Voices of Courage: Indigenous people tell their stories of persecution, humiliation, and hope

Voices of Courage: Indigenous people tell their stories of persecution,. humiliation, and hope

Since its founding in 1982, Cultural Survival Quarterly has become the largest subscription international journal to document the realities of indigenous people. The fact that so many indigenous peoples have survived the discrimination, persecution, and genocidal campaigns launched against them is a tribute to their tenaciousness. The fact that they still have the courage to speak is even more remarkable. We have tried to provide a forum in which indigenous peoples can speak for themselves.

And speak they do, with a simple, forceful eloquence that often harks back to oral traditions. Unfortunately, most academics, journalists, and filmmakers do not take the time to hear what these people have to say. They summarize their stories, find outside experts to speak for them, or insert voice-overs that serve the filmmaker's thesis but often miss the point of what indigenous people are trying to say.

From the beginning, we decided that indigenous voices should be heard in their own right - not in a vacuum, but as an integral part of the discussions that directly affected their future. Nowhere was that need clearer than with the victims of conflict. To give balanced coverage, journalists often talk to government officials who were directly involved in crimes against indigenous people, but not to the victims themselves: these people are considered "biased." In the face of this intolerable practice, Cultural Survival Quarterly has given the victims a chance to tell their side of a story. It is essential that such people show the world that they not only perceived their conditions accurately, but that they also had ideas about how to improve them - ideas that are both well reasoned and reasonable.

Unfortunately, much of the space devoted in this magazine to indigenous voices has focused on peoples in crisis. Excerpts from people living in Burma, Cambodia, Djibouti, Guatemala, Mozambique, Sudan, and Tibet allowed, or rather forced, our readers to see the day-to-day reality of people who are part of, but virtually powerless in, the global political and economic system that we have created.

Some voices, however, have addressed more subtle issues of concern to indigenous peoples: the power of imposing a national language in Ethiopia, the impact of gold miners in Brazil, loss of land and ethnic conflict in Colombia, the introduction of agribusinesses in the Ecuadorian rain forests. These pieces, excerpted here, demonstrate the relentless and profound nature of the attacks on the identities and resource bases of native groups.

Sadly, in our attempts to assist groups in redressing the massive human rights violations that they have suffered, we have missed the voices of everyday life, of love and laughter, the dreams of experience and the visions of hope. These voices are perhaps the ones that indigenous groups would most like to share with the world. Perhaps we can open our pages wider to these truths in the next decade.


The power of language in demoralizing an entire people is stirringly described by this Oromo man, who writes about being a subject in the Ethiopian empire. His political and psychological rebirth was ignored by many of his more conservative friends - proof of the Oromo proverb, "You can't wake a man who's pretending to sleep."

When I declared my own personal independence from Ethiopia, all I had to do was tell my friends and acquaintances to start referring to me as an Oromo. Abyssinians had their own special curse word for their longtime mortal enemies who recently became their slaves; that word was Galla. What is unbelievable is that they were able to get the world also to call us "Gallas" for almost a hundred years. If you go to the card catalogue of any library, you find the word Galls to refer to my people instead of Oromo. But no Oromo will use that word to refer to himself. It has always been an insult.…

A great number of Oromos have begun to realize that our very own history has been written by other people. It is not a new thing on the African continent for the history of a people to be written by their conquerors. Becoming educated about one's own past has always been part of the process of liberation.

Everyone recognizes that this kind of national liberation is group battle. But it is also a difficult personal battle for the educated ones. Our battles do not take place on the battlefields; the ammunition that disables us is words. For us, a single phrase can be more powerful than a bullet. It can go straight to the heart and make one weak with terror. It can go to the brain, scramble thoughts. A phrase or a label can silence a person. It can make him impotent. Our conquerors built up a huge arsenal of potent phrases to use against us every time we showed an interest, sympathy, or pride in our own tradition, and they took a shot at us every chance they got. They still do.…

For me to decide to call myself an Oromo and to insist that all others call me an Oromo was my moment of truth. You may think that it is just a small thing. But for me it was war.


Persecution through language is quite another thing from persecution through torture; torture can twist the language of the most dedicated believer into lies. This testimony is from a political prisoner being held in Tibet.

