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Indian Wars

Indigenous Peoples

new internationalist
issue 186 - August 1988

Indian wars
Native people the world over have become increasingly embroiled
in global militarism - often against their will. Uranium is mined on Indian
land in Saskatchewan and Nevada, US army bases are built on native land
in the Philippines, American and French nuclear weapons disrupt the lives of
Pacific peoples. Here we look at two case studies of these new Indian wars.
Nicaragua - where the Miskito people were swept up in President Reagan's
fanatical campaign against the Sandinista revolution. And Labrador
- where the lnnu people are fighting NATO war training that
threatens to destroy their culture.


Caught in the crossfire
by Ana Carrigan

It is 6:00 am on the beach at Puerto Cabezas on Nicaragua's Atlantic coast. Every morning at this hour 100 or so townspeople gather to watch the fishermen haul their nets to shore with the night's catch. The scene has a Biblical timelessness about it: this is how they might have fished on the shores of Lake Galilee.

For someone fresh off the plane from Managua that over-worked phrase 'culture-shock' takes on fresh meaning. This curious part of Central America still retains the feeling of a remote Caribbean island - one that has become involved in a social revolution as if by accident.

Today after eight long years of war, peace seems finally to be on the agenda. But what caused the tragic conflict between 75,000 Miskito Indians and the Sandinista government that exploded in this region in late 1981?

When the British withdrew from the Atlantic coast in 1894 they left behind a Protestant, English-speaking Indian population and a legacy of suspicion and hostility towards the white, Spanish-speaking Nicaraguans on the west coast. The indigenous and creole populations had been isolated for generations. Intermarriage and a shared religion had welded them into a single people - 'Costenos'.

Nicaraguans from the west who came to administer the province were foreigners - 'Spanish'. They continued to exploit the region's natural resource wealth through concessions to American lumber, mining, banana and fishing interests.

The Miskito Indians lived neglected but undisturbed. They planted rice and beans, wove their shrimp nets, fished for turtles and hunted game in the surrounding rain-forest. Life along the river was untouched by events on the west coast. 'Those things are nothing to do with us,' the Miskitos would say. 'Those are Spanish things.'

Beyond the central mountains on the flat land leading to the Pacific was another country. The US Marines came and left; Sandino laid down his arms and was murdered by the first Somoza. The second Somoza was assassinated by a poet. And the Sandinistas led a national uprising against yet a third Somoza.

In the first heady days after the revolution, Sandinista stalwarts flocked to the Miskito coast. They were bright-eyed and enthusiastic - in a hurry to share the 'triumph' with their Miskito brothers and sisters. Finally, the Indians were being noticed by the 'Spanish' in Managua. Soon however, they found the attention was more than they bargained for.

According to an American missionary who spent 20 years working on the Atlantic coast the Sandinistas sent 'young fellows born and raised in the Pacific half of the country, who spoke only Spanish, had no idea of Miskito culture or people with a different colored skin or religion. They arrived and said, "Here we are! We're in charge!"

Anger and distrust soon flared up in both communities. For the new, aggressively right-wing Reagan administration it was a godsend. Before long Washington was pouring oil on the flames in an effort to unseat the revolutionary government in Managua. Contra forces and CIA agents across the border in Honduras immediately began to woo the disaffected Miskitos in their battle to unseat the 'Marxists'.

The irony is that there were never any substantive issues for the Sandinistas and Miskitos to fight about. The most important things for the Miskitos - recognition of native land rights and traditional land use - were scarcely a threat to a revolution dedicated to overturning rich plantation owners on the west coast.

For the young Indian leaders the starry-eyed Sandinistas opened the doors to new possibilities. This, they reasoned, was a new beginning, the moment to push for full-fledged, self-government.

Still insecure in their leadership and frightened by US sabre-rattling the Sandinistas mistook self-government as separatism. Late that year a series of violent clashes erupted between Miskitos and Sandinista soldiers. Militant Miskito leaders were jailed. Tensions rose and soon the Indians were in full revolt.

Among the young men detained by the Sandinistas was an ex-Somoza agent, Stead-man Fagoth. After his release - supposedly to study abroad - Fagoth surfaced in Honduras broadcasting on the CIA radio-run radio station. Young Miskitos were urged to fight the 'communist totalitarians' and join the guerrilla forces in Honduras.

Four months later another young Indian leader, Brooklyn Rivera, also left Nicaragua to set up operations in neighbouring Costa Rica. Now there were two, competing Miskito factions. MISURA, led by Fagoth, operated openly in Honduras with the Contras and their CIA advisors. MISURASATA, led by Rivera, defied CIA control but was still dependent on Washington for funding.

By the end of 1981 the entire east coast had been militarized and the River Coco was a free-fire zone. Sandinista soldiers destroyed homes, schools, hospitals, churches, livestock and crops. Some 10,000 villagers from 50 riverbank communities were forcibly removed and relocated to camps in the interior.

The devastation was traumatic: 15,000 Miskitos fled across the river into Honduras to escape the fighting. They huddled together in miserable refugee camps, tragic victims of an unnecessary war.

Talks between the Sandinistas and Miskito leaders continued sporadically amidst the fighting, finally falling apart in the spring of 1985. Some say they were sabotaged with money from Ollie North's basement White House safe. In any case the Sandinistas then began to pursue a grassroots, peace-making process without the participation of the Miskito exile leadership.

