When I was growing up outside of New York City, I simply wanted to be an Indian.
The two empty lots across the street from our house seemed to be the perfect spot to organize my friends into a tribe wherein we would live close to nature, raise and hunt for our own food and live in a natural state. Of course this was child’s imagination and play, but this fascination with native people has had a lasting impression on me and my admiration and sympathy for indigenous people or, as the Canadians refer to them, First People, continues.
I have been fortunate to visit and spend time with several indigenous peoples in the most interesting locations – two weeks with Kuna people on the islands off the coast of Panama, another two weeks with Inuits in the Northwest Territory of Canada 200 miles above the Arctic Circle, several weeks volunteering with Navajo people in northwest New Mexico, many short-term encounters with indigenous people in Mexico, two two-week trips to Palestine where Palestinians live under the illegal occupation of Israel, and several other short trips becoming acquainted with other native groups.
One of the more interesting encounters was with Aymara people in Bolivia some 12,000 feet above sea level. Two van loads of us found ourselves cut off from returning to the capital La Paz by local indigenous people using their usual manner of protesting – closing the highway by littering it with stones.
After convincing them that we were sympathetic to their plight they permitted us to proceed, but with the proviso that we clear the road of the stones. As we proceeded to do this a camera crew from a local TV station appeared. For some reason they focused on me and subsequently I was featured that evening on local TV. (Their complaints, which are nearly universal among native people, concerned their treatment by government officials and corporations on matters related to the survival of their language, land and culture.)
It is estimated that there are more than 350 million indigenous people in the world and, with few exceptions, they all have the same story to tell. I regularly read the magazine Cultural Survival which is dedicated to assisting native people around the world – mostly through the courts, to reclaim their land and maintain their language and culture. Each issue recounts the progress and failures of native people utilizing the resources they have in this effort.
Native people the world over have been pushed to the margins by the more powerful, mostly western, civilizations. Thus, they occupy land that has not been seen as usable by industrializing countries – land that is too remote, too cold or hot or simply inhospitable.
Over the years this has changed and in the remote and inhospitable lands there are reserves of a variety of materials that industrial nations seek and their newer technologies enable them to retrieve. So, these locations are commandeered in a variety of legal and too often illegal means by governments and/or corporations. Land is generally laid waste and the local people suffer. The Rights of Indigenous People document is an effort to address these abuses.
In recent years there have been some very important moves to empower indigenous people; I will mention one which is international and two within the U.S.
The international reform is the passage of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People. It passed in the General Assembly on Sept. 13, 2007 with 144 countries in favor, four votes against and 11 abstentions. (The four were Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the U.S.). Since then the four have voted in favor of the agreement.
It took decades to come to this agreement and its institutionalization will take even longer. “The Declaration sets out the individual and collective rights of indigenous peoples, as well as their rights to culture, identity, language, employment, health, education and other issues.” Compliance is voluntary and will generally be litigated in courts the world over.
Within the U.S., aside from the establishment of the Museum of the American Indian on the Mall in Washington, DC, were financial settlements totaling some $5 billion paid to hundreds of tribes due to a variety of government failures to keep their agreed upon obligations.
Another, mostly symbolic act was the White House summit that took place just last year in our nation’s capital. The Navajo Times describes the setting, “More than 1,000 Native youth members, representing 230 tribes from 42 states gathered to discuss the issues facing their communities … at the first-ever White House Tribal Youth Gathering in Washington, D.C.”
This and several other symbolic and concrete examples of recognizing native people over the past few years will serve as encouragement and hope to this poorest of U.S. minorities.
Wilmington resident Neil Snarr is Professor Emeritus of Wilmington College.