By Aidan Rankin
If now I sit once more for a brief quarter hour on the parapet of the bridge from which as a child I dangled my fishing line a thousand times, I am powerfully gripped by an awareness of how beautiful and remarkable was the experience of possessing a place to call my own. Just once to have known in one small corner of the globe each house and every window in them, and every person behind each window! Just once to have felt inseparable from a particular corner of the world, much as a tree is bound by its roots to its own particular spot.
The ahatai [settlers] have always coveted Llakha Honhat [Our Land], and they have used deceit and violence in order to take it from us. … They did not plant the trees; they do not keep the bees; the wild animals and fish do not belong to them. … We have always lived here, since the time of creation — we are as much a part of Llakha Honhat as the trees that grow on it. Our land belongs to us because we belong to the land.
Oral History of the Wichi Indians (Northern Argentina)
Our roots are deep in the lands where we live. We have a great love for our country, for our birthplace is here. The soil is rich from the bones of thousands of our generations. Each of us was created in these lands and it is our duty to take care of them, because from these lands will spring the future generations of our peoples. We will walk about with great respect for the Earth, for it is a very Sacred Place.
Sioux, Navajo and Iroquois declaration, USA, 1978
The struggle for indigenous peoples’ rights is not about rights in the narrow, Western liberal sense — the “right” to be assimilated in a ‘multicultural society’, the ‘right’ to participate in a global marketplace, the ‘right’ to citizenship of a remote, impersonal, irrelevant state. Indigenous peoples’ rights are about land, community and self-determination, the rights of peoples to preserve their distinctive cultures and identities.
From Siberia to Sudan, Brazil to Bangladesh, indigenous populations demand nothing more — or less — than the right to relate to the world around them on their own terms. This simple, very natural desire has placed them in violent conflict with centralising governments, rapacious transnational corporations, agro-industrial “experts”, fundamentalist missionaries, ‘politically correct’ teachers — a plethora of evil-doers and do-gooders who assume the right to interfere in their lives.
When they assert their right to self-rule, indigenous peoples face at best ambivalence, at worst hostility and scorn from the so-called ‘civilised world’. This is because their movements elude the facile, right/left stereotypes of conventional political discourse. They are opposed to capitalism and view their land as common property, positions that might suggest affinities with the left. Yet their emphasis on roots, on tradition and continuity, on language, culture, ethnic identity and spirituality, is conservative in the true and best sense of the word. It is a conservatism that would probably have been understood by Edmund Burke, who spoke of the successful state as one that builds upon foundations of inherited wisdom :
By preserving the method of nature in the conduct of the state, in what we improve, we are never wholly new; in what we retain, we are never wholly obsolete. …. we have given to our frame of polity the image of a relation in blood; …. adopting our fundamental laws into the bosoms of our family affections; keeping inseparable …. our state, our hearths, our sepulchres and our altars.
Indigenous societies are not static. They evolve like any other human groups, perhaps more than most. They have complex histories of convulsion and change, be that change political or climatic. They create art and literature, make music, adapt themselves to some of the harshest conditions known to man. Their respect for tradition as a humanising influence, their opposition to arbitrarily imposed change of unproven worth is anathema to both the neo-liberal right and the multicultural left.
Burke’s conservative defence of the organic community is drawn from his best-known work, Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), a timely exposure of the way that abstract, rootless ‘rights’ can become instruments of tyranny. More than thirty years earlier, in 1756, Burke wrote another book, A Vindication of Natural Society, where he attacked the idea of ‘development’ for its own sake and (in language familiar to indigenous activists today) expresses his supreme belief in a nature which “if left to itself were the best and surest Guide”. He later repudiated this early work, which had been praised by the anarchist pioneer William Godwin. The connection between respect for nature and traditionalist conservatism is perhaps more easily understood in our own age, the butt-end of the industrial revolution.
