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Evo Morales, Native leaders gather in friendship, solidarity

WASHINGTON – Evo Morales, Bolivia’s indigenous president, attended a historic meeting with North American tribal leaders at the National Museum of the American Indian Nov. 19.

The private event, which was requested by Morales and facilitated by the Bolivian Embassy, saw more than a dozen tribal and Indian leaders join the leader to share cultural insights. Many brought him gifts from their tribes and nations, and he, in turn, offered his gratitude and a few jokes that somehow transcended any language barriers.

Of Aymara descent, Morales is widely viewed as a hero among indigenous populations worldwide. He was first elected in December 2005, and won re-election with 67 percent of the vote after a recall referendum last August. He is Bolivia’s first indigenous head of state in the 470 years since the Spanish Conquest.

In an interview with Indian Country Today after the meeting, Morales said there wasn’t much time for philosophizing with the Indian leaders, but he shared his vision of what it means to him to be an indigenous leader.

“As a man, he is strong. As a Native person, he is stronger.” -Chickasaw Nation Ambassador Charles Blackwell

“In indigenous culture,” said Morales, “equality is so sacred. It’s a profound difference between our model life in indigenous communities and the model of life put forward by a capitalist society.

“… The indigenous culture is very important in terms of keeping people honest. That’s what I was telling people during the election, that our ancestors gave us a law: Don’t lie, don’t steal, and don’t be lazy. This worldview that we inherited from our ancestors has now been enshrined in our new constitution.”

Morales also had kind words to say about his North American counterparts and the museum they worked for decades to build.

“… I do congratulate the indigenous brothers and sisters of North America for their fine museum, which preserves and presents our cultural wealth and heritage,” praised President Morales.

After a brief tour with museum officials, Morales noted the breadth of the exhibits.

“In my quick passing, I saw that [the museum] has cultural artifacts here not only from North America, but also from South America.

 ‘A very special day’ NMAI advances international ambassadorial role
“Yes, this was a very special day,” beamed Kevin Gover, sitting in his office after pulling off a successful lunch hosted in honor of one of the most celebrated world indigenous leaders. Gover has seen many special days since he began serving as director of the National Museum of the American Indian in December 2007, but when Bolivian President Evo Morales, Aymara, visited Nov. 19, a new chapter in the life of the museum seemed to take shape. Tribal leaders and others who attended the event said it signified a landmark moment for NMAI, representing the museum’s growing influence as an ambassadorial flagship for indigenous cultures across the world. Gover agreed with that assessment, saying, “I think that you’ll be seeing us reach out across borders more visibly going forward, simply because we’ve laid a certain foundation, and now we can really afford to start reaching a little farther than we have in the past.” Noting that NMAI was always intended as a place for Native Americans to feel “at home,” Gover said that he wants all of the Western hemisphere’s indigenous populations to know it is their home, too. “This is a logical next step in our growth as an international institution,” Gover said. Gover added that he’s talked with many Latin American indigenous people in recent months who are “astonished” that the United States has established such a place that was always specifically intended to include them as part of its mission. Already, the museum has seen hundreds of U.S.-based tribal officials pass through its doors since opening in 2004, but now a steady stream of international leaders have begun to take note of its presence as well. Leaders from Peru, Canada, Australia and other countries have been part of the influx, according to museum officials. Keller George, an Oneida Nation ambassador who sits on the museum’s board, said he is hopeful that Morales’ visit will help inspire many more international visits from indigenous peoples. “We have so much to learn from other cultures, and where better to do it than at NMAI?” George asked. “That’s what this place was always intended to do.” George said, too, he could feel and see a new day coming with Morales’ visit. He noticed that the glass windows on top of the building began reflecting a rainbow on the inside walls of the museum during the president’s meeting with tribal leaders. “Bolivia’s flag is a rainbow, you know,” George said, noting that it contains red, green and yellow elements. “A lot of Indian people believe that nature is very accurate in recognizing important events. “I don’t know how many people picked up on that, but I certainly did.”

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“When we come together within a spiritual framework, and under legitimacy — and, above all, when we have solidarity with each other — this is the basis for agreement among the indigenous movements of the world,” Morales said. “These points of view are the values of the indigenous people, and they should be the values of humanity.”

Chickasaw Nation Ambassador Charles Blackwell, who attended the event, said afterward that he was impressed with Morales’ “warrior spirit.”

“As a man, he is strong. As a Native person, he is stronger.”

Blackwell said that he has long held the belief that if Indians embrace their tribal roots, “the environment will be better, the air will be cleaner and the people will be happier.” He believes, too, that Morales provides inspiration for Indian leaders to “take down fences.”

“With his election, he gave hope to indigenous people,” Blackwell said, adding that he feels a similar spirit in the air now that Barack Obama has been elected President of the United States.

“I wonder if [Morales] sees what’s happening in America?”

No doubt, Morales has seen what has happened, but much of what he’s seen in the past, he does not like. When asked by ICT if he is surprised that the United States hasn’t signed on to the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, he quickly noted that Bolivia was the first country to not only sanction it, but to enact it into law.

“But in the United States, all of the rules and treaties and agreements on human rights never get signed,” Morales said.

Keller George, an Oneida Nation ambassador who also joined in the event, said that despite political differences any Indian leader may have with Morales, he thinks it’s important for North American, Central and South American indigenous leaders to build stronger relationships.

“For him to want to come and sit there with indigenous people of the United States and talk about cultural values was just overwhelming,” said George.

Another attendee, Catawba Chief Donald Rodgers, said he could see similarities between Morales’ leadership and that of tribal leaders in the U.S.

“He wants cultural differences to be included and celebrated, which is a great thing—and something that many of us have long been promoting,” said Rodgers.

“When some people talk about wanting to be part of this melting pot, they have to remember that what they’re really wanting is for us all to become the same. But it’s important to realize our differences, and to learn from them.

“We as Native people are distinctly different, but I think what President Morales hit home for me most is that we need to work together.”