Columbus Day: For Indigenous People, a Time to Mourn

Chris Herlinger | October 13, 2014

Griselda Arias and her husband David Palacios at their home in Lote 75, an indigenous neighborhood of Embarcacion, Argentina. The couple are leaders of the Wichi, who in this area were largely traditional hunters and gatherers, but they have struggled for decades to recover land that has been systematically stolen from them by cattleraisers and large agricultural plantations. Photo: Paul Jeffrey/CWS

Griselda Arias and her husband David Palacios at their home in Lote 75, an indigenous neighborhood of Embarcacion, Argentina. The couple are leaders of the Wichi, who in this area were largely traditional hunters and gatherers, but they have struggled for decades to recover land that has been systematically stolen from them by cattleraisers and large agricultural plantations. Photo: Paul Jeffrey/CWS

A few days back, Fionuala Cregan, one of our colleagues based in Buenos Aires, Argentina, wrote this on Facebook:

“October 12 will be a national holiday in Argentina. Once called ‘Columbus Day’ it is now denominated ‘Day of Cultural Diversity.’ For indigenous people this day represents the death of 60 million of their ancestors across Latin America and the pillaging of their lands. Today the majority live in conditions of poverty and social exclusion. They will not be celebrating cultural diversity nor taking a long weekend tourist break.”

Her remarks were particularly poignant for me because Fionuala, photographer Paul Jeffrey and I spent two weeks recently in the Gran Chaco region of Argentina and Bolivia, talking to members of indigenous communities about their lives and seeing the impact CWS-supported programs have had on the communities.

It was one of the best experiences I have had traveling on assignment for CWS. Why? CWS work and support are really doing right by people. It is in Chaco that a visitor gets a real sense that CWS truly is “accompanying” communities in their struggles against hunger, poverty and marginalization.

That requires some background to fully appreciate. There is real need in the Gran Chaco, the largest dry forest in the world and home to 25 indigenous ethnic groups. For centuries, before the arrival of Europeans, these semi-nomadic peoples lived peacefully off the land.

But in the process of “modernization,” they lost land, and were relegated to second-class citizenship. One reason for this is the Gran Chaco’s isolation from centers of power – much like Native American reservations in the United States. That made it easier for those in power in Argentina, Bolivia and Paraguay not only to ignore indigenous peoples but to create, as Fionuala noted, harmful patterns of social exclusion.

Indigenous communities have been denied basic rights to health care and education, food and decent work, running water and electricity. A telling example: the national illiteracy rate in Argentina is 2.6 percent; in indigenous communities it is nearly 20 percent.

But neglect is only part of the story. In recent years, Argentina has been re-examining its past, and many have concluded that the genocide of indigenous peoples has to be reckoned with. War hero and President Julio Argentino Roco (1843-1914), sometimes described as Argentina’s George Washington and Abraham Lincoln rolled into one, has been cast in a new (and unflattering) light.

His once-touted 1878-79 “conquest of the desert” is now seen by many as a shameful act of genocidal conquest. And other sanctioned acts against indigenous peoples continued through the 20th century, including the Rincón Bomba massacre of 1947 in which 1,500 people were murdered.

Slowly – but ever so-slowly – the wheels have begun turning for the Chaco’s indigenous people. Deforestation, largely caused in large measure by cattle and soy industries, has gotten some international attention (though not nearly as much as in the Amazon). That has put into the spotlight on practices that threaten not just the Gran Chaco but the entire planet.

And years of persistent, even stubborn, legal struggles, including sit-ins, protests and encampments on disputed lands, have begun paying off for indigenous peoples in the Chaco, with courts in the counties finally paying attention. (CWS has assisted in some of these cases with financial support.)

In some places, the indigenous have finally won legal title to their ancestral territories.  For many other communities, the struggle continues. (Good to remember Frederick Douglass’s famous dictum: “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”)

These changes couldn’t have happened without the emergence of strong indigenous leaders who have demanded that the rights of their people not be ignored. In the Chaco, CWS’s work and support has helped strengthen indigenous organizations by, as Fionuala reminds me, “carrying out human rights and legal training. Now many of those organizations are able to manage their land claims autonomously.”

Indigenous leader Francisco Perez. Photo: Chris Herlinger/CWS

Indigenous leader Francisco Perez. Photo: Chris Herlinger/CWS

I spent part of one late afternoon with indigenous leader Francisco Perez, in the community of Santa Victoria Este. Perez, 65, spoke about struggles going back decades – struggles not only against government policies, but against others also making claims for the land, including so-called criollos (Spanish descendents) whose livelihoods center around cattle raising.

Luckily, for both indigenous and criollo communities, efforts for compromise and a workable solution have emerged, in no small part as a result of CWS-supported initiatives. Yet Perez, a tough, savvy and hardened veteran of years of struggle, did not romanticize the achievement. It was not difficult to miss the hard truth of Perez’s soft-spoken but firm observation: indigenous communities still face hunger, poverty and marginalization.

“‘Civilize them,’” he said, “is still the mindset here.”

Put another way, as we commemorate Columbus Day, Day of Cultural Diversity or whatever we call it, let’s acknowledge a sad truth: racism remains a stubborn, pernicious and persistent evil.

Chris Herlinger is CWS’s senior writer.


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