At work we do our tasks separately and without talking. We are not allowed to speak to one another. If we do, they use cattle prods on us and yell at us. We work as if we were mute.…

Struggle sessions are held [in prison] ... and people are beaten fiercely. People in the group unit are told: "You speak! You speak!" The person to be "struggled" against is placed in the middle and is told that he has not done well, that he has said such and such. If he argues and fights back he is shackled, hands and feet ... and placed in a dark room, [still] shackled. Two prisoners are placed in an outer room to watch him. Outside ... PSB people are stationed. The prisoner can be in that room for one, five, or six months. Thieves and murderers are in the prison too, but political prisoners are treated worst of all .... They don't want to kill them outright, as that would be scandalous in much of the world, so they treat them very badly.…

There is torture in prison.... When one is questioned, if good answers are not given cattle prods are used ... one is severely beaten .... In the winter one is forced to kneel on ice ... the pants are rolled u, one is bound tightly and one's [bare] knees are on the ice for an hour .... [In prisons] in sparsely populated areas [i.e., away from the cities] one is beaten very often. One is beaten with rifle butts.


Not for the faint of heart, this excerpt provides only a brief glimpse of the horror wrought by the war in southern Sudan between government forces and member of the Sudanese People's Liberation Army (SPLA). According to an issue of The New Yorker of that year (1988), this article changed US policy toward the government in Sudan. * August 11 Responding to a "missile attack," Maj. Gen. Abu Gurun personally supervises search of Wau area inhabited by poor Dinka. All people without identification are shot by army and many houses are burned or looted. Total killed is unknown, but police report finding 89 bodies. Hundreds are brought to riverside by lorry and machine-gunned and dumped in river. Dinka boys, aged six to 10, are forced to kill their families with spears. Army puts 62 people in empty ammunition storeroom and gasses them to death with exhaust pipe connected from armored personnel carrier (witnesses report "red-lipped corpses," indicating carbon monoxide poisoning). Partial lists of missing or killed total 1,132. Gurun claims three "terrorists" killed. * September 6 Army in shoot-out with police, claiming mainly civilian victims. Total killed unknown, but police collected 310-350 bodies. Four army lorries are seen overloaded with mainly Dinka bodies; 100-150 people seen machine-gunned and thrown in river. Many displaced people living in the town center are shot by the army or crushed by tanks, with "heaps" of bodies all over town. One senior army officer reports 564 houses burned or destroyed by tanks, sometimes with people inside; one senior police officer estimates number of dead at more than 2,000. * October 18 Four "SPLA soldiers," whom army claims to have killed near Wau, are identified as elderly women leprosy victims.


Many of Cultural Survival Quarterly's eyewitness pieces on human rights violations are cited as "anonymous" or are published under pseudonyms. This is no coincidence. There is no reason the writers should risk receiving the treatment they give testimony to. Here a resident of Loikaw township in Burma writes of the Burmese Army's reign of terror.

If the headmen of each quarter could not fulfill the soldiers' demands they threatened the headmen that the soldiers would search each and every house again and shanghai every able-bodied man they could lay their hands on.

So the headmen had to collect by force from each and every family in their quarter (kyats 100/- 75/- 50/- 45) [8 kyats per US $1] and pooled all that money and hired professional porters (those who willingly work as porters for a fee between kyats, 1,500 and 3,000 for a military operation).

A 60-year-old man was shanghaied in Nammehkon village about five miles west of Loikaw.

At about 2:00 A.M. on 6/23/89 the door of a certain house in Shwedaung quarter in Loikaw was opened forcibly by solders of 66th Division and [in] the ensuing quarrel the soldiers load[ed] their weapons and made the head of the family and [his] son draw the long Burmese swords. But there was not bloodshed. After that accident ... the Township Law and Order Restoration oligarchs summoned that head of the family and gave him a serious warning.

On the same night they forced the door of Myanma Insurance corporation branch office in Shwedaung quarter, Loikaw, and hijacked a government clerk. Later he was released.

On one occasion in Shwedaung quarter, a certain man pleaded to the soldiers that he had a chronic illness and gastritis; the answer for his pleas was beatings and jabbings with bayoners, so that blood came dripping down from the man's mouth.

On that same 23rd June 1989 night every house in Shwedaung quarter was forced open and hijacked; many people ... could not flee. Among those people were many schoolteachers.

About a week ago a hijacked porter was killed by a land mine several miles east of Loikaw. When the relatives of that man went to collect the body, another one was killed, again by a land mine, and some were wounded.

The same incidents occurred in nearly every quarter of Loikaw.

Whenever there was a military operation it was known that they let [used?] the porters (by force, of course) as point men. The loads the porters had to carry were heavy and sometimes the soldiers let the porters starve. When the porters were wounded or ill they were simply left in the jungle. If the porters were killed there were no compensations or any kind of assistance to the family left behind.

