Memories of Solidarity: Anthropology and the Indigenous Movement in Latin America


The unfinished relation between the indigenous people of Latin America and Euroamerican humanitarians has followed a line of delicate and ambiguous dialectics. These dialectics began with the contradictory letters of Columbus to the Spanish Crown and was continued through five centuries with the unequivocal defense of the Indians by Bartolomé de las Casas, and the repeated attacks on native institutions, ideas, and civilizations by missionaries and colonial administrators. There is a constantly nebulous alternation between sympathetic accounts and an overwhelming amount of superficial views, racist prejudices, and expressions of absolute contempt for the Indians. Both modern anthropology and the contemporary Indian political movement carry the colonial burden of this long process of mutual misinterpretation.

In this complex reality, the last 25 years was a crucial period of cooperation between the ethnopolitical indigenous movement of Latin America and a limited sector of anthropology. Within this frame of analysis, I intend to offer a tribute to the indigenous intellectuals, activists, and anthropologists that have surmounted colonial barriers, overcome prejudices of separation, and contributed to the establishment of an environment of co-operation and creativity. I find pleasure in celebrating 25 years of Cultural Survival because its founding coincided with the collective birth of conscience of a group of us, both anthropologists and indigenous intellectuals in Latin America, who were willing to oppose academic and tribal perceptions of diversity as a threat to partisan, nationalistic members through the obligatory "mita" service in the Andean mines, and exposed Indian workers, miners and seasonal farmworkers to new political ideas, forms of organization, and arrays of social, cultural, and ethnic information.

In June 1971, a dozen Latin American anthropologists, accompanied by a U.S. ethnologist expatriate to Mexico and an Austrian social scientist, met in the island of Barbados under the sponsorship of the World Council of Churches to discuss the situation of Latin American indigenous people. The Barbados I meeting, as it came to be known, produced an impressive volume which denounced human and ethnic rights abuses by governments, missionaries, the private sector, and even social scientists. They also produced a short declaration which soon became a banner for some emerging indigenous organizations in Central and South America. The Spanish edition of the book, published in Montevideo Uruguay, never reached the shelves of bookstores -- it was burned by the Uruguayan military dictatorship. Such an act of racist zeal and political conservatism was unexpected since Uruguay is one of the few countries in latin America that does not have a substantial indigenous population.

No Indians were present in the meeting of Barbados I. It would take another six years for the Barbados group to convene a second, larger meeting of 35 participants, 18 of which were active militants in the Latin American indigenous movement. Some of the Indian members of Barbados II traveled to the island secretly; the Guatemalan Maya and the Colombian Páez participants were actually risking their lives by being at the conference. Finally, in 1993, the Barbados III group met in Río de Janeiro, 23 years after the first meeting, to mourn the death of one of its most enlightened members, Guillermo Bonfil Batalla, and to address again old Indian issues of neocolonialism, wars, land eviction, genocide, human rights abuses, and cultural destruction. These old issues, however, were now presented by the transnational community of capital as the price to be paid by the weak to allow the globalization of the economy and the establishment of a "new world order."

The three Barbados meetings can be read as a 25-year synopsis of a few Latin American anthropologists who had accompanied the Indian movement of liberation. The Declaration of Barbados I, "For the Liberation of the Indigenous People," in 1971, was a strong denunciation and demand sent out to the state, the church, the private sector, and social scientists to satisfy the basic human and ethnic rights of indigenous people. Barbados II, in 1977, reflected both the Indians and anthropologists' activism and direct involvement in the social movement of liberation. A decision to be involved in such activism carried many risks. Some of the indigenous participants and some of the anthropologists were already either in hiding within their own countries or in exile.

The Declaration of Barbados III, "The Articulation of Diversity" in 1993, evaluated the last 25 years of Latin American anthropology and its contributions to the Indian struggle of decolonization. There is little optimism in this assessment for it recognizes the ethical distortions of theoretical meandering and self-gratifying solipsism that disguises the lack of commitment of academic anthropology to the Indians' liberation struggles. Finally, Barbados III emphasized that at the end of this century, the Indian movement of the Americas is an issue on the international agenda that will have to be weighed in any major decision regarding world peace and development.

Indian Sovereignty

Until the Mayan rebellion of Chiapas in 1994, the issue of indigenous people's sovereignty was unspeakable in Latin America. The terms sovereignty, autonomy, and self-determination when referred to Indian people could barely be whispered by anthropologists and indigenous intellectuals for they feared being accused of possessing subversive views. Following a strict Napoleonic tradition, the notion of sovereignty is applied exclusively to the nation-state. After more than two years of public debate in Mexico and in the world throughout the Internet, the concepts of indigenous people's sovereignty and ethnic rights to self-determination and autonomy have, albeit reluctantly, become part of the accepted general political discourse.

