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The Return Of The Indian

Indigenous Peoples
Central African Republic

new internationalist
issue 256 - June 1994

The return of the Indian
It’s a revolution – but that does not guarantee a place in the headlines.
Phillip Wearne reports from the Americas.

[image, unknown] NATIONALISM

Most on-the-ground foreign news stories are filed from the capital cities of nation states. But what happens when news is being made by people to whom those states and their artificially-created boundaries mean little or nothing? This is the case for millions of indigenous or colonized people whose civilizations may stretch over a number of national boundaries and who may speak languages that have nothing to do with the national language. When these people are making news the nation-state-obsessed media often cannot see it happening or else do not know where to slot or how to angle these people’s stories. The result: they don’t get told at all.

In Ecuador tens of thousands of Indians block roads and refuse to supply city markets, shutting down the country for a week.

In Bolivia an Aymara announces ‘a new era’ in making his vice-presidential acceptance speech in the country’s three main indigenous languages, Aymara, Guaraní and Quichua.

In Mexico a highly-organized Maya army takes over four towns and forces Latin America’s longest-ruling party into protracted negotiations on indigenous rights.

In Canada national political leaders agree a revised constitution recognizing native people’s ‘inherent right to self-government’.

In Oslo a 33-year-old K’iche’ Maya woman, a one-time domestic servant and illiterate coffee-picker, becomes the youngest-ever Nobel Peace Prize winner.

Something is happening in the Americas but it’s not something you’ll read or hear about in the media. The above events are just the more notable symptoms of something so amorphous, so localized and so varied that it is not headline material. With no centre, no single leadership and no structure it reflects Indian society itself, defying all Western categorization as a movement.

Yet the ‘Return of the Indian’, as one scholar has dubbed it, is one of the most important trends in the Americas today. ‘Ethnicity is a revolution that will have even more impact than Cuba’s in 1959 – not least because it is continental and will remain by definition indigenous, less susceptible to outside influences,’ says one Mexican journalist.

This may come as a bit of shock to those who assumed that Indians were on their way outset to disappear or assimilate as modernity and ‘progress’ radiated out from the United States. Museums, yes: but political leaders, guerrilla fighters, popular organizers?

Indeed, as Noble Peace Prize Laureate Rigoberta Menchu Tum has noted, many people have already swallowed that myth along with the European version of the Conquest after the ‘discovery’ of ‘Indians’ by Columbus in 1492. ‘As I go round the world many people I meet are surprised we indigenous peoples of the Americas still exist. They seem to think we died out years ago.’

In fact there are an estimated 40 million indigenous people in the Americas today – about six per cent of the total population. Guatemala and Bolivia have majority ethnic populations, Peru boasts more than eight million and Mexico at least ten million.

Historically, indigenous people are the pure-blooded descendants of the original inhabitants of the Americas. But few would accept a racial definition today. Many pure-blood Indians deny their origins to speed their assimilation and to blunt fierce racism.

Culturally, they can be divided into two groups. Highland Indians grow maize, beans and potatoes on insufficient snippets of land in the continent’s most mountainous, least fertile regions; lowland Indians fish, hunt and practise a mobile form of slash-and-burn farming, mostly in the Amazon basin and what remains of the forests in Central America.

But the myth of generic ‘Indianness’ is, like so much else in the Americas, a European imposition. With 450 different ethno-linguistic groups in the Americas today, finding a common contemporary definition is almost impossible.

Millions of indigenous people now live in towns and cities: hundreds of thousands are completely bi- or even tri-lingual; tens of thousands have university degrees and professional jobs. Go into any indigenous-rights organization office in Lima, La Paz, São Paulo, Quito or Guatemala City today and you will hear or even see Quichua, Aymara, Tukano or Kaqchikel on the mobile phones, short-wave radios, faxes and videos.

‘Only Western anthropologists would want to freeze us in some noble savage state,’ complains Valerio Grefa in Quito. ‘Who says I can’t be Quichua running COICA, the biggest multinational indigenous organization in the Americas? All they see are the externals – dress, language, socio-economic condition.’

