July 23 2004

Culture and Oppression of Indigenous People

Representatives of indigenous groups from Mexico and the United States gathered for the first time at a groundbreaking symposium to discuss issues affecting their current social situation.

By Eduardo Stanley
Pacific News Service

FRESNO, CA — Approximately 100 representatives of the Otomí, Mixtec, Zapotec, Catúa, Mayo, Purépecha, Mono, Comanche, Náhuatl, Yaki, Chipúa, Orepago, Keetowah, Paiute, Chumasa, Hochuak, Navajo, and Apache tribes, among others, met on July 10 and 11 in Fresno to discuss the issues of “Culture and Development” and “Territory and Mobility.” The meeting was called by the Pan Valley Institute (PVI) of the American Friends Service Committee (AFCS) in conjunction with the Frente Indígena Oaxqueño Binacional (FIOB, a bi-national organization of indigenous peoples residing in the state of Oaxaca in Mexico and in the United States). The call for participation -the result of several months of careful preparation- culminated in this gathering of well-known and respected indigenous and Native American leaders.

“To speak about culture and development is to speak about a model of deficiency: the poor are blamed for their lack of development. Third-world countries have to adopt the values of industrialized nations to be able to exit from poverty,” said Gaspar Rivera, professor at the University of California, Riverside, and an active member of the FIOB. “For this reason,” he added, “you still hear such expressions as ‘Mexicans are lazy,’ ‘Latinos are poor because they have so many children,’ and so on.”


Rufino Dominguz, coordinator of the FIOB symposium.

Rivera also pointed out that observation of Mexican farm workers in the Central Valley suffices to refute these expressions. But the dominant culture constantly re-invents such myths to maintain its stronghold. “Max Weber, one of the founders of modern sociology, wrote that there is something in the Protestant concept of discipline that ascribed a high level of development to certain cultures.”

Rivera was referring to the German sociologist Max Weber (18641920), professor, antisocialist, and member of the Prussian military, whose book The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905) was to have a strong influence, even today. In this book Weber states that within societies in which the Protestant religion -rather than Calvinism and Catholicism- is dominant, great advances in capitalism are achieved, because the Protestant religion creates a rational work ethic aimed at material benefits.

Neo-racism in the United States, characterized in Victor Hanson’s book Mexifornia (2003) and Samuel Hunting-ton’s article “The Hispanic Challenge” (2004), re-create the myth of the lazy Latin in terms of Latin cultural challenge to Anglo-Protestant values. Rivera observed, “It isn’t laziness, but rather economic and social inequality, that forms the roadblock to development for indigenous peoples.”

Ron Alec, from the Mono tribe in the Central Valley, mentioned different power-based strategies used to perpetuate divisions among Native Americans. He explained that his own tribe had stripped him of membership, which meant losing access to the land of his ancestors. “Efforts to recuperate the sacred lands of our ancestors clash with the bureaucratic demands and indifference of government officials,” said Alec. He added that young people no longer speak their native languages, thereby losing one of the last elements of cultural identification.

Indian casinos, concessions to different tribes throughout California, were also questioned. “They help only some, but not all, of us and they are not always used for the common good,” asserted Norma Turner, who went on to say that while many tribal members sport new vehicles, tribes that earn money from the casinos “do not invest in the land, in our trees.” Turner underscored the relationship of Native Americans with their land.  She concluded, “Desecration of the land and contamination are inadmissible acts.”

“Culture is not limited to dressing up in traditional costume and performing traditional dances,” said Rufino Dominguez, coordinator of the FIOB. “Nor do we want to be typecast in the culture of the “poor little Indian.” He added that marginalized communities would need to create a culture of participation. “Neither here nor in Mexico are native peoples respected, and for this reason, I believe that we must join together and take action.”

Some of the attendees agreed that some Western concepts do not express the needs or interests of Native Americans and indigenous groups. Such is the case of the word sovereignty, which some state, serves most ironically to cause rifts among different tribes. “We are called ‘nations,’ but in reality we are no longer nations nor do we have the infrastructure characteristic of nations,” commented Marta Frausto, from Fresno. “In the 30s, the United States government granted us sovereignty - the same kind of sovereignty that was given to Iraq,” said Victor Yellowhawk, from Sacramento. “Sovereignty isn't handed out - you either have it or you don’t.”  

The discussion included other topics of abiding interest such as alcoholism, gender differences, and the governmental arrogance on both sides of the border that determines the fate and even the definition of who constitute indigenous peoples. For the Native American attendees, the issue of immigration is of little significance, because borders were created to represent the interests of the whites. That is why Native Americans do not consider the indigenous peoples of Mexico immigrants. However, all attendees agreed to continue to discuss immigration, which is of vital importance for the thousands of Mixtecs and Zapotecs and members of other indigenous groups emigrating from Mexico to the United States.  

This massive movement of people is the product of an economic model -defended by Max Weber- that also put an end to the coexistence of native peoples with the land, affirmed Mirna Valenzuela, of Mayo origin. “In our homeland in Sonora, Mexico, the mining industry caused the soil to dry up. And then the mining companies went away. They left us nothing.”  

The participants highlighted the importance of this discussion, calling it “historic” and deciding to meet again to establish working agreements. These agreements will be presented publicly this coming October 12.     

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