Like true anarchists — and indeed true conservatives — indigenous peoples do not recognise divisions between state and community, between politics, the arts and everyday life. Some societies, like the Pygmies of the central African forest, are made up of highly individualistic hunters and warriors, whose communal bonds are loose. Others, like the Kalahari Bushmen and the Wichi of Argentina cited above, practise forms of ‘primitive communism’ that reconcile individual creativity and strength with an ethic of social responsibility. The Tuareg of North-West Africa are nomads with a proud warrior tradition and a rigid hierarchy. Were they to meet, these disparate peoples would doubtless celebrate the many differences between themselves. The more discerning among them, might, however, recognise common values — respect for craftsmanship and custom, traditions of story-telling, belief in man as part of nature, not above or beyond it. Those rendered ‘politically aware’ by painful contact with the West might also see their disparate societies as pockets of resistance to globalisation, to the ideology of ‘market forces’, part death-cult, part virus, that infests our ‘civilisation’ and threatens even the remotest regions of the Earth.
Indigenous peoples and their allies could, like the young George Orwell, legitimately call themselves ‘Tory anarchists’. Their anarchism is close to that of Proudhon and Courbet, for thinker and artist alike found inspiration in the rugged, fiercely independent peasant communities of the Franche-Comte. In our own century, indigenous anarchism accords well with the philosophy of Paul Goodman, who dismissed the ‘compulsory mis-education’ of children with the wise remark that students could learn more from the cafe than the classroom. In a similar vein, the British anti-authoritarian Colin Ward has written for over thirty years about co-operatives, communes and other oases of human values within our unsustainable consumerist society (for his humanity and vision he was sacked from the New Statesman and Society in its revamped, technocratic form).
The spirituality of indigenous peoples, like that of pre-Christian Europe, is founded on reverence for natural forces, the need for man to live within natural bounds — an awareness, in other words, that ‘small is beautiful’. This would suggest a natural affinity between indigenous peoples’ organisations and the green movement in ‘developed’ societies. Such an alliance, potentially of great moral and political force, is thwarted by the influence on green politics of left-wing cultural prejudice. Feminists, for instance, use government ‘aid’ programmes, UN agencies and the charity sector to promote a universalist model of ‘liberation’ that takes no account of local custom or the distribution of power within tribal societies. This model assumes that the extended family and the tribe are inherently oppressive to women. It presumes that indigenous women are sitting in villages waiting to be ’empowered’ by their white sisters, so that they can don suits or overalls to pursue Western-style careers. Ironically, women in tribal societies often have powers beyond the wildest dreams of their counterparts in the ‘developed’ world. Among the Tuareg, women are the purveyors of history and myth, while it is the men who wear veils! Indigenous peoples, female or male, correctly identify the factory and office as insidious forms of slavery. Similarly, the green left is guided by a romantic suburban pacifism that sees hunting and trapping as unconscionable attacks on ‘pristine nature’. Recently, a young woman teacher originating from Ontario told her Innu Indian primary school students in Labrador, Canada, that hunting beaver or any other animal was evil….
Who is the greatest predator of all? she asked them. We are! she answered, when they refused to respond.
Were she transferred to Inner London, this same teacher would no doubt ban classic children’s books in the name of ‘multicultural awareness’ or ‘equal opportunities’. Her ‘progressive’ conditioning prevents her from seeing the centrality of hunting to Innu life, or realising that the Innu respect and value the animals they hunt, incorporating them in their folk religion, giving them qualities of courage and wisdom. Thus, with all the best intentions in her limited little world, she places herself in a long line of oppressors of the Innu: the missionaries who trampled upon their folk traditions, the bureaucrats who forced them to live in houses and buy junk food from supermarkets, the NATO airforces that shatter their peace with incessant low-level flights over their land. Contrast her approach with that of John Seymour, a true ecologist untainted by ‘political correctness’. In his book The Ultimate Heresy (1989), he understands that Joseph, his Bushman friend, revered the gemsbok as he hunted it with a spear :
Though he would probably not have put the prayer into words, it might have run something like this : The life force ordains that your kind shall crop the grass after the rains and munch the tsava melons…. You destroy these things so that they should become part of a higher form of life, and the life force ordains that I shall kill you, my Brother, and partake of your flesh, so that I can live too.