Sometimes some of the porters simply didn't come back. No news about whether that porter was dead or alive, and the soldiers simply didn't care. When the operations were over and the porters came back, most of them came back feverishly ill with malaria, and some just like living.

Cultural Survival's Jason Clay spent the 1980s developing a research methodology that would allow outsiders to document reliably the realities of refugees and displaced people. The intent was to discover the experiences of the average person, not just those of the extreme cases. These methods have been used with considerable success in Chad, Djibouti, Ethiopia, and many other countries. A 1988 State Department report using this methodology, on refugees fleeing the conflict between Frelimo (Mozambican government forces) and Renamo (Mazambique National Resistance Movement), also cites the harsh treatment of forcibly recruited porters, in this instance by Renamo soldiers.

Porters reported uniformly that discipline on these forced marches is extremely harsh. Those who cannot keep up, who rest without authorization, drop their burdens, or refuse to continue are routinely beaten very severely, sometimes until they die. Over half of those who served as porters said they had witnessed cases of porters beaten to death or executed for these reasons.


In Mozambique, women suffered further degradation by being the victims of sexual abuse inflicted by Renamo combatants.

Another function of the young girls and adult women is to provide sex to the combatants. Refugee reports indicate that these women are required to submit to sexual demands, in effect to be raped, on a frequent, sustained basis. The rape may occur in field area residences. According to those who have served as porters, women are frequently raped along the transport routes. Women are also dispatched from the field areas to combatant bases on demand. One of the frequent refugee complaints (verified by medical relief workers in some of the refugee camps) is the level of venereal disease proliferated by this practice. Young girls and women who resist sexual demands are beaten severely, a punishment that might also be inflicted on the husband or father of the woman who resists. Such punishment reportedly can, at times, include execution.

The majority of refugees are women and children. This excerpt is from an article on the sexual abuse of refugee women in Djibouti - abuse uncovered by a CS research team that was subsequently expelled from the country at the suggestion of the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees for asking about such issues.

Lensa, one refugee, agreed to talk about her experience after two years of silence. At age 18, she arrived from the two-week trek through the Danakil desert, physically exhausted, badly dehydrated, and with blistering sores from exposure on her feet and body. But the most terrible part of her ordeal, she points out, was the three days she was held at the border jail and raped repeatedly. The border soldiers threatened to deport her back to Ethiopia if she didn't allow them to "sleep with" her.

She appealed on religious terms to the first soldier to spare her, and even pleaded with him to kill rather than rape her. He continued anyway, holding a knife to her throat. She fainted. Later she was passed on to other soldiers at the post; at the end, she said, she was barely able to walk.


An article in Cultural Survival Quarterly's special issue on Guatemala ("Death and Disorder in Guatemala," vol. 7, no. 1, 1983) examined a massacre that took place on the rural estate of San Francisco on 17 July 1982. Although it described only one of many massacres that have occurred in that troubled country, this in-depth study gave readers an idea of what such repression is like in the face of numbing casualty figures from unknown, far-off places.

The soldiers ... began to shoot the women in the church. Those who were not killed that way were taken to their houses where they were killed with machetes... Next, they returned to the church to kill the children who, separated from their mothers, had been left crying and screaming. They killed them by slitting open their stomachs and smashing them against hard wooden poles. Witnesses saw the horrifying spectacle through holes in the court-house window and for a moment when the soldier standing guard opened the courthouse door.

After killing the children, they began with the men - first old men, then the working men and youths. They took them outside in groups and killed most of them. Inside the courthouse, they killed the local authorities - the sheriff, the auxiliary mayor, and the police.


The genocide mastered by Pol Pot through his deadly Khmer Rouge claimed more than one million lives. Cultural Survival Quarterly's issue on Cambodia ("Cambodia 1990," vol. 14, no. 3, 1990) told many stories of the bitter legacy that this mass murder has left on the country - as well as the strength of its survivors in overcoming their loss.

The murders of ordinary Cambodians, some one million in all, are of course the most shocking, bizarre, and horrific legacy of Pol Pot's tenure. Mass grave memorials have been established throughout the country, the two most famous being Tuol Sleng and Choeung Ek. At Tuol Sleng, a former school in Phnom Penh that was turned into a prison after 1975, some 20,000 victims were interrogated, tortured, and executed. The skulls and bones of the victims are now housed in Choeung Ek, a suburb of Phnom Penh where prisoners were taken from Tuol Sleng to be executed.

In the village of Po Pai Phnom, located a few kilometers outside the remains of the old city of Kompong Speu, the skulls and bones of 30,000 people who were killed by being struck with hoes to the back of their necks have been piled high in the shape of a pyramid and stored in a simple, unadorned wood building adjacent to the Buddhist temple. The temple itself was used as a place of torture and killing. Today the rope still hangs from the ceiling from which victims were hung and slammed against a temple mural depicting a disciple of Buddha with his hands over his eyes. This scene must have depicted a tragically ironic gesture to those whose blood stained the same temple wall. The temple is now once again used by villagers for worship, and they are proud to say that they have 11 monks who actively practice the state religion of Buddhism. The yearly ceremony for the ancestors must take on a special significance in this temple.


In Burma, a country long torn apart by conflict, the struggle for equal rights goes on amid severe government repression. Burma's leading dissident and this year's winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, Aung San Suu Kyi, the daughter of one of pre-independence Burma's greatest leaders and martyrs, Aung San, is in her second year of house arrest; many more Burmese working for peace and equality remain sequestered in the hills or in jail. Here are some thoughts from a Mon woman, Mi Chan, who is a farmer. The second paragraph, spoken by Mi Chan Mon, a teacher, reflects the displacement that many Mons are experiencing under the Ne Win regime.

Sometimes revolutionary forces arrive in our village. They do not do any harm to us. They treat us very well. Anything they want, they give its value. They only give us political speeches about their struggling for equal rights and self-determination. It is right: there are no equal rights and the ethnic groups lost their right to self-determination. The government does not recognize their equal rights and self-determination. The government follows the policy of elimination of all minority groups by force. I do not believe that fighting could bring peace to Burma. Even the government has already launched a 40-year-old civil war; it could not meet its goal, yet. I deeply believe that only negotiation could bring true peace to Burma. [Mi Chan]

AGain, in April 1989, Ne Win's troops - about 40 strong (from 61st Battalion) - came to our village to seize the surplus paddy from farmers. Before entering the village they came across with some Mon soldiers and they exchange gunfire for a few moments. No casualties on both sides. But Ne Win's troops took it as a secret plot by the villagers and they were extremely angry. So the result was the burning down of the village! Fifteen houses, including my house, were burnt to ashes. All the house owners were forced to look on helplessly. No aid from the local government authorities was rushed to the fire victims. Instead, kind villagers built up small huts for the homeless people and some necessities such as food, clothing, and medicine were provided. Until now, we are leading a poor life in a small hut, but thanks to our kind villagers! [Mi Chan Mon]


Cultural Survival Quarterly has always taken pains to reprint statements made by indigenous leaders or alliances at the many congresses and meetings taking place around the world. This speech was delivered at a meeting of the Kuna General Congress, the semi-annual democratic council that oversees Kuna Yala, a territorial reserve in northeastern Panama held by the coastal San Blas Kuna Indians. This chief from a community of Rio Caim n Nuevo near the Gulf of Uraba in Colombia describes his people's unhappy experiences with Colombian peasants entering the reserve - peasants who themselves are often the victims of land loss and displacement from other regions.

I want to tell you how this came to be. My friends, a great evil is coming. In the beginning, when the evil first appears, it's never recognized for what it is. At Caim n River, when first the evil came in on us, it was the latinos who collected medicinal roots. When they had finished, the rubber tappers arrived. When that phase came to an end, others came. When the lumbermen came, latinos began to settle and the forest began to be touched. They began to cut down the cacao trees. On top of that, our farms of mature bananas began to be cut. The latinos took all our land away from us.…

Colombia has so many people that the land is giving out. In all of Antioquia the forests are all gone, therefore, our way of going back and forth to the forest has come to an end. We hardly go to the forest at all any more. It's far away. You can go for a whole day without seeing any forest; and then you'll begin to see little scattered islands of forest where we can still gather a few things.…

If you work on these things [forest projects] like this in enough time, you'll do well for yourselves. The land is a good thing. We must fight for it. We must speak for it. We must suffer for it. Only in that way can things really be helped.

CONFENIAE, the Confederation of Indian Nations of the Ecuadorian Amazon, is made up of members of the Siona-Secoya, Cofan, Huaorani, Quichua, and Shuar Indian nations. This letter address a land dispute between members of a Quichua Indian community and colonists who entered the area illegally. In a larger context, the letter argues that while the extensive deforestation brought on by plantation cropping wreaks havoc on Indians' lifestyles, Indians do not consider themselves "antidevelopment." Their requests are for sustainable land use and respect for their land rights.

