She was seventeen when she decided to learn Spanish. Until that time, Rigoberta Menchu Tum spoke only Quiche, a Mayan language. In Guatemala, where 65 percent of the population is indigenous, it was not difficult for a young Quiche woman to maintain distance from the Spanish-speaking dominant culture. But as Rigoberta Menchu became involved in politics – first in the Committee of the Peasant Union and then in the 31st of January Popular Front – the Spanish language as well as other Mayan languages became important tools for communication and organizing.
During these years of political engagement within Guatemala, Menchu rallied Guatemalans of all backgrounds to oppose the military dictatorship that had killed her mother and father and brother.
Through it all, though, she remained committed to advocating on behalf of indigenous peoples in her country and throughout the world. “We are not myths of the past, ruins in the jungle, or zoos,” Menchu told a Danish interviewer in 1992. “We are people and we want to be respected, not to be victims of intolerance and racism.” In that year, she received the Nobel Peace Prize, on the heels of the UN declaration that 1993 would be the year of indigenous peoples. Her award was a pointed reminder that, despite the celebrations in Spain, Italy, and the United States of Christopher Columbus’s “discovery” of the “New World,” not everyone was in a celebratory mood. Although Menchu has returned to Guatemala to testify against the military government, death threats have forced her back into exile. It is a terrible irony. One of the world’s foremost advocates of indigenous rights cannot live in her own land.
Before the holocausts of the 20th century, there was the holocaust committed against the indigenous peoples of the Americas. Historian Alfred Crosby estimates that 60-80 million Native Americans died from disease, slavery, and slaughter at the hands of the invading Europeans. The Andes, to give just one example, didn’t recover to its pre-colonial population of 32 million until the 1970s. Other peoples, such as the Arawaks of the Bahamas and the Taino of the Caribbean, were wiped out altogether. Those indigenous peoples who survived contact have been forced to the margins. In the United States, a great many Native Americans live on reservations, their tribes having moved far from their original homelands. In Australia, the government long restricted aboriginal peoples to unwanted land or to mission settlements. In Norway, the government tried to wipe out the culture of the Sami in the first half of the 20th century. The Austronesian peoples of Taiwan have been overwhelmed by Chinese culture. More recently, the Guatemalan government wiped out over 600 rural villages in the Mayan highlands in the early 1980s, killing thousands of indigenous people.
Settler cultures have appropriated not only the land but also the traditional knowledge and cultural practices of native peoples. The Pilgrims who would eventually exterminate the Patuxent Indians, first learned from them how to grow corn and survive in the unfamiliar climate of New England. Today, the appropriation of indigenous knowledge is less crude perhaps but still represents an unbalanced exchange. Traditional medicines, foods, and handicrafts represent potential profit for outside corporations, but except in unusual circumstances the indigenous communities control neither the outflow of resources nor the inflow of capital. Despite this history of pain and profiteering, indigenous cultures are thriving throughout the world. Consider, for instance, the music of Aboriginal Australian bands, the pottery and sculpture of Native Americans, the tapestries of the Hmong, the remarkable awareness of nature among the few remaining hunting and gathering cultures.
Who is indigenous? Is membership in an indigenous culture more a matter of bloodlines or upbringing? How should the issue of reparations for past injustices be handled – locally, regionally, or internationally? What would a fair and just system for the preservation and sharing of traditional knowledge look like? Should all contact cease between the modern world and the few still traditional indigenous communities? When will “indigenous anthropologists” begin to study modern multicultural societies? In a world of overlapping identities, pervasive televised news and entertainments, and ever more widespread telecommunications systems, how much authenticity can indigenous cultures preserve? Or is “authenticity” a false category in a world in which everything has become a hybrid form?
On a trip to Provisions, you can read about the life of hunter gatherers told from the perspective of the Inuits in Hugh Brody’s The Other Side of Eden, scrutinize the penetrating analyses of Cultural Survival Quarterly, log on to read the Draft United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, listen to the songs of Joy Harjo’s Native Joy for Real, and see Kenneth Branagh play the heavy and three amateur child actors steal all the scenes in the film Rabbit-Proof Fence.