sept. 2000
Nation & World : Sunday, September 24, 2000
Indigenous people make voices heard
By Joseph Coleman
The Associated Press

The plan seemed promising: Build a series of multimillion-dollar dams along Chile's spectacular BioBo River, boosting the country's troubled economy with foreign investment and jobs for thousands.

The planners, however, hadn't counted on the Pehuenche Indians. The small tribe and its supporters have waged a decadelong struggle against the project, making their case before Chile's courts, Washington lenders and the world media.

"We've been stepped on for 500 years," declared Hilda Huenteao, a 22-year-old Pehuenche whose family farm would be flooded by the project. "I think it's good for indigenous people to rise up and make people listen."

All around the world, people like the Pehuenches - from Guatemala to Finland, from India to Japan - are rising up.

The Aborigines of Australia are using the media focus on the Olympics in Sydney to draw attention to their suffering in the past two centuries and build international pressure for an apology from their government.

In the snowy reaches of northern Norway, Sweden and Finland, the indigenous Sami people are hard at work on a different project: reviving their native language. Nearly 200 books in Sami - a language once banned in Norwegian schools - have been published in the past decade. "You can see it all levels," said Joji Carino, an ethnic Ibaloi-Igorot from the Philippines who campaigns for indigenous rights. "Local community organizations are much stronger, and at the national level there are a number of countries that are passing laws recognizing indigenous rights."

Fueling the new assertiveness is a mix of expanding telecommunications technology, the growing education of indigenous people and an increasing awareness in wider society of what ancient cultures can offer, from traditional medicines and music to environmental protection.

History of devastation
The world's native peoples - who number about 300 million - have a lot to recover.
Their history has been one of devastation. Invaders massacred them and took their land. Colonizers stifled their dissent by systematically destroying their languages and cultures.

Traditions, even whole civilizations, were lost.

The destruction of the first inhabitants of the Americas and Australia by European colonists and their descendants looms large in the story, but history is filled with other examples: the suppression of the Samis on the northern rim of Europe; the near-total elimination of the Ainu by the Japanese; the destruction of the habitats of tropical forest people from Brazil to Borneo.
Today's indigenous live with the inheritance of those conquests: poverty, discrimination, drug and alcohol abuse, high crime and incarceration rates and a gnawing loss of identity and direction.

That inheritance is now under attack.

Resisted domination

The Pehuenche of Chile have always been fighters.

The Indians, together with other subgroups of the Mapuche people, resisted Spanish and Chilean domination for centuries, and were not subdued until the late 1880s.

More than a century later, some of the 10,000 Pehuenche living in the upper BioBo River south of Santiago faced another battle - this time against a plan for five dams along the waterway running through their lands.

They say the project will flood their ancestral fields and wipe out the region's ecosystem. They have gone to court, lobbied against funding by the World Bank and won the attention of environmentalist groups worldwide.

"For us, the land of the BioBo is very important because it's where we were raised," said Hilda Huenteao, whose mother is a leading opponent of the dams. "It's the inheritance that our ancestors have left us. It's all we have left."

Indigenous groups elsewhere also are presenting the preservation of their culture and way of life as a key to the conserving the environment and the world's biodiversity.

The BioBo campaign has yielded limited results. One of the dams in the plan has already been built, and the company running the project, ENDESA, is close to clinching final approval for the second phase, the $500 million Ralco Dam. Petitions against it, however, are still pending in court.

Supporters of the Pehuenche say that whatever its outcome, their battle has been valuable.

"The case of the BioBo has been emblematic," said Juan Pablo Orrego, president of the Action Group for the BioBo in Santiago. "It has summed up the themes of the rights of the Mapuche, of indigenous people in general in Chile ... and the question of the environment."

Pulled back from the brink

The Hurons of Quebec thought they were alone in the world.

Once a formidable tribe and a major player in the power struggles of 17th century North America, the Hurons were down to fewer than 1,000 people and seemed headed to extinction.

Then technology intervened.

Using the lightning-fast communications and research possibilities of the Internet, the Hurons of Quebec in just a few years have discovered clusters of descendants of tribe members dispersed over the centuries to places like Kansas, Oklahoma and Ontario.

Now their group numbers 10,000, holding periodic tribal conferences to discuss their history and traditions.