The things that are happening in the invaded communities are only the beginning of what will happen in the future to our communities, which are being attacked by multinationals and foreign investors that are robbing our lands and, in so doing, are impeding the development of our lands as fits our cultures.

In the face of the dramatic situation we are living through we, the Indian peoples of Ecuador, ask that all peoples, Indian and non-Indian alike, support groups and democratic and progressive governments of the world, lend their solidarity and their support.

We believe that there is still hope. We believe that if all of you help us to pressure the multinational firms, the foreign investors, and our own government, our extermination as peoples can still be prevented. When the businesses have robbed us of our lands and our sons are peons on the plantations, you can lament what has happened, but as for us, our peoples and our cultures will no longer exist.

Davi Yanomami is the chief spokesman and leader of the Brazilian Yanomami Indians, one of the world's better-known indigenous groups. This excerpt is part of an interview that Davi gave in connection with an American Anthropological Association special investigation into the threats facing the Yanomami through land loss, disease, and human rights violations. With characteristic eloquence, Davi outlines the Yanomamis' world view and its importance in their struggle to save their culture and their land.

We have two struggles: the fight to defend the earth, the environment, the sky, the wind, the trees, and the earth; and the fight to defend our land, our territory. The shabori [shamans] know how to do this; it is their work, because they understand Omame [God, the Creator] and his ways. Omame is like a government, like the president of the world, more powerful than any human government. The governments of the whites, like that of Brazil, do not know Omame, they don't listen to him, or the shamans. They are ruining the world, and the shamans are very worried about this, but they are growing tired of speaking our against it, they are giving up. This way the world will come to an end.…

The pollution that the whites are creating is a smoke: the smoke of factories, the smoke of the forest-clearing fires, the smoke of bombs. The whites make war, drop this atomic bomb, and the smoke billows up, covering the whole world. This smoke causes much sickness among people, and the shamans are very concerned about it. People all over the world, whites, Indians, are falling ill with the sickness caused by this pollution from the smoke of metal.

The world is a sky. This smoke of pollution that the whites are generating will rise up into this sky until the sky will no longer be able to bear it, and then the world will explode, and that will be the end of it. This will happen if we do not stop this pollution. We all have dirty spirits. The whites have dirty spirits; the Indians, too. There are, however, places in this world that are not dirty, where nature is still clean, as Omame directed. The shamans know these places, they understand this cleanness, they can teach it to others.

In the cities of the whites there are many poor people. Why? Because the rich whites seize their lands, take their money, and don't give it back. Indians don't do this. We don't have poor people. Every one of us can use the land, can clear a garden, can hunt, fish. An Indian when he needs to eat kills just one or two tapirs. He only cuts down a few trees to make his garden. He doesn't annihilate the animals and the forest. The whites do this, they finish the trees and the animals because they cut down great areas of forest and kill all the animals, so that they can never come back.

The huburibi [spirits of blindness] live underground, with the gold and cassiterite. They escape in the dust, they get in the eyes and cause oncocercose. Omame hid the shawara [epidemic diseases] under the earth. Nabewakaribe [literally "whites - giant armadillos"; i.e., miners] use machines and dig deep holes in the earth [to get] iron, to make pieces of airplanes, of trains. This stirs up much dust, which the wind carries like smoke, and this makes many people sick.

There is also a petroleum disease (I learned about this from Lorival, the headman of my village, and my teacher; he is a shaman who is also my father-in-law). The whites take oil out of the earth. The oil, the iron, the rocks are not dead, they are alive. They only die when they are heated in the factories. Then their spirits go wheeling around through the air, in the wind, and sicken children and old people. The shawara of stones gets out and wants vengeance. This is the universal sickness of pollution - the disease of smoke. It arises from iron, stones, oil, bombs - all these things. This is why I am worried about the war in Arabia, and all the black smoke that is rising from the [burning] petroleum.

If the miners are removed [from our land] only to make way for big mining companies with huge machines that can dig even deeper, this will only make things even worse, it will let loose even more shawara, more epidemics. Disease is greedy; it wants to eat people, it is a glutton. It is too strong for the shamans; there are not in this world shamans strong enough to stand up to it. This way everyone will be killed. The world will be destroyed in our own time; it will not survive us. This is what Lorival says, it is what all the Yanomami are saying, and other Indians as well. [There are not enough] strong shamans.

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