The specifics of what might constitute ethno-sovereignty rights are still in the making and need to be addressed in each specific regional and national case. First and foremost, there is the important question of the social and spatial definition of indigenous people and groups. According to the "indigenistic" legislation of various national governments about indigenous ethnic groups are legally defined by their respective constituent communities (the resguardo in Colombia, the comunidad nativa and comunidad campesina in Peru, the comunidad indígena and ejido in Mexico, etc.). The entire ethnic group, even if legally recognized in some capacity by the state, does not constitute a juridical subject. However, indigenous organizations of Ecuador have obtained the state's recognition as "nationalities" for various indigenous ethnic communities, although this seems to be an exception in Latin America.

In view of the disagreement and confusion throughout Latin America about ethnosocial definitions and boundaries, indigenous leaders are addressing two complementary levels of sovereignty. One is "communal sovereignty" which is implicitly recognized by the state although conceptions of the nation-state. This group aimed to protect indigenous people against the homogenizing social project of nation-states, where indigenous people were to be assimilated into racial, linguistic, and cultural "mainstream society."

The Politicization of Indigenous People

Although the indigenous people of the Americas have been struggling against colonial powers for 500 years, it was mainly after World War II that they initiated political mobilization at the national and international levels to resist oppression. There were hundreds of indigenous insurrections, messianic movements, and ethno-nationalist rebellions that took place during the Iberian (Spanish and Portugese) colonial administration and the following Republican (independent Latin American states) period. There are also many other examples of early Indian political activism expressed in "modern" terms (i.e. influenced by the West in terms of political organization and discourse) in the various national territories of Latin America. However, only in the last five decades has evidence of a substantial national and international Indian movement been found in the proliferation of native organizations and non-governmental organizations (NGOs).

The rise of an international Indian movement can be traced to what has been called "post WWII Pax Americana." Pax Americana has been characterized by the massive expansion of the industrial base, the dependent development efforts in Latin America, the concomitant expansion of the internal national frontier in search of energy resources, and the facilitation of national integration and ethnic assimilation by nation-states. Resource exploitation and explorations of peripheral regions by multinational corporations and their local national representatives became suddenly the single most threatening event for indigenous people that had hitherto enjoyed relative autonomy In the course of a few decades, indigenous people in the relatively marginal areas of the lowlands of Central and South America became "internal refugees of underdevelopment." The traditional strategy of retreating to isolated areas or "zones of refuge" became less and less viable, thus forcing the Indians to go on the offensive.

State Nationalism & Transnationalization

A basic paradox appears in the globalization of Latin America's political economy. On one hand, transnational corporations in Latin America reduce the state's burden of having to supply entrepreneurial motivation in place of traditionally passive national oligarchies and bourgeoisie. On the other hand, the multinationals pose a problem to national security because they challenge a weakly integrated national entity Thus, two antagonistic forces came into play in latin America during the last few decades: a strong trend toward national consolidation that gives a sense of unity to heterogeneous territorial and ethnic spaces, and the state's need to transform itself ideologically and objectively from a liberal 19th century institution (centralized, authoritarian, homogenous) into a more flexible, less "nationalistic" entity.

The expected result of this contradictory trend has been the movement of transnational capital to less controlled areas. Indigenous territories that are not yet totally exploited, where environmental regulations, labor unions, and political organizations do not exist or are weak are prime targets. Concurrently, the internationalization of capital, labor, and the environment requires the privatization of the state. Even basic state functions such as police control are increasingly posited in private terms; in the 1980s, paramilitary forces in charge of repression spread rapidly. In sum, the ideology and process of integrating and assimilating indigenous people comes from the jurisdictions of a neo-dependent state that is affected by the hidden yet powerful authority of transnational capital.

Many Indigenous People & Few Anthropologists

In the 1970s, a new encounter between a handful of Latin American anthropologists and Indian leaders and intellectuals generated unexpected, creative alliances. The 1970s and the 1980s, "the lost decades of Latin America," were marked by paranoid and violent military dictatorships, obsessive attempts to repair illusory nations that were never fully accomplished, compulsive ventures of capitalist expansion on barely integrated national markets, and systematic assaults on indigenous rights and resources. The 1970s, however, had also inherited years of colonial critique. The writings and actions of Frantz Fanon, Albert Memmi, Jean Paul Sartre, Amilcar Cabral, Aimée Césaire, Ho Chi Minh, Che Guevara and those of the rediscovered Indian critics, and leaders such as Huamán Puma de Ayala, Túpac Amaru, Túpac Katari, Juan Santos Atahualpa, and Quintín Lame had been nourishing the thoughts and political experience of new generations of anthropologists and Indians. Some of the latter were already urban and proletarian, politically grounded in principles of class analysis and labor unionism, and global in their perception of the world system.