"Thanks to communications and the Internet, there's a nation here that has come back to life," said Georges Sioui, a Huron from Quebec who is president of the Institute of Indigenous Government in Vancouver, B.C.

Those discoveries are part of a wider trend: The world's indigenous groups - long considered primitive in comparison to the dominant societies - are embracing the latest in telecommunications to publicize their ideas and strengthen their ties to one another.

There are thousands of Web sites on the subject, from essays on the Kadazan of Malaysia to sophisticated home pages on the Maoris of New Zealand.

The move toward technology is not without controversy.

Fears of exploitation

Because of their poverty, indigenous groups often lack access to technological tools. And some say Western scientific innovations should be absorbed cautiously, since technology - such as firearms - has been used to subjugate native peoples.

That ambivalence has deepened with the quickening pace of globalization.

Multinational corporations and scientists are increasingly interested in traditional medicines and indigenous habitats, whose plants may yield rare organic compounds useful in developing pharmaceuticals and other products.

Fears that indigenous peoples will be stripped for their knowledge and then discarded have made many wary of trying to commercialize native remedies and cultural knowledge. They say further safeguards and controls over the uses of indigenous knowledge are needed.

Jannie Lasimbang, an ethnic Kadazan activist from the Sabah region of northern Borneo, added that native beliefs often don't mix with the financial motives of outsiders.

"In Sabah, people still attach traditional medicine and knowledge to something spiritual and it has a value that you cannot just buy and sell," she said. "And if you write it on paper and make use of it for money, it is seen against the ethics of healing and of health."

Aborigines make strides

The Aborigines of Australia stand as a striking example of the gains the world's indigenous people have made in recent decades - and the distance they still have to go to recover from their losses.

From a population believed to be as large as 1 million before the arrival of British colonizers in 1788, they have been reduced by killings, disease and assimilation to 386,000 in a mostly white nation of 19 million.

Not until 1967 did they win the same citizenship rights as other Australians. In 1992, the Australian High Court overturned the legal concept that the land of Australia belonged to no one when the Europeans arrived. Recognition of indigenous land rights followed, though those rights have since been scaled back.

In the past decade or so, there has been a big push to explore in detail the mistreatment of the Aborigines and to bridge the racial divide. But many Aborigines say the promise of those changes has not been realized. Aborigines are the poorest of Australians, with higher levels of alcoholism, lower life expectancies and much higher crime and imprisonment rates.

"It's always been a case of one step forward and two steps back," said Australian Sen. Aden Ridgeway, the only Aborigine in the national legislature. "Indigenous people are being alienated and excluded from all opportunity in the Australian way of life."

A major demand these days is for an official apology for the 1910-1971 policy of assimilation whereby thousands of Aboriginal children were taken from their families and given to whites to raise. The government so far has refused.

Rights and culture

In the end, indigenous activists say their greatest hope for the coming century is a simple one: wider society's recognition of their rights and culture.

That goal is getting closer in many places.

In 1997, courts in Japan declared the Ainu as the country's indigenous people rather than simply an ethnic minority. The head of the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs recently apologized for the agency's "legacy of racism and inhumanity."

The growing willingness among dominant cultures to accept - and in some cases even celebrate - the indigenous is growing out of several trends. One is the increasing recognition of indigenous people as custodians of the environment. Another is a pragmatic reaction by governments and companies to indigenous groups' enhanced public-relations clout.

The results, however limited, are being played out ever more prominently on the world stage.

In 1995, the United Nations launched the International Decade of the World's Indigenous People and recently decided to create a permanent U.N. forum on indigenous rights. Indigenous representatives regularly attend international meetings.

Some also see something deeper than politics or the environment at work: an erosion of the belief that modern industrial life is the pinnacle of human achievement.

"One strengthening element has been the loss of faith in the dominant societies themselves, a loss of the illusion of a great white way of life," said Sioui, the Huron educator.

"Instinctively, people feel that they have to go back to their roots - and maybe the indigenous peoples represent those spiritual roots." Source: On the web

Some Internet sites dealing with indigenous peoples: Aboriginal Links International:
World Wide Web Virtual Library, Indigenous Studies:
Center for World Indigenous Studies:
Cultural Survival:
BioBo River Campaign:
Alaska Native Knowledge Network:
Magick River (Malaysia):
Samefolket (Samis of Scandinavia):
Huron History: