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Dayamani Barla: A Small Woman, but a Big Voice for Indigenous Rights

Dayamani Barla, a journalist and activist from India, became the first recipient of Cultural Survival’s Ellen L. Lutz Indigenous Rights Award.
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“We cannot sell the rays of sunlight!”

The speaker is a small woman with a big voice that easily fills the very high-ceilinged and ornate Collector’s Office at the National Museum of the American Indian in New York City, speaking with power and passion about an Indigenous People’s determination not to sell or give up any more of their land.

Indian journalist/activist Dayamani Barla is in New York to receive the first Ellen L. Lutz Indigenous Rights Award from the Cultural Survival group. True to her intense focus on her Adivasi (aboriginal) people in the Indian state of Jharkhand, she speaks to a small but admiring group in her native language of Hindi, which is translated on the fly by Rucha Chitnis, South Asia program director for Women’s Earth Alliance of Berkeley, California.

“Our land is our heritage,” she says to the crowd through Chitnis, detailing multiple attempts by the Indian government to back out of agreements made to the indigenous people of Jharkhand, in eastern India (she is a member of the Munda tribe). “The indigenous people of the United States are similar to the indigenous people of India.”

The audience has just watched a short film showing Barla’s activism in action. Protesting the government’s agreements with more than 100 companies that want to develop their homeland for mining operations, her group of women gets muscular. They push over one of the developer’s walls, an action that brings to mind the peoples’ toppling of the Berlin Wall in 1989. But their action brings a swift reprisal, as police move in and beat some of the women bloody.

“Being involved in the people’s struggles doesn’t mean I have to stop being a journalist,” she says in the Leena Manimekalai film, which is called “Still I Rise.”

Barla last year did a months-long stretch in jail, but the Jharkhand activism has brought results. Of 100 companies that signed MOUs (memoranda of understanding) with the government, just four have had any success. “The rest we have stopped,” she says.

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The Lutz Award, she says (Barla is the inaugural recipient), “gives us strength” as her group continues “ a fight for justice, a fight for truth.”

Suzanne Benally, Navajo, executive director of Cultural Survival, in introducing Barla, hailed her personal growth from being a domestic to becoming a journalist and “the voice of Jharkhand.”

In announcing the award, Millilani Trask, Esq., a Native Hawaiian and indigenous and community advisor, Innovations Development Group, called Barla “a light of hope for all indigenous people.” And she said “In Hawaii we will know your name.”

Cultural Survival said Barla “has been on the forefront of the people’s movements against corporate and government-led land grabs and other injustices that threaten the survival, dignity and livelihoods of indigenous peoples.”

The group called her “the first tribal journalist from her state” and “one of the first female Adivasi journalists in India.”

It noted she had won many awards, including the Counter Media Award for Rural Journalism and the National Foundation for India Fellowship.

The Lutz Award is named in honor of the late Ellen L. Lutz, a lawyer and human rights activist and executive director of Cultural Survival from 2004 to 2010.