Albion Monitor /News

More Native People Demanding Rights, Protecting Culture

by Abid Aslam

(IPS) WASHINGTON -- When Canada's Cree people took Hydro-Quebec to court, the power company sought to defend its activities on their lands by claiming that the indigenous group could no longer be considered a distinct culture because they used snowmobiles, ate hamburgers, and hunted with rifles.

So the Cree lawyers turned the tables on the corporation.

"They turned the courtroom into a cultural festival, calling elders, hunters and mothers to testify to their intimate connection to the land through story-telling, oral history and song, all in their own language," Philip Wearne recounts in his new book.

The court, he notes, ruled in favor of the Cree.

The right to be educated in their own language has been a central demand -- their identity is at stake

With such anecdotes, Wearne seeks to chronicle "a tenacious resistance to the cultural onslaught that began in 1492 with the arrival of a lost Genoese sailor by the name of Christopher Columbus."

This resistance has exposed the myth that "the native peoples of the Americas were ever conquered, assimilated, wiped out, or that they never even existed," Wearne writes in "Return of the Indian: Conquest and Revival in the Americas," published in the United States by Temple University Press.

"In fact there are an estimated 40 million indigenous people in the Americas today, about 6 percent of the total population, and their numbers are growing faster than the rest of the population," writes Wearne, a British journalist who has lived and traveled North, Central and South America.

There were as many as 112 million people in the Americas when Columbus arrived in 1492, about one-fifth of world population at the time, by some estimates. Disease, starvation, slavery, and war are thought to have reduced their number to as few as two million.

Today, there are some 800 known ethno-linguistic groups in the Americas, down from 2,000 in the 15th century. Some 11 million people speak Quechua, but nearly seven out of 10 groups have fewer than 5,000 speakers, and "some have just a handful."

"In North America, 80 percent of indigenous languages are no longer taught to children," writes Wearne, whose material is gathered from travels, interviews, and archives. "Unless something changes fast... such languages are doomed."

The right to be educated in their own language has been a central demand of indigenous organizations from Alaska to Ecuador. Their identity is at stake.

Yet, Wearne notes, "recovering identity means different things."

"For some, it is simply rediscovering history, traditions, names and languages that seemed lost; for others... adapting technology that once seemed alien; others want control of economic development within their communities."

"The battle is as much practical as spiritual," he adds. "In many communities, traditional forms of communal land holding, working and farming have become the basis for renewed economic development."

Securing rights is one thing; enforcing them is quite another

Central to all indigenous groups' struggles has been the fight for land. Often, it has been an armed fight, and part of a broader peasant uprising. "Guerrilla armies in Mexico, Guatemala and Peru have recruited large numbers of indigenous fighters to their ranks," Wearne notes.

Resistance also includes what one academic terms "the weapons of the weak:" "foot-dragging, false compliance... feigned ignorance, even sabotage." For Wearne, such acts evoke an Ethiopian, proverb which he says is universally applicable: "When the great lord passes, the wise peasant bows deeply and farts silently."

In recent years, indigenous people have had some success in winning land rights. In Latin America, Wearne attributes this in part to "the eclipse of military dictatorships," which "has created at least a limited level of democratic space in which to organize."

He also credits environmental and development groups with helping indigenous organizations to forge powerful international alliances.

But securing rights is one thing; enforcing them is quite another.

"Many of the rights we have on paper now are excellent," Antonio Jacanamijoy, deputy president of the National Organization of Colombian Indigenous Peoples, told Wearne. "It's the impunity of with which they are violated that's our principal problem."

Indeed, "since 1974, more than 400 indigenous leaders have been killed in Colombia," says Wearne. "Up to 3,500 Ashaninka have died or disappeared during 15 years of violence in Peru; another 10,000 have had to flee their homes."

"Neo-liberal economics" from IMF and World Bank hardest on Native people

For all their resilience, indigenous people continue to have "the lowest incomes, the highest rates of infant mortality, the lowest life expectancies, the highest malnutrition rates and the lowest rates of literacy," says Wearne.

In large part, these are a consequence of the "invisible fist" of neo-liberal economics.

"Mining, agriculture, forestry, dam and road construction have all taken their toll (on indigenous communities), but since the onset of the debt crisis in the early 1980s neo-liberalism, a virulent form of free-market economics, has greatly magnified their impact," Wearne says.

He blasts agencies, including the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, which "foisted" on the Americas "recession-inducing stabilization" programs, followed by "structural adjustment" of the economy.

Under these programs, trade and investment policies are liberalized, state industries sold off and social spending cut back, and labor laws rewritten to favor employers.

"With its focus on individualism and the market, (neoliberalism) stands diametrically opposed to the indigenous traditions of community, subsistence agriculture and reciprocal aid," Wearne quotes from Duncan Green's 1995 book, "The Rise of Market Economics in Latin America."

"Indians have been sacked from the factories and mines, paid less on agricultural plantations and have faced massively increased cost for transport, education and health care. They have seen the markets for their basic crops undercut by cheap imports and suffered further pressure on their land in the drive to export more minerals, oil, timber or cash crops," Green wrote.

Wearne adds: "Neo-liberalism makes white economics even more of a mystery than they already are to many Indians."

"How come the white man got the country for nothing and now owes everyone for it?" Asked one North American Indian leader. "It mystifies me," said a South American counterpart on hearing of the debt-for- nature swaps that became fashionable palliatives for the foreign debt crisis. "It's our nature, but it's not our debt."

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Albion Monitor December 28, 1996 (

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