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'Politics is a science of serving people'

U.S., New Zealand indigenous leaders meet with Evo Morales

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. - These were not your typical political gatherings; before most of the meetings were prayers in Comanche, Quechua, Aymara or Maori, and offerings of flowers and other gifts. But the central meaning behind the meeting was about getting and keeping political power.

President Evo Morales of Bolivia hosted a series of meetings with international indigenous leaders in June. The meetings were organized and led by Americans for Indian Opportunity, the indigenous leadership training organization from New Mexico.

Representing 17 tribes from the United States and 13 tribes from New Zealand, the AIO and the Advancement of Maori Opportunity held a series of meetings across Bolivia with a variety of political, union and tribal leaders dedicated to sharing knowledge and building an international indigenous network. The highlights of the visit, however, were the meetings with Morales June 11 and 13.

''President Morales, you bring pride to us all,'' said LaDonna Harris, Comanche, AIO founder and president, when handing him the AIO Peace Pipe Award in honor of his accomplishments.

Each American Indian representative shared a song or gift from their tribe with him, and the president in return shared his experience of being indigenous and a politician by saying, ''People in this country believed an indigenous person couldn't be president,'' and, later, ''Politics is a science of serving people.''

Upon their return, Harris and AIO Executive Director Laura Harris spoke briefly with Indian Country Today about their journey and about future plans to build the international network.

Indian Country Today: Did you attend any other ceremonies? Any impressions of those?

LaDonna Harris: After the official ceremony with the president, where we presented him with the peace pipe and an eagle feather, each of us introduced ourselves. He was so touched by that ... and then he allowed for some Q and A.

Laura Harris: We had a wonderful interaction. He answered some questions about leadership and his leadership style and our ambassadors are learning about that. After our session, the president decided we hadn't had enough time together so they invited us to stay for a press conference about a biography written about Morales, where he and the vice president spoke; and to attend a private luncheon with us for a few days later. We came back on Wednesday [June 13] and ate lunch in his back lawn, under tents, a nice barbecue, very informal.

LaDonna Harris: From there, he was going to a summit in Chile ... His Indianness was so prominent. How proud he made us feel for his successes. He talked about the struggle for the new constitution, to get everyone incorporated in the right way and about his plans for working with the Andean countries and how they were the center for indigenous people globally. He was so friendly and warm. Everybody took pictures with him ... You could see his brilliant mind just going constantly but he was just home folks. It was the most wonderful feeling of acceptance. They found their relatives and we found ours ...

Laura Harris: AMO and AIO had a series of conferences, think tanks were we worked with participants in both programs to figure out how we could move forward, add to the idea of the international network and sharing the vision without imposing it. In the northern village of Chayanta, we met with indigenous Bolivian leaders in a roundtable discussion. What came out of that was a real yearning on the Bolivian side to learn about the economic and social progress we've made, as well as about our ambassador program.

They also requested that this be the first of many meetings, that we come back and continue to share. We were not there to solve their problems; however, we were there to learn as much as to share. In Chayanta, they had been able to take control of the municipality by elections. Before, they hadn't had an indigenous mayor, or the other positions. They realized to get a hold of funds coming from the federal government, they needed to be in those positions. That is something we can learn about. For instance, we're 80 percent of a county and no Native Americans in county seats. We want to know about that, about getting people to the polls and getting elected ...

ICT: Are there plans for future collaborations then?

LaDonna Harris: One of the NGO [nongovernmental organization] leaders wants to work with us to develop their own ambassador program. They want to come here to learn about our work. Also some NGOs in La Paz who were working with Amazonian folks were very enthusiastic. They're writing proposals as we speak and we need to find resources. It was so rewarding to see their enthusiasm and their perspectives on global issues. They are preserving their culture and they have almost the same issues and world views as ours and even some of their dances looked like Pueblo dances ... We will definitely be going back.