Recovering ‘identity’ means different things to different people. For some it is simply rediscovering history, traditions and languages that seemed lost; for others it is adapting technology that once seemed alien; others prioritize control of economic development within communities.

But one thing tends to lead to another on the political consciousness scale. ‘Teach people to read and write in their own language and they soon start asking where our books are,’ notes Andrés Cuz of the Academy of Mayan Languages. ‘That’s a very political question.’

What Eduardo Galeano has termed ‘collective amnesia’ is now steadily being eroded by oral history workshops, indigenous-language radio stations and an unprecedented flourishing of interest in traditional religion and medicine. And not only among indigenous people.

Just hours before his inauguration last August, President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada – a white Bolivian who has lived most of his life in the United States – was invested with state power in an indigenous initiation ceremony. The President-elect and his wife knelt in front of an open fire for 20 minutes as several Andean priests made offerings to Pacha Mama – the Earth deity.

Outside on the streets of La Paz – as in Lima, Quito and Guatemala City – traders were doing a roaring trade selling herbs, bones, tree barks and other traditional medicine to all ethnic groups, whites and mestizos as well as Indians. ‘In reclaiming their identity I think they forced all of us to ask ourselves who we are. There’s some of them in virtually all of us,’ says Ivan Arias, a mestizo Bolivian aid-agency worker.

Identities vary, but at the centre of most indigenous identities lies a common critical issue: land. The seizure of land was the basis of the conquest. Indian land spawned the cash crops – coffee, bananas, sugarcane – that have made Latin America a massive net food exporter while tens of millions of its native daughters and sons go hungry.

A plot of land is for most indigenous people a symbol of their right to live – the place where they grow the subsistence crops that ensure their survival. Many traditional Indians believe that if they do not eat the potatoes or maize that are their staples they will somehow lose their ‘Indianness’. Even in the cities and towns to which so many Indians have now migrated, ownership of a plot of land on which to build your shanty ensures survival.

Thus land is also identity, and inheritance of land makes the vital link to ancestors whose spirits dictate so many customs and traditions. Land is the home of the most important indigenous god. Cultivating the land is, for the traditional Indian, the most profound communion with god she or he can aspire to.

Straight talking in Aymara on indigenous radio in Bolivia.

And land rights have been the focus of most indigenous campaigning. A series of seminal protests – the 1992 uprising in Ecuador, the 1990 march for ‘Land and Dignity’ in Bolivia – secured presidential decrees guaranteeing huge tracts. In Brazil and Colombia such rights have been enshrined in new constitutions.

Demarcation of the territories is now a priority. ‘Maps and legal registration are essential first steps,’ says Marc Chapin, director of Native Lands, an organization that helps indigenous people map their territory. ‘In the past indigenous peoples have lost their land simply because they couldn’t prove that they owned it.’

Throughout the Amazon Basin indigenous guards now patrol the frontiers of huge tracts on foot, by canoe or in four-wheel-drive vehicles. Many carry short-wave radios linking them to the nearest village where faxes, computer networks and telephones can alert local and international support networks.

This illustrates how indigenous organizations are now working. Although armed struggle remains an option – guerrilla struggles in Mexico, Colombia, Guatemala and Peru recruited large numbers of Indians – the new organizations aim to win legal indigenous rights, enforce them and establish a measure of political and economic autonomy as a result.

‘Once you have these rights, territories or budgets you have something to work with,’ says Antonio Jacanamijoy, deputy President of the National Organization of Indigenous Peoples of Colombia in his downtown Bogotá office. ‘Many of the rights we have on paper are excellent. It’s the impunity with which they are often violated or unenforced that’s now the problem.’