It was the discovery of their own manipulation by the CIA that unlocked the door to negotiations between Miskito field commanders and Managua. The Indian soldiers had seen first hand in their villages the havoc and suffering caused by the fighting.

They had gone to war for native rights. Instead they were led astray by corrupt leaders who sold out the cause for 'a few guns and a few dollars for themselves'. Their leaders passed on orders from the CIA and watched the war from the air-conditioned comfort of hotel rooms in Tegucigalpa, Miami and Washington.

Meanwhile, Miskito guerrillas found themselves reviled in their own communities. Take your war and fight it somewhere else', they were told. As disillusionment set in, peace seemed more inviting.

The Sandinistas were also ready to talk. They admitted being short-sighted and inept in their dealing with the Miskitos and were desperately anxious to make amends.

Now the bitterness of Miskito soldiers is directed more to the Contras and the 'gringos' than to the Sandinistas. 'The White House, the Pentagon and the CIA have been very clear,' a young returned Miskito commander told me. 'If they provide the dollars, the guns and the uniforms, then where does that leave us?'

Finally last year the Sandinistas, working with the local Miskito leaders, introduced an Autonomy Statute that has become a major stabilising force in eastern Nicaragua. The Statute is a product of hundreds of seminars and discussions held at the village level up and down the coast over a two year period. The new law gives the Miskitos the right to hold and organise land according to their communal traditions; the right to elect their own regional government; the right to collect local taxes; the right to negotiate the exploitation of natural resources on Miskito land; and the right to education in the Miskito language.

It is not a perfect document. It does fall short of the demands of the Miskito leadership-in-exile for legal guarantees to a separate, self-governing indigenous nation. Nevertheless the Statute does create a radical precedent for the Americas in relations between white, Latin governments and their native populations.

As Hazel Lau, a young Miskito woman in the Nicaraguan National Assembly explains: 'The Autonomy Process has established the beginning of respect between the Miskitos and the Sandinistas. For the first time it's possible for people to stand up and tell the government: "Now you are going to listen to me."'

Ana Carrigan is a New York City-based film maker and journalist.

[image, unknown]


Space invaders
by Karmel Taylor-McCullum

The noise is a high-pitched scream, a distant wail in the slate-grey Labrador sky. Suddenly the jet splits the autumn silence, swooping down over Alice Bellefleur as she canoes slowly across the lake. Her children scream in terror and throw themselves into the icy water.

Nearby Sylvester Malice sees his camp's radio antenna snapped by another low-flying jet and Penote Antane starts in fright as two German aircraft skim past his camp barely 200 feet off the ground. The following spring Ambrose Maker sets up his hunting camp as he has for decades. But the northern woods and swamp land seem strangely dead - like a desert. He finds no hare, no moose and no partridge.

The lives of the 10,000 Innu people who live in this isolated corner of northeast Canada were abruptly changed when the Canadian government agreed to allow NATO air force jets to practise over Indian land. The Innu have never ceded sovereignty over their traditional territories, either by treaty or land claim.

The Canadian government says the training flights are part of its obligations as a NATO member. According to former Canadian Justice Minister, John Crosbie, the skies of Labrador are the perfect place for 900 kilometre-an-hour jets to practise low-level flying.

Ntesinan, the Innu homeland which traverses the Quebec-Labrador border has been invaded before. Great rivers have been dammed and backed up for hundreds of miles to produce hydro power for export to New York State; open-pit iron mines have produced ore for steel mills in the US and Europe.

But this newest invasion is the most threatening of all. In the next few years British, German, US and Dutch pilots could be logging 40,000 hours a year in state-of-the-art Tornado and Phantom II jet fighters.

Innu hunters and trappers know their land and the patterns of the animals intimately; they insist the jets are disrupting caribou migrations and driving away game. Bureaucrats in Ottawa and in the Newfoundland-Labrador capital, Saint John's, dismiss the Innu claims. In fact, the federal government is trying to convince NATO to establish a new $500-million Tactical Fighters Weapon Training Centre in Labrador. And Ottawa has sweetened its bid by announcing a $93-million renovation to the Goose Bay Airport.

The NATO training centre would bring 130 aircraft and 1,500 soldiers and their families to Goose Bay. It would also mean another three bombing ranges on Innu land. On the drawing board too are plans for air-to-air and air-to-sea war games.

In October, 1985 the Innu political arm, the Naskapi-Montagnais Association, complained to the Quebec Civil Liberties Union that the jet flights 'violated the fundamental human and collective rights of the Innu'. A follow-up investigation by the International Federation of Human Rights concluded 'internationally recognized natural and legal rights of the Innu are being violated'.

Meanwhile, the Labrador Indians continue to oppose the military invasion of their traditional land. In 1987, Innu leaders were rounded up and thrown in jail when hunting parties pursued game on land declared off-limits by the military.

The Innu have refused to buy the argument that NATO money pumped into the local economy will make their lives any better.

According to Innu leader Greg Penashue, Indian people who live in town are 'dead or dying'. Penashue believes the land is crucial to his people's cultural survival. The Innu, he argues, must be able to pursue their traditional way of life without interference from outsiders - whether they're NATO fighter pilots or multinational mining companies. Says Penashue: 'On the land, we are faced with so many regulations and restrictions. We must disregard these if we are to live.'

Karmel Taylor-McCullum is the former Director of Project North, a church-sponsored group involved in solidarity and support of Canadian native people.

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