Skip to main content

The Indigenous Peoples' Network

In the past ten years communication between native peoples has exploded. The increasingly unstable world economy and rapid information dissemination systems have contributed to a common understanding of the economic, political and social forces affecting native peoples on six continents. Isolation from regional and world events is a thing of the past for even the most remote indigenous communities. Demands for land and natural resources by states, corporations and colonists are not new, but are now being challenged by ethnic federations and communities and activist indigenist groups. The Indigenous Peoples Network (IPN) has been formed to link indigenous populations separated and internally fragmented by the political and economic systems of dominant cultures.

The Kanjobal Case - Guatemala

In April 1983 Akwesasne Notes, a leading North American Indian journal, received a call from the Indian Law Resource Center in Washington: the US Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) had just picked up eight Mayan Indians working as migrant farm laborers in Florida. The refugees spoke only their native Kanjobal language, and the public defense attorney was unable to prepare for their hearing one week hence.

Jose Barreiro, at that time the Managing Editor of Akwesasne Notes, knew one Kanjobal speaker. Barreiro put together a journalist, translator and sound person to go to Florida and document the detainees' conditions that precipitated the flight from Guatemala. By spring 1983, some 3,000 of a total population of 30,000 Kanjobal people were refugees in the United States. Others made it only as far as the refugee camps in Mexico.

News of Guatemalan army massacres and the plight of the refugees was transmitted through the Indigenous Peoples Network. The New York Times covered the case. As the result of strong public pressure and advocacy by the Catholic Church of Florida, the judge conceded that there was "unique community support" for the refugees and released them.

The community support resulted from the actions of individuals at the Indian Law Resource Center, the Anthropology Resource Center, Cultural Survival, Akwesasne Notes and the Tribal Sovereignty Program. These organizations comprised the Indigenous Peoples Network.

IPN is currently an association of fourteen organizations. Because many of them have their own publications, they are able to report situations that are ignored by the mainstream press. John Mohawk, an Iroquois scholar and board member of IPN, notes that "the worst of these abuses occur in very remote areas of the world where media coverage of any kind is either nonexistent or censored."

Where international pressure would be beneficial, "Emergency Bulletins" are issued. IPN bulletins reach an initial audience of about 800 individuals, organizations, and publications, primarily in Europe and North America. Secondary networks then reach around 25,000. When the mainstream press picks up the reports, an even larger audience is reached.

The Associated Press reports that, IPN bulletins have created floods of mail asking Mexican leaders to grant sanctuary to Guatemalan refugees and Australian uranium firms not to violate the sacred "dreaming sites" of the aborigines.

IPN is able to rapidly focus attention on a single case. Pressure is directed at key decision-makers - judges, high government officials, military commanders. Letters, telegrams and personal appearances by individuals, and human rights and religious groups provide immediate relief. Long term monitoring protects indigenous peoples from a resumption of undesirable actions.

IPN and the International Indian Rights Movement

In Central and South America alone there are more than 500 Indian nations representing 40 million people, with hundreds of native languages. After centuries of colonization and resistance they are without representation in any of the national governments - even in countries where Indians constitute a clear majority.

In my country, the Generals rule. Always there have been injustices; always there has been oppression, but today our situation is one of all-out struggle against annihilation, against brute and unrestrained violence.

In 1977, Non-Governmental Organizations' (NGO) Indigenous Peoples Conference in Geneva was a turning point for the indigenous peoples' movement. Over 100 representatives testified about the effects of natural resources exploitation, "development" projects, repression and genocide on their peoples. This was the first time that the UN had allowed indigenous people to testify on their own behalf, although it was not their first attempt to do so.

In 1923 Deskaheh, a Cayuga Chief of the Iroquois Confederacy, was denied permission to petition the League of Nations. He asked for the protection of his people suffering under the invasion of the Grand River reservation by the Canadian Police. After an unsuccessful year in Geneva he returned to die in exile in New York State.

Deskaheh's efforts were not forgotten. The opening statement of the 1981 United Nations NGO Conference on Land and Indigenous People describes what followed Deskaheh's plea (quoted from the Australian National Aboriginal Conference Newsletter, 3/84):

The world changed. The Indigenous peoples became stronger, and in 1977 they marched in through the doors of the United Nations.

But at the end of the Conference in 1977 we said: we shall come again and again, till victory is ours! We are here again. Brothers and Sisters, marching into the United Nations in Geneva.