But none of this fully explains the recent upsurge in ethnic consciousness in the Americas. For many it first came to notice in October 1992, the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s arrival in the Americas. By marching on National Palaces or up the Cerro Rico silver mountain in Potosí, or by daubing statues of Columbus with red paint to symbolize blood, indigenous people throughout the continent managed to hijack what they had feared would be official ‘celebrations’.

But the success of the ‘500 Years of Resistance Campaign’ owed much to other trends. One of the most obvious was the renewed threat to the culture and survival of indigenous people. Roads, air travel and population growth have made the once marginal lands to which Indians have retreated more accessible; lumber, oil, gold and new, often more intensive forms of agriculture have made these frontier lands attractive.

Killings and kidnappings – the traditional means of maintaining Latin America’s structural inequalities – have followed the state’s armies and the entrepreneurs’ pistoleros up the remotest reaches of the Amazon’s tributaries, the steepest slopes of the Andes and deepest crevices of Central America’s volcanoes.

Much of the impetus for this ‘new colonization’ has come from the wave of neo-liberal economic policies that have swept Latin America in the past decade. Mexico and Peru have removed constitutional rights to land – the product of revolutions in 1910-17 and 1968 respectively – all in the name of ‘modernizing’ agricultural production.

‘The philosophy that drove the Conquest and the liberal revolutions of the late nineteenth century in the Americas is getting a new lease of life,’ complains one foreign aid worker in Mexico. ‘I see a really basic clash of cultures – community, self-sufficiency and ethnic plurality – against individualism, materialism and homogeneity.’

But the neo-liberalism brought in to deal with the consequences of the debt crisis has been one of the major stimuli for the self-help, grassroots organizations that have blossomed in recent years. Micro-organizations at village or barrio level ranging from pig-breeding co-ops to literacy classes are all designed to offset the devastating effects of massive cuts in social spending or loss of jobs and markets through privatization, devaluation and tariff reduction.

The new solidarity has fuelled cultural awareness through political awareness. But it has also attracted the attention of international aid agencies and environmental groups, who have found in indigenous values the alternative development model they need to combat the impact of neo-liberalism.

Broader indigenous vision has been a key part of the success. Something of a pan-Indian consciousness and solidarity has begun to emerge. Direct appeals to the World Bank on destructive development projects and to the United Nations on cultural rights have raised issues in international fora and put national governments’ records under the microscope.

One other important factor has been the eclipse of the Left in Latin America. With the notable exception of the Sandinistas in Nicaragua – whose 1984 autonomy law recognized the ethnic distinctness of the Misquito, Sumo and Rama of the Atlantic Coast – the Left has always resolved the class-ethnic debate in favour of class. Indians were the poorest, most exploited peoples because of their social, not cultural, position. Throughout the 1980s increasing numbers of Indians became indigenists, turning this analysis on its head by arguing that that they were at the bottom of the pile simply because they were Indians.

The end of the Cold War, the retreat and in some cases defeat of the Left either at the ballot box or in armed struggle has allowed the indigenist philosophy to flourish. Indeed some see ethnicity as the only really radical new force in the Americas, revitalizing a sterile political environment as traditional party politics go into meltdown.

‘If you cannot escape from the traditional Western vision that views indigenous people in the Americas as defeated, subjugated relics of the past then you’ll never appreciate what is happening here,’ complains one anthropologist in Bolivia.

The weakness and dependency of nation states in Latin America contrasts starkly with the strength and self-sufficiency of indigenous culture. Five hundred years after Europeans set out to wipe them out, assimilate them, Christianize them and civilize them, they are still themselves, increasing in number, speaking their own languages, farming, hunting or gathering as their ancestors did.

That in itself tells us something about the scale and success of their resistance. Not just the rebellions of indigenous leaders like Tupaq Amaru, Tupaq Katari or Atanasio Tzul – but the ordinary everyday resistance of ordinary everyday peasants.

Indianizing useful Western imports and diversifying economically wherever possible, indigenous peoples in the Americas have used the weapons of the weak to ensure maximum cultural resistance. They rarely pose a direct challenge to the state. That, they know from bitter experience, is likely to be met with genocidal repression.

