heavily contested and qualified, especially in cities. On major social indicators, including health, the Maori still lag behind the rest of the country.

One city, however, stands out. Nuuk, the capital of Greenland, has probably the highest percentage of aboriginal people of any city: almost 90% of Greenlands population of 58,000 is Inuit, and least eight in 10 live in urban settlements. Nuuk also celebrates Inuit culture and history to an extent that is unprecedented in many cities with higher total aboriginal populations. By proportion and by cultural authority and impact, it may well be tiny Nuuk that is the most indigenous city in the world.

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