Few Western ecologists display the generosity or wisdom of the redoubtable Mr Seymour. For indigenous societies, ‘political correctness’ is colonialism in green wrapping paper.
The idea of indigenous rights cuts like a scalpel across the outdated boundaries of Western political thought. It is conservative, in its respect for history and tradition, green in its respect for ecological limits, and archist in its advocacy of autonomous, human-scale communities. It is also separatist, because it is based on the fundamental right to self-rule, and nationalist, in the broadest, most generous sense of this word, affirming the connection between land and identity, between cultural and territorial integrity. Indigenous peoples, by their very survival within an increasingly uniform world, present a powerful human challenge to the two most inhuman ideologies today: economic liberalism, and multiculturalism. The first of these reduces individuals and peoples to slaves of ‘market forces’, the second destroys and dilutes all cultures under the pretext of ‘tolerance’ and ‘inclusion’. Amazon Indians working as cheap labour for oil multinationals, eating at McDonalds, and listening to the Spice Girls through Sony Walkmans — that is the ‘globalist’ ideal. By asserting their right to exist, indigenous peoples show that there are such things as societies, that they can be defended, that the notions of ‘progress’ and ‘growth’ that have brought misery to the West can be successfully opposed.
WHO ARE INDIGENOUS PEOPLES?
The term ‘indigenous peoples’ is one that I am using for convenience to describe the 300 million people throughout the world who live in communities based on land and tribe, outside the mainstream of the world economy, remote from the established centres of political power, and possessing distinctive cultures which predate capitalism and socialism. Many other terms are used to describe such societies : Survival International refer to ‘tribal peoples’, whilst many Native American groups understandably prefer ‘First Nations’. With apologies all round, I shall stick to ‘indigenous’, because it is the most familiar term and because — as we shall see — its definition can be broadened. There are so many peoples that fall into this category that the examples I use are bound to be somewhat arbitrary. For this reason, I have isolated three characteristics which indigenous societies can be said to share :
i.) CONNECTION WITH THE LAND
Indigenous peoples regard land as the basis of national or tribal identity, religion and culture, of life itself. It is treated as collective property, transcending in importance personal possessions. Argentina’s Wichi Indians refer to Llakha Honhat (on the borders of Argentina, Bolivia and Paraguay) as “the land of their ancestors’ bones”. Recovery of that land, stolen from them by settlers for intensive farming, is central to their struggle for survival as a people. Similarly, the Guarani-Kaiowa Indians of South-Western Brazil experience deforestation of their land as a form of religious desecration, because the forest was created by their life-giving spirit, Nande Ru. In West Papua (called ‘Irian Jaya’ by its Indonesian occupiers), the Freeport McMoRan mining site, part-owned by RTZ, encroaches on land sacred to the AmungMe people, because it is the home of the ancestral spirit Jo-Mun Nerek. Land-based spirituality gives indigenous communities a special awareness of the environment and the folly of trying to overthrow nature. This letter from the Hopi people of Arizona to the United States government in 1984 shows an early awareness that ‘civilisation’ is playing Russian Roulette with the climate :
We have tried to warn you again and again that some white men will cause great suffering for all life if they continue to violate and desecrate the great spirit’s laws for this land and life. Already the forces of nature are hitting your cities and towns with greater intensity and violence. Big winds, earthquakes, tornadoes, volcanoes, severity of seasons changing, droughts, floods, fires, freezing-cold weather, blazing heatwaves. All your scientists have not been able to predict these natural forces, nor can they stop them!
ii.) MALE / FEMALE BALANCE
The prominence of women in indigenous societies has been noted with admiration in the West. We have seen already with the Tuareg of North-West Africa — a Muslim people — that women are educators, story-tellers and myth-makers, so are looked upon by men as sources of knowledge as well as life. Tuareg society is stratified, with political discourse confined to the highest castes. Within those castes, however, women exactly the same powers as men, and are included in discussions at every level. Throughout the indigenous world, female creativity in music, painting, story-telling, child-rearing and village politics is regarded as central to the community’s existence. In the words of another Hopi petition :
The family, the dwelling house, and the field are inseparable because the woman is the heart of these, and they rest with her.
