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The impulse for the founding of Cultural Survival arose during the 1960s with the “opening up” of the Amazonian regions of South America and other remote regions elsewhere. As governments all over the world sought to extract resources from areas that had never before been developed, the drastic effects this trend had on the regions' Indigenous Peoples underscored the urgent need to partner with Indigenous communities to defend their human rights. Cultural Survival was founded to help Indigenous Peoples in their struggles for human rights, sovereignty, and autonomy.

Throughout the 1970s, Cultural Survival’s original founders David Maybury-Lewis (pictured right with Xavante elder Sibupa), Evon Vogt, Jr., Orlando Patterson, and Pia Maybury-Lewis functioned out of a space made available by Harvard’s Peabody Museum. The organization was incorporated in 1972 as a tax-exempt NGO in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Since its inception, Cultural Survival has been at the forefront of the international Indigenous rights movement. Cultural Survival’s work has contributed to a revolution of empowerment for Indigenous Peoples around the world.  In the first years Cultural Survival launched a publication program consisting of the Cultural Survival Newsletter and a series of Special Reports which eventually became the Cultural Survival Quarterly. Cultural Survival also introduced its annual bazaars, which display and sell Indigenous arts and crafts.

In the 1980s and 1990s, Cultural Survival created an economic strategy in order to bargain with governments who were ready to clear cut rainforests. Cultural Survival Enterprises (CSE) became a non-profit trading division that developed and marketed products generating income for Indigenous people who were struggling to protect their lands and traditions within rainforest regions. Cultural Survival Enterprises, spearheading the Fair Trade movement, was launched to help Indigenous groups receive a greater profit from their sold goods,  however, after considerable debate among the board and staff and due to complications with the supply, it was decided to no longer support this program.

Ellen L. Lutz became director of Cultural Survival in 2004 and transformed the organization over the next six years, strongly emphasizing human rights and advocacy areas in which she had an international reputation. For 25 years, Cultural Survival labored with many Indigenous activitst to win United Nations adoption of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Ellen played a key role in helping shepherd this long process and on September 13, 2007, the UN General Assembly adopted a visionary text that set the global standard for how governments must treat Indigenous Peoples. 

An offshoot of these efforts, Cultural Survival started partnering with Guatemalan nongovernmental organizations to create a thriving network of over 200 community radio stations across Guatemala, many of which broadcast in one or more of the country’s 23 indigenous languages. The stations offer news, educational programming, human rights and health information, and traditional music, all reinforcing pride in Mayan heritage.

In 2007, Cultural Survival turned its attention on the much-needed revitalization of critically endangered Native American languages. Cultural Survival partnered with tribal governments, foundations, corporations, and businesses to persuade the United States Congress to fund legislation providing federal support for language immersion programs.

In 2009, Ellen oversaw the merger of Cultural Survival and Global Response. Global Response, a nongovernmental organization, directed campaigns to protect Indigenous rights all around the world. Global Response has developed relationships with Indigenous communities in order to help them stop government abuse and exploitation of their lands and natural resources.

Suzanne Benally (Navajo and Santa Clara Tewa from New Mexico) is the current executive director. Suzanne was the associate provost for institutional planning and assessment and associate vice president for academic affairs at Naropa University. She was a core faculty member in environmental studies and a member of the president’s cabinet. 

Under Suzanne’s direction, Cultural Survival is set to reflect a robust and inclusive role. “It is our goal to become a world leader in advocacy for Indigenous Peoples rights to their land, languages and cultures,” Suzanne says. “We fully intend to continue our efforts in creating a world in which Indigenous Peoples speak their languages, live on their lands, control their resources, hold on to their culture, and whose rights are honored in participating in broader society. We believe this entails deliberate collaboration. It is all about building bridges.”