Branding indigenous peoples in tourism and beyond

By Stasja Koot

Throughout the years, much has been written about the image of ‘indigenous’[1] peoples as ‘authentic’ people of nature (Garland and Gordon 1999, Carrier and West 2004, Comaroff and Comaroff 2009, Koot 2017a, Hüncke and Koot 2012, Gordon and Douglas 2000, Fennell 2008, Sylvain 2014, Butler and Hinch 2007, Carr, Ruhanen and Whitford 2016). This image is often presented as if these people are still living in tune with nature, while often they have become marginalised under colonialism and past and present processes of the spread of neoliberal capitalism, including the rise of global cultural or indigenous tourism. In today’s sustainability discourse, indigenous people are often characterised as the authentic ‘natural ecologists’ or the wise protectors of the land. As such, they can function as an example for non-indigenous people who can begin to live in harmony with nature just like them (Fennell 2008, Koot 2017b). In marketing campaigns, they are often ‘naturalised’ for tourist consumption and are shown in photographs, for example, in traditional dress with the local flora and fauna (Chambers 2000). And consumers, such as Western tourists, see the progress of modernity as a state that depends on modernity’s own inauthenticity, which creates the belief that authenticity is always elsewhere: in the past or in the ‘simpler’, ‘purer’ cultures far away (MacCannell 1976). Thus, driven by consumer culture, “the 21st century is an age that hungers for anything that feels authentic” (Banet-Weiser 2012, 3), and today, branding reflects and affects our cultural and social relations on a daily basis. Marketers acknowledge the power of authenticity as an essential aspect of branding. This is an area where we, ‘the inauthentic’, search for genuine affects, ideas, and emotions in our consumer culture (Banet-Weiser 2012).

Indigenous tourism, based on branding indigenous people, thus creates an important contradiction in which Western ideals about nature and the people living there are enacted through the free market, creating products based on the tourists’ consumptive needs. In this way, tourists spread ‘inauthentic’ capitalist values and the market system, instead of supporting authentic indigenous practices (Carrier and West 2004, Koot 2016). In fact, ethnic commodities are contradictory in the sense that, seen from the conventional assumptions about value and price, the appeal of such commodities lies in the idea that they resist the rationality of such ordinary economics.

The Bushman brand in tourism

One example of such ‘branded’ indigenous people are the Bushmen (or San)[2] of southern Africa. They are often still considered part and parcel of nature, an image that can be viewed in the wider context of romanticism about Africa. The tourist sector in southern Africa has typical branding strategies that tap into the image of a wild Africa and portray the continent as spectacular, thriving with wildlife, and sparsely populated by some western explorers and exotic people (Ellis 1994). To give just one example of a text by a tour operator: the Bushmen “have much to offer our modern ways of living in terms of a sustainable existence with nature” (NAAT 2019).

In my research over the years I have investigated the marketing of this touristic image and shown some of the Bushmen’s responses to such marketing. I found that their ‘authentic’ image itself has now become a financial asset in tourism and therefore can be considered a brand: the ‘Bushman brand’. In the end, a brand can be regarded as “a process of attaching an idea to a product” (Walker 2006), which is exactly what the Bushman image has turned into: a product with (romantic) ideas attached to it. Even broader, the Oxford English Dictionary defines a brand as “a particular identity or image regarded as an asset” (Oxford Dictionaries 2019). Seen as such, static representations of indigenous identities, based on the authentic image, are brands in today’s neoliberal political economy; in tourism especially, the Bushmen’s image is commodified within the free market system as a particular product with financial value, and as such can be regarded an asset based on the many ideas attached to it. However, in this process it is often assumed that Bushmen “do not participate in visual discourse, they are always represented as different and other: a silent minority who show no resistance to the identity which has been historically created for them” (Bester and Buntman 1999, 58). Although I do not deny power relations through branding (Koot 2016), to consider Bushmen a ‘silent minority who show no resistance’ does not do justice to reality. In fact, in many cases they have shown agency to engage with contemporary (tourism) projects, and with the Bushman brand, for their own benefit (Koot 2017a, Koot 2018).

Bushmen responses

Commodification does not necessarily mean that those who commodify their identities and/or image will always remain victims of market forces, although it might appear this way at first. Numerous examples show that indigenous groups set up their own entrepreneurial activities based on their authentic ethnicity. In this, there is a good level of tactical and critical consciousness (Comaroff and Comaroff 2009). As such, various groups of Bushmen have shown to use the Bushman brand to their advantage. For example, the ≠Khomani Bushmen in South Africa have shown themselves in the media as the authentic people of the Northern Cape Province to successfully gain back land (see, e.g. Koot and Büscher 2019). Today, some of them perpetuate the usage of the Bushman brand, mostly in tourism. For example, the first thing that catches one’s eye when arriving in their reclaimed land are the craft makers along the road side where they sell souvenirs to tourists, dressed up ‘traditionally’ at their road stalls, or stalletjies in Afrikaans. However, commercial operators of course also benefit from this brand and throughout history more powerful parties have created this brand in the first place (Koot 2016). Commercialised usage of the brand is widespread and highly supported by consultants, private enterprises and NGOs[3], often promoted as a ‘competitive advantage’ in neoliberal development strategies. For example, the NGO the African Safari Lodge Foundation (ASLF) believes that the ≠Khomani need their “own brand identity” to be able to survive in today’s competitive tourism industry (ASLF 2011, 3), and a marketing company has supported the ≠Khomani in acquiring (free of charge) their own website ( Notably, the company supported the ≠Khomani in developing “their new identity” (FOTK 2015), although it remains unclear what exactly they mean by this. Becoming a ≠Khomani brand, it seems, means that the Bushmen are becoming part of the neoliberal capitalist system predominantly as a brand, and not as ‘authentic’ hunter-gatherers.