Like European pagans, indigenous peoples worship goddesses as well as gods, and the spirits of the forests, mountains and rivers are as likely to be female as male. This male/female balance is not based on sameness, but difference, between the sexes. It values differences between men and women rather than seeking to obliterate all distinctions like orthodox feminism in ‘developed’ societies. The masculine attributes of spontaneity, inventiveness, craftsmanship and military prowess, and the female attributes of nurture, resourcefulness and life-affirming wisdom are seen as complementary principles holding together the structures of extended family, village and tribe. Friendships between men and co-operation between women are often as important, sometimes more important, than marital ties. It would not occur to a Yanomami, Wichi or ‘Pygmy’ woman that preparing food, or looking after the young and the old, somehow made her ‘second-class’. Nor would it occur to her husband and brothers that hunting gave them special privileges.
iii.) PEACEFUL BUT NOT PACIFIST
Attachment to land necessarily implies a willingness to defend it. Indigenous peoples therefore regard the idea that they should lay down their weapons as equal in absurdity to the notion that they should stop hunting for food. Like all human groups, indigenous communities have gone to war with each other. Their conflicts, although often bloody, pale into insignificance in comparison to the wars waged against them by governments and corporations. In 1996, when a group of Europeans were kidnapped by a secessionist movement in West Papua, the British press described the indigenous Papuans as ‘primitive tribes’ of ‘stone age’ people who had only recently given up ‘head-hunting’. Yet an AmungMe tribesman staring into the crater gouged from Mount Grasberg by the Freeport mining corporation might himself view the destruction of nature as primitive and brutal. To the AmungMe, land is valuable in its own right, but to the Indonesian dictatorship and its backers at Freeport and RTZ, land is no more than an exploitable resource. They do not see the forests and mountains, merely the copper and gold beneath them. In ‘developed societies’, defence is largely about control over resources, people and arbitrarily-drawn borders. Indigenous defence, by contrast, is about protecting ancestral lands, ancestral spirits. Indigenous societies have strong warrior traditions, and are not afraid to use these against states and corporations settlers or ‘politically correct’ busybodies who threaten their lands and lives.
Indigenous populations vary immensely in numbers, structure and geographical location. It is dangerous to depict them with anything other than broad brushstrokes, for the right to be different lies at the heart of indigenous politics. Yet as well as sharing some common characteristics, indigenous peoples face common dangers from similar enemies. Here I have identified four of the most significant indigenous struggles against the forces of centralisation, economic ‘growth’ and ‘inevitable progress’.
I.) Against Transnational Corporations
When it comes to corporate investment, indigenous peoples’ lands suddenly cease to be the remote, inaccessible enclaves of Western travel literature and become lucrative ‘opportunities’ for economic plunder and cultural intervention. In West Papua, the Freeport mine is sustained by a US $1,250 million injection from London-based RTZ. This mining corporation, the world’s largest, has a 12% share in Freeport and a seat on the company’s board. Freeport, in turn, enjoys a mutually beneficial relationship with West Papua’s Indonesian colonists — who have imposed a regime of torture, detention without trial, and disappearance since the late 1960s. According to Freeport chairman James (Jim-Bob) Moffett, the company and its Indonesian backers are “thrusting a spear of development into the heart of West Papua”. In similar vein, the Peruvian government of President Alberto Fujimori hands over large tracts of Indian land to Mobil, including land belonging to Indians who have never had contact with non-indigenous peoples. These ‘uncontacted’ populations are particularly vulnerable to the disease and social dislocation that oil prospectors and settler colonies will bring.
