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“Mestizo,” vs “Indígena”

Published: October 1, 2007, Author: MHirch

“Don’t touch those tennis shoes!” is the command said directly or otherwise implied. By this command, Fourth World peoples are directed to stay as their ancestors were and not live as modern human beings. This has been the way of the settler descendants to keep indigenous peoples from claiming their powers and rights.

Descendants of settler populations control the economic and political power in the modern state; and the peoples on top of whom the state was formed–the indigenous people–are supposed to be content with being social artifacts–powerless and satisfied with settler castoffs. The original peoples of lands the world over are stratified into the lowest level of social identity in the modern state.

In South Africa, the original peoples of that land remain, despite the African National Congress rise to power in the last ten years, socially, politically and economically at the bottom of the social pile. They suffer the greatest health and economic problems and lack the power to change the circumstances.

In Chile, the Mapuche have been assigned the lowest rank in Chilean and Argentine society and they suffer constant threats and attacks for lack of social and political power.

The Sammi of Norway, Sweden and Finland also suffer from this social stratification that will deny the more than 60,000 indigenous peoples of Scandinavia political power.

In much of the western hemisphere the language of powerlessness is used by state authorities, academics, politicians, business people and the every day settler descendant to eliminate or otherwise obscure the distinctive identity of specific indigenous peoples. With the expectation of perfecting a “homogeneous state” the descendants of settler populations who largely rule and control the state power structures in Spanish occupied states have used the word mestizo to suggest that an individual has a social standing above a “mere Indian”–that category being of lower social status. Mestizo is accepted by many individuals who are Indígena in an effort to avoid being assigned a lower social status in the state. As Guillermo Bonfil Batalla observes in his México profundo (edited by Philip A. Dennis) the process of “de-indianization” of rural Mexican populations has been underway since before the formation of the Mexican state. Its goal? The elimination of the original peoples of the land.

Clearly the effort to eliminate the Indian population over time has failed, for as noted in Bonfil’s work: Their lives and ways of understanding the world continue to be rooted in Mesoamerican civilization–pre-Spanish societies. Perhaps 70% of Mexico’s population are in fact people rooted in the ancient civilizations. Despite this reality, social and institutional pressures heavily emphasize mestizo as an identity rather than indígena or the original identity people know themselves by.

States throughout the hemisphere and indeed throughout the world repeat this pattern. And it is the case that indigenous peoples the world over remain rooted in their ancient cultures. The indigenous population is often much larger than state records document. The concern seems to be that when indigenous peoples are recognized to be of greater numbers they will band together and compete for power with setter descendants.

That seems to be the worry among settler descendants in Bolivia where the state population of Indígena is the majority population (60% of 9.3 million). Despite this fact, the settler descendants who oppose the rise of power among the original peoples want to promote the view that this majority population is Bolivian, “mestizo” or of otherwise mixed-race heritage. By virtue of this view, it is argued, the indigenous population is considered smaller.

Indigenous peoples want to take the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples seriously. In particular Article 26 of the Declaration commands considerable attention. It is here that the UN Declaration states: Indigenous peoples have the right to the lands, territories and resources which they have traditionally owned, occupied or otherwise used or acquired. This principle seems to directly threaten the settler descendant population since they basically stole most of the land on which they live. They are clearly concerned in Bolivia that those who are Indígena will no longer want to be called Mestizo and wish to claim their right to lands and self-government.

Because of the UN Declaration Indígena now means power and the choice to reclaim lands and resources for the benefit of original peoples.

For millions of peoples in the world, reclaiming land on which to grow food, build society and families has got a shot in the arm. There is great opposition to this idea by those who claim the lands and resources originally used and owned by Indígena. The struggle for one’s identity may be less difficult than the struggle to take back the lands, the resources and the power taken by those who came to occupy and replace lands and the people. In Bolivia the struggle has been raging and now will take on a new level of importance.

The war in Nicaragua between the Miskito, Sumo and Rama and the government of Nicaragua between 1981 and 1990 demonstrated that indigenous peoples will defend their lands and their way of life with success. The Zapatistas demonstrated a resurgent power in Mexico as have the Mixe in Oaxaca simply by taking the initiative and acting. The Salish peoples demonstrated their resurgent claims to the right of self-government in Canada and the United States and have begun to force a shift in political power. Fourth World nations throughout the hemisphere, and indeed throughout the world, may now reclaim their lands, resources and power to decide their own social, economic, political, economic and cultural future. In the western hemisphere, the may come that it is no longer mestizo, but Indígena that identifies the majority populations in many states.

(C) 2007 Center for World Indigenous Studies

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