The massive process of Indian rural-urban migration caused by the expropriation of communal lands by landlords (in the Andean countries and various other indigenous regions of Latin Americas during the 1950s and 1960s) exacerbated the long-standing historical process of cyclical deterritorialization. This phenomenon, beginning in the late 16th century, uprooted Indian community seldom honored. At this level, there are local indigenous institutions and clear social-ethnic boundaries. The rather murky biotic boundaries pose a more complex problem of control over resources and genetics-an increasingly important topic in these times of bio-piracy and renewed environmental exploitation.

In contrast, the concept of "ethnic sovereignty" is rare or nonexistent from the state's point of view but is becoming more important to indigenous organizations. Total ethnic sovereignty is represented by the numerous indigenous ethnic organizations that have a legal and fully institutional existence. The ethnopolitical boundaries of these ethnic sovereignty groups may mean that the historically traceable ethnic frontiers (even if they are not actually under ethnic control) are being reclaimed by the organization as a political objective.

Finally, indigenous people are further developing organizations and legal avenues that meet the needs of the ever-growing members of those who are deterritorialized and living in cities or nations far removed from their traditional homelands. Since the outbreak of war in Guatemala during the 1970s tens of thousands of indigenous people have been killed, and thousands more have fled the country to seek sanctuary in Mexico and in the US. On the basis of shared cultural heritage, the need to defend themselves as aliens in a strange and often hostile land has motivated them to form interethnic associations.

Comparable to the presence of Guatemalan Maya refugees in the US is the presence of tens of thousands of indigenous people from southern Mexico in California and other western states. At any given time, there are 25,000 to 40,000 Mixtec migrant farmworkers in California alone. The Mixtecs, Zapotecs, Chinantec, Triques are mostly economic refugees from extremely impoverished and ecologically deteriorated regions where subsistence farming is almost impossible. Since the 1980s, these indigenous people have organized transnational and multiethnic organizations for the defense of their labor, human, and cultural rights.

The Force of Ideas

Two of the founding members of the Group of Barbados have since died. Guillermo Bonfil Batalla was killed in a car accident in 1992. He brought the profound injustice and racism of the social order in which indigenous people are forced to live, to the forefront of the Mexican and Latin American collective consciousness. Guillermo Bonfil predicted the re-emergence and consolidation of Indian civilizations that could change and energize the Mexican Revolution and establish the conditions for a truly democratic, autonomous, multiethnic development. Bonfil's prophecy came alive and was realized by a few thousand humble Mayan Indians in the jungles of Chiapas. In Brazil, Darcy Ribeiro passed away after fighting a disease that was supposed to have killed him more than 20 years ago. It was the disease itself that convinced the military dictatorship of Brazil, in 1973, to allow his return from a long exile in Uruguay, Chile, Venezuela and Peru. The military dictators thought that advanced cancer was enough of a guarantee to take care of this insubordinate mind. Darcy, the anthropologist, the Minister of Education, the novelist, the Senator of the new Brazilian democracy, survived the generals and brought back to his beloved country a vision of future that included the Indians. Darcy's vision of the Americas' future was also permeated by the cultural beauty of a few thousand Amazonian Indians. For Darcy Ribeiro, the "dilemma of Latin America," caught between modernization and tradition, and the loss of identity to neo-imperial power, could find a solution in the respectful rediscovery of its indigenous civilizational component. More than any other Latin American anthropologists and intellectuals, Guillermo Bonfil Batalla and Darcy Ribeiro believed in the power of ideas, in the mobilizing strength of cultural imagination, and in the contributions of every single indigenous person of the Americas to the construction of a new type of Latin American social citizenship: multiethnic, democratic, local and cosmopolitan, communal and universalistic.

Selected reading

Grunberg, Georg (Coordinador). 1995. Articulación de la Diversidad. Pluralidad Etnica, Autonomías y Democratización en América Latina. Grupo de Barbados, Ediciones de Abya Yala, N. 27, Quito, Ecuador.

Kearney, Michael and Stefano Varese. 1995. "Latin America's Indigenous Peoples: Changing Identities and Forms of Resistance." In Capital, Power, and Inequality in Latin America. Halebsky Sandor and Richard L. Harris, Eds. Boulder: Westview Press.

Maiguashca, Bice. 1994. "The Transnational Indigenous mMovement in a Changing World Order." Global Transformation: Challenges to the State System. In Sakamoto Yoshkazu, Ed. Tokyo: United Nations University Press.

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