≠Khomani ‘stalletjies’ in the Northern Cape, South Africa

Further North, in the Namibian Nyae Nyae Conservancy, a Tourism Development Plan was developed by consultants to prepare for funding (Humphrey and Wassenaar 2009). They wrote about the local Ju/’hoansi Bushmen as

universally known to be ancestors of “the world’s first people” and continue to live in harmony with the environment […] It is recommended that the above message be provided to visitors entering the area through the design and construction of regional gateway points (Humphrey and Wassenaar 2009, 88).

This recommendation resembles an amusement park for tourists, something that was long ago already described by the famous Ju/’hoansi filmmaker and activist John Marshall as a “plastic Stone Age” (1984), in which tourists enter a geographical area where one can gaze at wildlife and ‘authentic’ Bushmen. Such commodification at times leads to uncomfortable situations, as an employee of an NGO that operates in the Nyae Nyae Conservancy explained:

Within the Conservancy [Ju/’hoansi] people think every tourist that comes, they should make money out of it. They’re starting to make their culture become like a whole business thing […] If anybody wants to take a picture it’s money, money, money, money.

And it is exactly this discomfort that demonstrates the contradiction described above: once Bushmen start to adapt to neoliberal capitalism and capitalise on their own brand, the values and ideas on which the brand is built make the people ‘inauthentic’. On the one hand, the capitalist value of profit maximisation is continually promoted in tourism, based on the economic idea that individuals want to gain financial benefits. On the other hand, this can ‘make their culture become like a whole business thing’ (‘inauthentic’), based on the idea that they should stay authentic and not hanker for money.

But just as with the ≠Khomani and their stalletjies, the Ju/’hoansi also want to benefit from the Bushman brand, as the self-made logo meant to attract tourists near the settlement of Mountain Post, inhabited by Ju/’hoansi, shows:

Self-made marketing by the Ju/’hoansi of Mountain Post, Nyae Nyae Conservancy, Namibia

The global indigenous brand beyond tourism

The idea that a particular group of indigenous people can be seen as a brand, or defines itself as a brand, is certainly not unique to the Bushmen of southern Africa or to tourism only. Recently, the Maasai of Kenya started a legal procedure to protect their ‘cultural heritage’ legally, which has been used by more than 1,000 companies, including Calvin Klein, Jaguar Land Rover, Ralph Lauren and Louis Vuitton, while a group of aboriginal Australians are struggling to create protocols that oblige companies who use their images or ancestral lands for marketing or other commercial purposes to pay a fee to them (Pilling 2018). And in the U.S., native Americans performing at Euro-Disney at a ‘Wild West Show’ do not view tourist performances as perpetuating the image of a ‘native savage’. Such performances can create a sense of taking back ownership of native representation through their participation, providing them a chance for cultural exchange, education, cultural pride, and accomplishment (Scarangella 2005).

Maasai imagery for branding Luis Vuitton clothing

In all these cases, the indigenous people have not only been exploited under colonialism and neoliberal capitalism, they have also actively responded to and tried to benefit from it. It seems as if indigenous people’s first response to the encroachment of the capitalist world is to selectively transform the usage of commodities for themselves. Therefore, they often have not merely entered the capitalist world economy as passive objects of exploitation; they are also active agents continually engaging in their environment (Sahlins 1992). If they embrace their image as people of nature, indigenous people can use their agency creatively; they commodify their own ‘spectacularisation’ as people of nature (cf. Igoe 2017). It is important to be wary though, that such agency and engagement are derived based on a conformation with dominant values in contemporary society and that they often do not have many other choices.


[1] I am aware of the contentious character of the term ‘indigenous’, but it goes beyond the scope of this blog to elaborate on this in detail.

[2] Both ‘Bushmen’ and ‘San’ are debatable terms. I prefer the use of ‘Bushmen’ instead of ‘San’, because most of the indigenous people whom I worked with in southern Africa—practical and as a researcher—told me they preferred this term. I am aware, however, of the colonial, patronising and derogatory connotations that the term ‘Bushmen’ (and, to a lesser degree, ‘San’ too) can have (see, e.g. Gordon & Douglas 2000).

[3] For a debate on private sector-community tourism, the usage of the brand and the consequences of this usage in the South African Northern Cape Province, between myself and Keyan Tomaselli, please check out Koot (2016), Tomaselli (2017) and Koot (2017c).

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—. 2017a. Cultural ecotourism as an indigenous modernity: Namibian Bushmen and two contradictions of capitalism. In Handbook of Environmental Anthropology, eds. H. Kopnina & E. Shoreman-Ouimet, 315-326. New York: Routledge.

— (2017b) Old Wine in a New Bottle: Seeking Sustainability among the Earth Keepers. Current anthropology, 58, 685-686.

— (2017c) Poor picking: A response to Tomaselli and a plea for critical research in a neo-liberal times. Journal of Sustainable Tourism, 25, 1197-1200.

— (2018) The Bushman Brand in Southern African Tourism: An Indigenous Modernity in a Neoliberal Political Economy. Senri Ethnological Studies, 99, 231-250.

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Tomaselli, K. (2017) Picking on the poor: The contradictions of theory and neoliberal critique. A response to Stasja Koot’s paper on the contradictions of capitalism for indigenous tourism in the South African Kalahari. Journal of Sustainable Tourism, 25, 1182-1196.

Walker, R. 2006. The Brand Underground. New York Times 30 July.

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