II.) Against Roads
In Britain and other ‘developed’ countries, roads are seen increasingly as symbols of the assault on nature by consumer capitalism. For indigenous, they can bring utter devastation. In 1960, the ‘developmentalist’ Brazilian government bulldozed the BR-364 through the savanna homeland of the Nambiquara people, allowing an influx of settlers and farmers to colonise Indian land. A ‘reserve’ was later created for the Indians, carved out of territory that should have been theirs, but the authorities conveniently chose an area so arid that nothing could grow. During the 1980s, the World Bank poured money into ‘improving’ the road, without thinking of consulting the indigenous population. The result is that farmers plough up Nambiquara land, loggers steal wood, and game — scarce even at the best of times — has all but disappeared. According to a Survival International report :
The 1,200 remaining Nambiquara are suffering from malnutrition and fatal diseases, including typhoid and yellow fever, brought in by the immigrants. Now gold miners are moving onto their land, polluting rivers and threatening their very survival.
Have the missionaries of ‘progress’ learned from such tragedies? Sadly not. The Brazilian government of President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, left-wing economist turned rampant free-marketeer, still plans to develop the Pan American Highway, ‘opening the interior’ to foreign investment at the cost of native lives and native cultures.
III.) Against National Borders
For most indigenous peoples, independence from European colonialism has not brought freedom. On the contrary, it has brought new, more extreme forms of colonialism, or enforced assimilation in federal unions or arbitrarily defined nation-states. The Tuareg, whose fierce resistance to French rule won international acclaim, found themselves divided between five new states: Algeria, Burkina Faso, Libya, Mali and Niger. To them, these borders have nothing to do with national identity — they see them as meaningless lines on a map. The Tuareg are a people who value their right to roam; before the advent of borders and roads, they controlled the trade routes across the Sahara. But the governments of Mali and Niger, where most Tuareg are concentrated, have continuously attempted to impose a ‘settled’ lifestyle. They call the Tuareg ‘white nomads’ and accuse them of clinging to the ‘privilege’ of nomadism.
The Jummas of Bangladesh are a collection of largely Buddhist hill peoples who resemble the tribal minorities of neighbouring Burma and Thailand. In colonial times, the British recognised their culture as distinctive, and protected their lands from colonisation. Since 1971, when Bangladesh became a fully independent state, its governments have relentlessly persecuted the Jummas. They have moved settlers onto their land in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, sent troops to burn them alive in their homes and attempted to obliterate their religion. One third of the Jummas are now in exile, many in refugee camps across the Indian border. A similar situation is faced by the Nuba of central Sudan. The Nuba are a mainly Muslim people, but ethnically they resemble the Christian and animist peoples of the South rather than the Arab-dominated North. Their practice of Islam is considered unorthodox by the Khartoum government, which incited local religious leaders to issue a collective Fatwa against them. The real motive is not religious, it is economic and territorial. The government wants the fertile pasture lands of the Nuba Hills for its friends in agri-business. It has encouraged attacks on Nuba by neighbouring Arab peoples and moved them forcibly to ‘peace villages’ that are little more than concentration camps. Nuba children have been sold into slavery in the North. Sudan’s borders are arbitrary even for post-colonial Africa, forcibly uniting peoples who have no cultural or historic connection with each other except for the experience of British rule. Further West, the chaos of Nigeria presents a powerful warning of the dangers of federal union without popular consent.
IV.) Against Settlers
Immigration by settler communities is a threat shared by almost all indigenous societies today. It is a tool of governments that wish to impose uniform patterns of behaviour within their borders, or to use ‘remote’ regions as dumping grounds for the casualties of economic injustice. It destroys land, dilutes cultures, and weakens the settler populations themsleves as well as the affected indigenous peoples. In oppressing indigenous societies, settlers do the work of governments and corporations for them at cheap rates.
