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Native Currents: Declaring humanity and challenging legacies

In June, a draft statement titled “Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples” was voted 30 – 2 by the U.N. Human Rights Council. Twelve countries, including the United States, were absent when the voting took place, and only Canada and Russia rejected the draft. It makes one wonder how anyone in the 21st century can not take a stand for human rights.

Some countries, including the United States, Australia and New Zealand, have declared they will oppose the draft when it comes up in the General Assembly. Although this declaration is still in draft form and hasn’t grown any legal nor political teeth, it does speak loudly for a new century that is hard of hearing but starting to listen. The “Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples” speaks of the right to be free from discrimination; the right to exist as distinct peoples; the right to self-determination, land and natural resource rights. The countries that oppose this document go on record as opposed to respecting the collective rights of indigenous people to their lands and the resources contained within.

We have traveled a long distance since the 16th century. Back then the talk was not whether indigenous communities should be respected or should their stolen lands be given back to them, but whether indigenous people were even human at all. Maybe this declaration is not just words on paper, but more like a road sign telling us how far we have come or how far it is to our next stop. Maybe it is a sign that people are finally getting together and changing these legacies of colonization, not just at international conferences, but at even more important levels.

Several indigenous communities in Argentina are a part of this growing movement to change century-old legacies. In the high-altitude deserts of northeastern Argentina, more than 1,000 miles northwest of Buenos Aires, a group of Kolla women have created an amazing network of 79 community banks that are improving the living conditions in their community. The community banks, started and run by indigenous women, have revived local businesses that raise chinchillas, rabbits, chickens and trout. The women in this Puna region are training constantly on how to build greenhouses, how to grow food and how to manage finances. Through this project, called Warmi Sayasjunqo, which means “women who preserve” in Quechua, the llama wool industry is helping these communities become self-sustaining. Those involved with the project notice how the community people are starting to build trust in each other.

Women in the region are starting to change legacy by reinventing the role that banks play in their communities. The new role of banks is to improve the community by providing low-interest loans based on solidarity, not charity. This is not the kind of story that attracts mass media, so few have heard of it.

The capital of this Northwest region of Argentina is Resistencia (Resistance). Some months ago, the indigenous community of the region began to live up to the town’s name. About 3,000 Natives from communities such as the Wichi, Toba and Macovi camped out in front of the provincial government, blocking streets, stopping traffic, demanding to be heard.

In mid-December of last year, an 80-mile-per-hour storm ripped through the region. Communities throughout the region received food and medical aid except for the indigenous communities, even though the local government – as community members found out later – had warehouses filled with perishable food that went to waste. The only thing the provincial government provided the indigenous people that were displaced from the storm was the military to violently evict them using tear gas and rubber bullets.

When a delegation of indigenous leaders went to meet with the governor to make sense of this insanity he refused to meet with them. In response, thousands of people took over the town of Resistencia to demand their human rights. They are demanding federal assistance for those who lost their homes in the storm. They are demanding the relocation of colonists and soy, sugar and lumber companies that have stolen and, in many cases, polluted their traditional lands. They are demanding the federal government recognize their culture and give practicing licenses to bilingual teachers.

Perhaps to some, this declaration recently voted on by the U.N. Committee on Human Rights is just another paper with words that will fall on deaf ears and blinded eyes. After all, while this declaration was being signed amid camera flashes and a clapping audience, indigenous peoples in Argentina – and so many other places – were being denied their basic human rights, and still looking down the barrel of government guns.

Or maybe what is happening in Argentina is another example of why this declaration means more than just words on paper. We might not hear anything about it, but everyday communities around the world are starting to discourse and organize, reinvent their situation and declare their humanity. Indigenous communities throughout Latin America are beginning to change these deep-rooted legacies that are holding all of humanity hostage.

<i>Maceo Carrillo Martinet, Taino, resides in New Mexico.