Venezuelan Indian Affairs official seeks solidarity among hemisphere’s indigenous peoples

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CHEYENNE RIVER SIOUX RESERVATION, S.D. – The Venezuelan vice minister for Indigenous Affairs visited four Lakota communities in early August to explore possibilities for friendship, student and cultural exchanges and other mutually beneficial projects between the Native peoples here and in the South American country.

Aloha Nunez, a member of western Venezuela’s Wayuu tribe, spent five days among Sioux Nation people at Cheyenne River, Lower Brule, Rosebud and Pine Ridge. At 25, Nunez is the youngest person to hold a ministerial office in Venezuela. She was accompanied by Yancy Maldonado, a Yekwana tribal representative from Venezuela’s Ministry of Indigenous Affairs, and Sabine Kienzl from the embassy of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela in Washington, who acted as an interpreter.

The Ministry for Indigenous Affairs was created in January 2007 in order to boost policies that benefit Venezuela’s many Native communities in line with the country’s 1999 constitution, which guarantees indigenous rights for the first time in Venezuela’s history.

“This has been a particularly exciting experience,” Nunez said of her visit with the Lakota communities in a press release. “We have been able to witness how the traditions and culture are still alive here. This has been a first step for the contact of our peoples. We hope to come back and establish more direct contacts with other communities in the United States.”

More than 200 people welcomed Nunez to the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe’s reservation, where she spoke about Venezuela’s current programs and plans to benefit that country’s indigenous communities. She also explained the ministry’s goal is to forge unity and solidarity among all the indigenous peoples of the Americas “in their struggle and resistance for more than 500 years of oppression. Before, we used to be ashamed of our backgrounds. Nevertheless, we are now experiencing a revival of our ancestral roots and traditions.”

The Lakota communities participate in Venezuela’s CITGO Petroleum Corp.’s discounted heating oil program, which was established in 2005 to help poor communities deal with harsh winters and rising energy costs. More than 200 tribal communities across the northern U.S. benefit from the program.

But the vice ministerial visit was to foster personal relationships and exchanges, Kienzl told Indian Country Today.

“It was really a great trip. The object was to just start a dialogue with Native people here, to get to know each other and to cooperate in various areas in the future. Native tribes in Venezuela know very little about tribes here in the U.S. It was a very good opportunity for the vice minister to see the reality of the U.S. Native tribes, which is very different from what is being portrayed by the media outside.”

One of the issues that she said shocked the vice minister is the high suicide rate among Native youth.

“This cannot be. This is terrible. Twenty-seven people committed suicide just on the Rosebud Reservation in the last three years and 80 percent of them were young people! This is not acceptable.”

Native peoples in Venezuela don’t share these same problems, Kienzl said.

“The whole system is different there. The Native peoples are not considered dependents. They have their own territories, their own land where they can practice their own legal system, their own criminal system, their own rules and their own cultures, but they also have representation in the government since they are not nations apart like here.”

She said Native peoples here know little about their counterparts in Venezuela, too.

“People on the reservations generally know nothing about what’s going on in Latin America. The Indian peoples in Latin America have become very, very strong political actors in the last decade. There is so much going on so I think putting people here in touch with their counterparts in Venezuela would really enrich both parts.”

Cheyenne River Sioux Chairman Joseph Brings Plenty could not be reached for comment because he was already in touch with some of his counterparts by attending the Inaugural Indian and Anti-Imperialist Warriors of the Americas Congress in Caracas along with two other Native representatives from the U.S.

The congress gathered delegations from throughout the world. During the congress, Chavez swore in 18 delegations from various countries as nonviolent warriors who will fight against “misery and imperialism.”

In an e-mail to Kienzl, which she shared in part with ICT, Joseph Brings Plenty wrote, “I love Venezuela. It has been great being here. I have had so many wonderful experiences. I got to meet and see some of the peoples and their cultural dances. I also participated in one. It was lovely. The vice minister also danced. It was wonderful.

“I was very impressed by her tribal people. The indigenous peoples of South America are beautiful. I felt like my spirit had truly been lifted. I’m witnessing a unity of indigenous peoples that I have never witnessed before in my life.”

That’s the whole point of exchange, Kienzl said.

“People here, especially on the reservations in the Midwest, because of their difficulties – the oppression, the problems with alcohol, the drugs, the unemployment – I feel the people are sad and they’ve become resigned to a certain extent and they need to be motivated.

“They need to see that alternatives are possible, that there are Native peoples in other countries that also faced very difficult situations in the past, but they became strong and got united and they achieved a lot both in the political and economic areas. It’s possible to get out of this situation. This was one of the most important messages of the vice minister: that only through unity is there strength.”