issue 186 - August 1988
Touch the earth
Western society has deeply conflicting views of indigenous peoples.
On the one hand, they're seen as democratic, free-spirited savages untainted
by material desires; on the other they're brutal, slow-witted and out of place in
the modern world. Both these stereotypes have contributed to the destruction
of native cultures and both continue to be challenged by native people.
There is no universally-accepted definition of who is indigenous. However there are general characteristics shared by all native people:
they are descendants of original inhabitants of land colonized by foreign invaders.
they consider themselves distinct peoples with their own ancestral territories, social values and cultural traditions.
they define themselves as indigenous and have the right to decide who is or is not part of their culture.
The invasion of native land by European adventurers, traders and settlers resulted in the deaths of millions of indigenous people in the Americas and throughout Australasia. Some died from imported diseases like smallpox, measles, typhus and influenza. Others died of maltreatment as slaves or fighting white invaders.
In North America the estimated number of native people at conquest was 12 million; today there are just over 3 million. ¹
In Australia an Aboriginal population of 300,000 in 1788 was reduced to 60,000 a century later.
Within 200 years of the landing of Columbus in Haiti, the indigenous population of Latin America was reduced from 70 million to less than 4 million.²
Indigenous peoples are found in almost every corner of the globe - from the Arctic to Patagonia and from Vanuatu to Kamchatka.
There are an estimated 200 million indigenous people today, nearly 40/o of the global population.3
In most Western countries the number of native people is now growing faster than the general population. In Aotearoa (NZ) for example the Maori population growth rate is four times that of non-Maoris.4
Estimated Population Native Peoples (millions)5
Over the centuries native people have been shunted onto isolated, marginal land. Now these lands are under intense scrutiny as national governments and corporations cast an ever-widening net in their search for energy and raw materials to fuel the demands of industrial development.
One of the world's largest uranium mines, Roxby Downs in S. Australia, is on traditional lands of the Kukotha people. The project, jointly owned by British Petroleum and the Western Mining Co., has already desecrated sacred Aboriginal sites and the Kukotha have received no compensation for the $200 million development.
In Malaysia the $12 billion Bakun and Pelagus dams in Sarawak will inundate 600 sq kms of rainforest and displace at least 17,000 indigenous people.7
The Karnaphuli reservoir in the Chittagong Hill Tracts of Bangladesh submerged 420 sq kms of prime food-producing land and displaced over 100,000 indigenous people.8
In Guyana, a proposed hydro-electric dam will flood 1,660 sq kms and displace Akawaio Indians.9
Since the end of WW II indigenous people have become increasingly caught up in superpower militarism. Once forgotten lands are used as nuclear test sites or strategic outposts in the global sparring between the superpowers.
In China, the Nighur people claim nuclear tests have resulted in premature deaths, birth deformities and poisoned food.10
Since 1963 the US has dropped more than 650 nuclear bombs on lands illegally seized from the Western Shoshone Indians in Nevada and California.11
France has conducted more than 130 atomic tests on the Mururoa Atoll in Polynesia. Radiation-linked diseases (leukemia, thyroid cancer) and birth abnormalities (stillbirths and physical defects) have increased markedly in the test area.12
Once self-governing and independent, native peoples are among the most exploited in every country where they are found. They consistently have the worst health, the lowest incomes and the highest unemployment. They have poor housing, a low level of basic services, higher rates of imprisonment and a high incidence of alcoholism and suicide.
Illness and poverty
American Indians are eight times more likely to contact tuberculosis than other US citizens.17
The average life expectancy for Australian Aborigines is 50; for non-Aboriginals it's 70+. The New South Wales Health Department estimates the Aboriginal infant mortality rate at 52/1000 Vs 12/1000 for the state as a whole, but notes that 25% of Aboriginal infant deaths may go unrecorded.18
In Canada, Indians make up 3% of the population and 10% of the jailed population.14
In Aotearoa, Maoris are 11% of the population yet they make up nearly 50% of the prison population.15
Signs of despair
Alcoholism and petrol-sniffing have reached epidemic proportions among Australian Aborigines. According to the Alice Springs-based Aboriginal Health Congress 53% of Aboriginal hospital admissions are 'grog' related.
1. Report from the Frontier, J Burger 1987 p37:
2. Ibid p36;
3. Indigenous People, A Global Quest for Justice, ICIHI, 1987 p11:
4. Burger, op cit., p.144;
5. Ibid and State of the World's Children,UNICEF 1987;
6. ICIHI. op. cit. p44; 7. Cultural Survival Quarterly, vol. 10 no.1. p42:
8. ICIHI. Op. Cit., p.53;
9. Ibid p54:
10. Ibid p77;
11. Cultural Survival Quarterly, Vol II. no.4, p5;
12. ICIHI, op. cit., p79:
13. Aboriginal Social Indicators, Dept Aboriginal Affairs, 1984;
14. Indian Conditions, A Survey, Dept Indian Affairs and Northern Development (DIAND). 1980;
15. Dept of Maori Affairs, Research and History Unit;
16. J Burger, op. cit., p23;
17. ICIHI, op cit., p17;
18. Aborigines Today, Land and Justice, J. Burger. Anti-Slavery Society, 1988. p43;
19. DIAND, op. cit.
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