If you can break through the myths and stereotypes; if you can see indigenous culture as plural and very localized rather than uniform and homogenous; if you can realize that the state is weak and dysfunctional rather than omnipotent and hegemonic, the truth about nation states in the Americas emerges: they never were.

An even more dangerous truth starts to become obvious: it is indigenous people, their communities and culture that have kept these states weak. The evidence is there in the remotest villages and forests, the poorest slums, places where government officials and journalists – particularly Western journalists – do not venture, in languages they cannot understand, in types of organizations they cannot comprehend.

One of the main reasons indigenous organization has flourished is because of its amorphous, omnipresent nature. You can not co-opt, regulate or negotiate with 50,000 village organizations if they have no common genesis, no centralized leadership, no common platform. Anthropologists have written plentifully about mestizaje – the tendency of Indians to assimilate. But what about the reverse process? There is growing evidence that Indian perceptions of participatory democracy, autonomy, plurality might be working their way onto the state’s agenda as a new generation of indigenous people flocks to universities, wins control of national organizations, gets into cabinets and presidential palaces.

‘I die today, but I will rise again, and I will be millions...’ said Tupaq Katari, the Aymara chief, moments before his execution in 1781. So it must seem now to many governments in the Americas, besieged on all sides by indigenous demands.

For Indians, who share a cyclical sense of time where everything that happens is balanced by an opposite, the surprising thing is that non-Indians are surprised by the upsurge in ethnic consciousness.

Action breeding reaction, conquest leading to reconquest, ups causing downs – all are part of their everyday indigenous world. Many in the Andes are convinced that the pachakuti, the ‘balance upheaval’ that legends and oral history have kept alive for centuries, has finally arrived.

Phillip Wearne is a freelance journalist whose book The First Americans will be published by Latin America Bureau later this year.



They do not know us yet
An unlikely alliance of missionaries and officials
has its eye on the Baaka people.

The tropical forest of central Africa has a reputation for being hostile to human life. But it is home to many different groups of pygmies – the last survivors of a very ancient people. Egyptian inscriptions dating back 4,000 years refer to them as ‘dancers of God’ who lived in ‘the land of the spirits’.

Today there are only 250,000 left in Central Africa, belonging to six main groups – Baaka, Kola, Twa, Bongo, Aka and Mbuti. They live in the forest areas of nine African countries: Cameroon, French Congo, the Central African Republic, Gabon, Zaire, Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda and Equatorial Guinea.

In the Central African Republic the Baaka people and their lifestyle are under threat from the Government and from Catholic missionaries, who are trying to move them from the depths of the forest into more organized village settlements where they can be overseen in the same way as other Central Africans.

As part of this move they are encouraged to build wells and latrines, and to adopt domestic agricultural techniques as opposed to their traditional hunting and gathering.

Both Government officials and missionaries justify their actions by arguing that the Baaka ‘need to be brought into the modern age’ in order to participate in the national culture and economy.

The Government wants to tax the Baaka – and it wants a freer hand in granting timber felling concessions to foreign companies in the forests where the Baaka currently live.

But the Baaka do not want to go. ‘We are happy in the forest because it provides everything we need,’ says Theresa, a spokesperson for the community of Sanguila in the forest of Haute-Sanga in the country’s southern region.

‘We want to carry on living here... I do not think that the forest will disappear; how can you think it would? People may damage the forest but this village will continue... When I die my children will live here...’

And they certainly do not want to move to the village resettlement the Government has in mind for them. ‘The village is expensive and there is a lot of hunger,’ according to Theresa. ‘The villagers exploit us a lot. The missionaries would like our children to go to school there but they cannot go because they are teased by village children.

It would be better to have a school in the forest. The missionaries want to change us, but they will not change us. As for the Government, they do not give us anything – they do not know us yet.’

by Margaret Wilson and Ingrid Kvale.
photo by Margaret Wilson.

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