Brazil’s governments, civilian and military, have always seen Amazonia as an uncharted frontier through which problems of poverty, homelessness and urban crime will miraculously resolve themselves. It is of little relevance to them that diverse populations of hunter-gatherers and farmers have lived there successfully for many hundreds of years. Most of the problems faced by Amazon Indians, from the random killings of the Makuxi to the poisoning of the Yanomami’s water supply, stem from the presence of settlers who practise small-scale logging and amateur gold mining. They are landless peasants or migrants from urban slums, lacking affinity with the land and unwilling to learn from the native peoples they have been conditioned to regard as inferior. In 1991, after a twenty-year campaign by supporters of indigenous rights, a Presidential decree at last provided for the demarcation and official protection of Indian land. But now a new edict, Decree 1771, allows settler populations, logging companies and gold miners to ‘challenge’ these demarcations — and to squat on Indian land in the process.
Argentina’s Wichi, who had hunted, farmed and fished sustainably for generations in the dry Chaco region of their country’s border, have seen their land this century reduced to an inhospitable dust-bowl. This is because the settlers, known as criollos, introduced intensive cattle ranching to an area where it was wholly inappropriate. As the Wichi history shows, they brought with them fences and rifles — which they have used to exclude the Indians from their own land :
Some said they had come to buy iguana skins and they would go at the end of the season. But soon they set up trading stores and stayed — without even mentioning it to us, as though we didn’t exist…. One colonist even threatened us with war. “Indians, what will you do without weapons if we make war on you?” he asked.
In recent years the Wichi have experienced a remarkable cultural revival and have developed a strong political organisation, called Lhakha Honhat, after their homeland. They have reclaimed their oral history, had it transposed into writing for the first time, and produced a giant map of their colonised land which they are using to lobby governments. In 1994 a Wichi representative, Francisco Perez, travelled to Geneva to address the UN Commission on Human Rights — no mean achievement for a people who only ten years earlier were barely acknowledged to exist.
WE ARE ALL “INDIGENOUS PEOPLES” NOW!
By their very existence, indigenous societies hold up a critical mirror to the dominant culture of consumerism. They prove that human beings can find material and spiritual satisfaction without the aid of the market or the state, television soap operas, packaged foods or prozac. In this sense, they are a living embodiment of the Third Way, rejecting both global capitalism and state socialism, practising decentralisation, living within natural bounds and viewing land as a sacred possession, not a mere piece of real-estate. They are the cutting edge of resistance to multicultural imperialism, the universalist, levelling-down ideology of corporations, governments, mass-media and ‘political correcters’ alike. Multicultural imperialism is more insidious than traditional forms of colonial rule because it uses the language of egalitarianism and tolerance to promote uniformity of thought. It values ‘inclusiveness’ over diversity, scorns attachment to land and place, and seeks to break down rather than strengthen traditional cultures. Most Western greens have yet to realise what indigenous peoples have understood for some time — that the global market and global ‘political correctness’ are but two sides of the same coin.
Why should we, in our stressful, urban-centred societies, be interested in these remote and disparate cultures of which we know little? The answer is that the peoples of our supposedly ‘advanced’ societies face problems increasingly similar to tribal peoples: discrimination, exclusion, the erosion of identity, alienation from politics and work. Like the world’s poor, we are locked into trade treaties — Maastricht, NAFTA and GATT — that deprive us of control over our lives and destinies. We confront the menace of ‘gigantism’ — ever-larger companies, bloated bureaucracies, and the absorption of nations and peoples into artificial, soulless superstates lacking either cultural foundations or democratic legitimacy.
In Britain, the idea of citizenship has always been nebulous, at least since Norman times; the radical republican factions of the Civil War identified the ‘Norman Yoke’ as the root of centralised oppression. Whether it happens to lean to ‘left’ or ‘right’, our political establishment behaves more as a colonial power than as a democratic polity. In the names of ‘progress’ and of multiculturalism, our countryside is destroyed by roads, our history rewritten, our cultures denigrated, our right to self-determination signed away. In the name of ‘political correctness’ our voices are silenced, our language castrated. Land and identity are subordinated to ‘market forces’, male/female balance to a life-denying cult of ‘gender neutrality’. The struggles of indigenous peoples have become ours, too….