Brave New World or More of the Same?

Twenty five years ago it was widely assumed that indigenous peoples were dying out; that they were either being physically extinguished by disease and the savage onslaughts of the modem world or that they were abandoning their indigenous identities and disappearing into the mainstream of the societies that surrounded them. This assumption was quite wrong. Indigenous peoples have shown a remarkable capacity to resist the world's attempts to obliterate their ways of life and organizations like Cultural Survival have made common cause with them to show how wrong it was to assume that they would disappear. Yet this assumption represented a kind of wishful thinking in official circles where it was argued that the ways of life of indigenous peoples were archaic and incompatible with the modern world. It would therefore benefit them if they abandoned their cultures and accepted the benefits (and the costs) of modernity It would also, and more significantly, benefit the state because the presence of self-conscious indigenous cultures impeded socioeconomic development and complicated the efforts of the state to eliminate ethnic divisiveness.

Now, 25 years later, the idea that indigenous cultures are and should be disappearing is no longer the generally accepted view. James Anaya, in this issue, shows how indigenous peoples and their supporters have worked through international conferences and intergovernmental institutions to gain worldwide acceptance for the idea that they have the right to maintain their own cultures and to control their own affairs at the local level. The United Nations and various other international organizations have recognized their right to exercise control over their own institutions, ways of life, economic development, and the maintenance and development of their identities, languages and religions within the framework of the states in which they live.

This 25th anniversary issue of the Cultural Survival Quarterly documents this worldwide change of attitude and asks what its practical consequences are. In some parts of the world the difference is dramatic. Kay Warren and Victor Montejo, for example, show that in Guatemala decades of warfare during which successive military regimes massacred thousands of Indians and uprooted hundreds of thousands more, have come to an end. For the first time the right of indigenous peoples to maintain their own cultures within the state has been recognized. It remains to be seen how effectively that right will be protected, but in the meantime the rise and growing strength of the Pan Mayan movement seems to have altered the profile of Guatemala for good. Pan Mayan or even pan Indian solidarity does not, however, guarantee that indigenous rights will be respected, as the recent history of Mexico has so clearly shown. Mexico declared itself a "pluriethnic nation" already under the regime of president Salinas, yet in spite of the Zapatista uprising in the south (or perhaps even because of it), the government has done little to make Mexican pluriethnicity much more than a slogan.

This is the central concern of the articles in this issue. Their authors welcome the hemispheric change of heart that has finally recognized the right of indigenous peoples to be themselves and to run their own lives after 500 years of denial, yet they worry about whether such a change may not be largely cosmetic. On the face of it, remarkable changes have taken place. Colombia has adopted a constitution giving indigenous peoples local control of those areas of the country where they are in the majority These areas are to be designated Indigenous Territorial Entities, analogous to indigenous counties within the table of organization of the Colombian state. Yet, as Antonio Jacanamijoy points out, the Colombian congress is reluctant to pass the legislation necessary to put these Indian territories into effect.

Bolivia appears to have made changes that rival those in Guatemala. Like Guatemala, it is the most Indian of all the countries in the Americas, and for most of its history its indigenous population has been treated as second class citizens. Now the Indians have organized, both in the highlands and in the lowlands, and have converged on La Paz in massive coordinated arches. The country has been declared multiethnic and the government speaks of seeking unity in diversity Here too, however, according to Lucia D'Emilio, sweeping changes are being introduced uncertainly and with considerable hestitation lest Bolivia should come to repeat the horrors of what happened in Yugoslavia.

A similar fear afflicts Ecuador, whose indigenous populations have mobilized with great effect. The peoples of the Ecuadorian Amazon took the lead in forming federations to represent them both nationally and internationally Meanwhile the large indigenous population of the Andean highlands organized national demonstrations that finally put the Indian question at the center of Ecuador's agenda. Yet, as Pablo Ortíz and Luís Macas point out, there is still enormous resistance in Ecuador to rethinking the state in order to accommodate the aspirations of the indigenous half of the country's citizenry.

The old arguments against indigenous rights die hard. It can be shown again and again, as Ian McIntosh does here in his discussion of Australia's Northern Territory, that the recognition of such rights does not seriously affect development. It merely affects the profits of those accustomed to using indigenous resources for nothing; but these interests invariably claim that development will come to a halt without such exploitation. An even more persistent argument is that neither indigenous peoples, nor any other groups should have the right to undermine the state by maintaining their own separate ways of life within it. This argument derives from enlightenment theories of the modern state which would encourage liberty, equality, fraternity and above all, individualism while making ethnic attachments irrelevant and thus obsolete. It does not matter that modern states in the 20th century have not turned out as the enlightenment theorists predicted. The prejudice against ethnic pluralism is alive and well, for an acceptance of it would mean rethinking the nature of the state and the nation or nations that correspond to it. ..TX-Interestingly enough, it is countries like Ecuador and Bolivia, where a recognition of indigenous rights would imply a major social revolution, that are cautiously moving to do just that, while countries like Brazil and the United States, with small and scattered indigenous populations, are taking a hard line. Duane Champagne shows that the United States has permitted indigenous peoples to exercise more and more control over their own affairs. They are even permitted to operate gaming establishments on their own lands which make a killing if gambling is prohibited in the adjacent states; but these are pragmatic adjustments. The U.S. is still officially hostile to the idea of considering itself a multi-ethnic nation. Brazil, which has the smallest percentage of Indians of any major country in the hemisphere, takes the hardest line of all. Robin Wright shows that it continues to tolerate abuses against its indigenous populations and perverts the argument about development to make it seem as if Brazil is somehow the victim of its own Indians. Alcida Rita Ramos describes the enormous difficulties Brazilian Indians face as they try to organize to defend themselves, difficulties that are compounded by attitudes such as that of leading generals in the still highly influential armed forces who continue to regard the nation's Indians as minors in law and wards of the state.

The whole issue of indigenous rights is thus caught on the horns of a worldwide dilemma. There has been unprecedented movement, both internationally and in individual nations, towards accepting indigenous fights and considering ethnic pluralism as something that enriches the state. At the same time the world is still haunted by the specter of ethnic conflict and obsessed with the idea that it can only be avoided by abolishing ethnicity The outcome of this war of ideas will determine whether we can all hope for the emergence of a brave new world in the next century or whether we shall be condemned to go on living with the brutality and injustice of the past.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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