Do the governments of the world understand our cause better today? Yes. But above all we are here because the struggles of the Indigenous Nations have grown and become stronger and more united.

We spoke then...of four words which we had learned at that Conference.

The first word is GENOCIDE. Do not talk of this "right" and that "right". We are Nations which demand the right to live and be part of our own land. Learn the word NATION: stand by the indigenous nations and their rights as nations.

Another Key word which we LAND...Land is connected with all the other questions. You cannot talk about land without talking about genocide...about the Nations...about the fourth word which we learned, which is SELF-DETERMINATION.

The 1977 conference called for increased communication - particularly for North American Indians to use their access to the press to document the atrocities and struggles occurring throughout the Americas. If IPN has a "working document" it is the 1977 United Nations "Declaration of Human Rights of Indigenous People in the Hemisphere."

In 1980 the Fourth Russell Tribunal was held in Rotterdam on the Rights of Indians in the Americas. The Bertrand Russell Foundation provided the financial and logistical means for native peoples from around the world to meet and speak openly. IPN published the compiled testimonies. Native Peoples in Struggle, shortly thereafter.

Following the Tribunal, the Legal Commission of the 1981 U.N. conference set forth a plan to revise the international legal code to recognize Indian nations and their sovereign rights.

The Creation of a Network

In 1977 Barreiro, Indian Law Resource Center Director Tim Coulter, John Mohawk, anthropologist Dr. Richard Chase Smith and Dr. Shelton Davis of the Anthropology Resource Center joined with other Indian and Indian-identified writers, organizers, professionals and academics to form an extended information network.

Their purpose was twofold: to enable indigenous peoples and their organizations to identify each other and to create an information base about the international indigenous situation.

Barreiro, now an editor at Cornell University's Indigenous Communications Resource Center (ICRC), describes IPN's emergence as a series of relationships based on a trust that grew through the years. It was activated by a consciousness of the seriousness of the work and was focussed as a result of the intensity of the oppression throughout the Americas. IPN became a repository of information from the fifteen years of networking by people who you could really count on, who asked the right questions. These are the questions not only about Indian societies, but about the nature of the national societies surrounding them.

IPN works in four areas: 1) communicating news in the written media, 2) producing radio programs for commercial and community networks, libraries and schools, 3) publishing Indian writings on history, current issues, cultural development, children's stories, etc., and 4) mobilizing international action on human rights violations through the Emergency Response Bulletins.

By 1979 the group's work intensified as human rights abuses escalated in Australia, Chile, Colombia, Peru, Central and North America. Barreiro explains:

This was at a time when Amnesty International didn't recognize Indian rights as an issue, and we were beginning to identify cases where entire Indian peoples were "prisoners of conscience."

International law and civil rights convenants work through guaranteeing individuals equal protection under national law. This is inappropriate in the case of peoples struggling to assert their sovereignty as nations. This is particularly the case when national laws do not recognize Indians or consider them "wards of the State." In an effort to document abuses and press for conflict resolution, IPN began to issue Emergency Bulletins. By 1984 they had waged dozens of campaigns and formally assisted more than 30 cases.

IPN is using rapid information communication systems to keep up with the intensity of the problems. Computer networking and data storage allow writers and researchers to draw upon updated information.

When asked about IPN's future, Barreiro says, It lies in IPN's ability to articulate Indigenous cases, to achieve recognition of a world view distinct from the West, distinct from the "left" and the "right." We are learning from each other, IPN is just opening up the channels.

High-tech Communication?

During the past two years, a number of indigenous peoples and international support groups, newspapers and resource centers have acquired micro-computers with telephone modem transfer systems. There are now more publications by and about indigenous peoples than ever before. Researchers at ICRC easily identified 400 such periodicals. Dozen of radio stations have sprung up in Indian communities (mostly in the North with Canada leading the way, but also in Central and South America), while indigenous-oriented scholarship appears to be gaining respect in Western academia.

Information networking is an old field, but the technology has become increasingly efficient and inexpensive. An impressive and growing number of organizations are already linked by computer.

Furthering the dialogue with non-indigenous peoples on racism, centralization and "western" concepts of development may provide an impetus to significantly change progressive strategies for social change. It may even change the goals themselves. IPN, along with a growing number of indigenous organizations, is working to make this possible.

For further information about IPN computer networking, write: IPN Research Center, P.O. Box 364, Rochester, VT 05767.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

Our website houses close to five decades of content and publishing. Any content older than 10 years is archival and Cultural Survival does not necessarily agree with the content and word choice today.