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We are indigenous first

The award-winning indigenous photographer and documentary filmmaker from Venezuela, David Hernandez-Palmar, visited Washington, D.C. recently to speak to members of Congress about the plight of his people, the Wayuu, who live across the countries of Venezuela and Colombia, and to talk to representatives of the Smithsonian Institute about repatriating the remains of Wayuu ancestors and cultural artifacts.

Palmar is also the co-director of “Owners of the Water: Conflict & Collaboration Over Rivers” a documentary about a Brazilian indigenous campaign to protect the Rio das Mortes River Basin from encroaching deforestation and pollution. This film was among the hundreds of Latin American indigenous entries at this year’s Native American Film + Video Festival in New York.

After his initial visit to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian and meetings with a variety of scholars and Native North American leaders, Palmar discussed his visit and the situation of the Wayuu.

Indian Country Today: What is the main purpose of your visit to Washington, D.C.?

David Hernandez-Palmar: First, we are trying to inform people about how the Wayuu of Venezuela and Colombia are doing, and to let as many people as possible know what is affecting us.

Photo courtesy Venezuelan Embassy David Hernandez-Palmar at the National Museum of American Indians.

I met with some folks about our patrimony and cultural heritage; and with the Smithsonian staff about repatriation as well as how can the people of Venezuela share music and films with the people of the U.S.

ICT: Is there anything you want to share with Native American readers?

DHP: My message would be that, above everything else, we need to rethink the role of the leader or representative. … if we are not careful and we fall into the western discourse, this will harm us, and harm others too.

ICT: Could you elaborate?

DHP: I am Wayuu. I work with people made of flesh and bone, men and women who form societies and with society comes the political; but we are indigenous first and politicians second. We must think that way.

For example, in talking about leaders and representatives, and this is related to a documentary we are doing about the World Bank, there is an energy generator on our land in Colombia. It is really disgusting, polluting and somehow there may have been an individual who said ‘yes’ to this thing, not a community or commission, but an individual spokesperson.

We have to rethink how to deal with prior or informed consent. … Another thing, to the indigenous people of the U.S., Canada, Alaska, go to visit the indigenous people of Venezuela so they can see you. In my community, very few people know of the indigenous people of North America, only what they saw in Hollywood where it looked like everybody was killed. But here in these countries, there is still resistance, still men and women who are disposed to learning about others.

ICT: You mentioned a documentary about the World Bank.

DHP: We are showing what the World Bank is doing on indigenous land, in our communities. Most of our lands are in Colombia, but most of our people are in Venezuela. Colombia and Venezuela have opposing governments. If you’re Wayuu in Colombia you are considered a guerilla because you are against Uribe. In Venezuela we are recognized in the Constitution, but still we have struggles; we have a culture that has been harmed. … We have, in Venezuela, the premise that there is no racism, as long as you stay in your place.

ICT: How is the relationship with President Chavez?

DHP: Chavez has helped us to become visible, and for the first time we have gotten access to media as never before. Of course our grandparents had newspapers and radio stations, but we have more access to those and to alternative media.

But at the same time, we don’t casually support anyone. We have to be honest and recognize what has been done in Venezuela. The problem is not Chavez, it is that some of the people in that government are not committed to the process and that hurts the process. … we have to speak up and that is something we are doing.

ICT: Have you met with any Native leaders from the U.S.?

DHP: Yes, with different people from Lakota, Dakota and other communities. I met filmmaker Tracey Deer [Mohawk] and I want to take her to Venezuela to show her how indigenous people are using Western tools to accept another indigenous people – that’s something we have learned from Western cultures.

Here in the U.S., the Lakota, Dakota are working on the revitalization of the languages, it’s very interesting. We’re doing that in Venezuela, too; indigenous languages are official now. When we do this networking we feel there is a dynamic similar to globalization, but it is not that. It is however, like we are a worldwide power. I can go to any place in the world and they give me shelter and feed me, and we share. But as indigenous people, how do we deal with so much pain and still have our feet on the ground and our fingers on the laptops?

ICT: How was the visit to the Smithsonian?

DHP: We went there to see objects pertaining to the Wayuu, to see which ones could be repatriated, including human remains and funeral objects. We had a very good conversation; the Smithsonian folks were very sympathetic. It was the beginning of a good discussion. … but I was greatly affected to see the things of my people in boxes, so very far from home. It hit me very hard. I was really blown away. My spirit was in conflict. I kept asking, ‘who did that?’ But it was significant that there was no other Wayuu there before me, but now we will make sure to change that.