Review: Indigenous Movements, Self-Representation, and the State in Latin America

Indigenous Movements, Self-Representation, and the State in Latin America

Edited by Kay B. Warren & Jean E. Jackson

University of Texas Press 2002

ISBN 0-292-79138-0 (hardcover)

0-292-79141-0 (paperback)

Reviewed by Jessica Mazonson

Indigenous organization and self-representation is a complex, seemingly paradoxical concept. An assumption has historically been made that “indigenousness” contradicts the essence of change; one loses authenticity if impacted and/or changed by dominant influences in society. For example, an indigenous spokesperson that assimilates mainstream rhetoric could be tagged illegitimate and lose credibility as a representative of indigenous peoples. Facing the historical reality of being voiceless and exploited, indigenous actors throughout Latin America have been forced to face this double bind and have discovered ways to work within or outside the state institution to advocate for change. Indigenous Movements, Self-Representation and the State in Latin America is a compilation of academic essays that address the dynamics of indigenous representation. The book dissects the anthropology of indigenous organizing, the process of identity formation, and the influential role of global and local economic, political, and technological pressures.

Indigenous groups are frequently treated as passive survivors of another age, a fatalistic view that rests on the inevitability of their extinction or complete assimilation. According to Alcida Ramos, Victor Montejo, and Kay Warren, even many social scientists missed the significant shifts in indigenous activism that began in the 1960s and 1970s.

Throughout the book, the authors describe how indigenous actors are actively seeking a proactive solution to a pessimistic situation. They review diverse responses to global transformations and expose the plethora of results from such organization.

In “How Should an Indian Speak?” Laura R. Graham reveals the consequences of linguistic choices among Amazonian Indians as she examines the complexity of indigenous self-representation. When addressing outside audiences in national and international arenas, indigenous spokespersons make strategic decisions about language use that have implications on their legitimacy and viability. As an alternative to centuries of silence that had resulted in abuse and destruction, indigenous people are now frequently forced to acquire the dominant language or to use a translator to make their claims heard. Graham explains that foreigners thirsting for a stereotypical depiction of an exotic, traditional culture often berate Indian mediators for using the dominant language.

Some indigenous spokespeople have learned to deploy signs of “Indianness” to Western audiences even if the meaning and value of their rhetoric is lost in translation. Graham’s article exemplifies the authors’ approaches to probing the methods of indigenous self-representation and teasing out the implications of organization.

In his essay “Representation, Polyphony, and the Construction of Power,” Terence Turner analyzes the use of modern media by indigenous people to represent themselves in more varied, creative, and culturally empowered ways. Turner looks at a Kayapó social drama and their employment of western video techniques to facilitate its resolution. He engages in a critical discussion about the extent to which “indigenous self-representations of their own cultures can themselves be considered ‘authentically’ indigenous cultural products,” and addresses whether indigenous cultures can employ Western techniques of representation such as video cameras without losing their cultural integrity and authenticity.

A simple internet search gives some indication of the extent to which indigenous peoples can represent themselves in the global community or with the assistance of international non-governmental organizations (NGOs). For example, the Nicaragua Network (Nicanet), a Washington, D.C.-based NGO, publicized a worldwide emergency action alert about the threat of a petroleum pipeline to be built this year in the indigenous community of Monkey Point by a Florida-based company. The organization’s Web site (www. posted interviews with indigenous community members and Phenix Group Chief Executive Officer Rick Wojck, and published an informative article with action suggestions. Nicanet enabled Pearl Watson, a nurse who was born in Monkey Point and speaks near-fluent English, to have her words and fears published throughout the world, ending the silence and hopefully the exploitation: “People [in Monkey Point] know that the pipeline would be destructive,” Watson said. She expressed little hope that the pipeline would be blocked since the government backs the project, and said she believed that her community’s only hope would be the application of international pressure.

Indigenous activism in Latin America is constantly evolving. Indigenous Movements, Self-Representation, and the State in Latin America is an excellent source for examining general phenomena and dilemmas that have resulted from new forms of representation, as it exposes the complicity of the double bind that challenges and unites indigenous peoples throughout the region.

Jessica Mazonson is a student at Washington University in St. Louis and a Cultural Survival intern.

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