Monday, February 12, 2007

The Guise of Scholarship

“Teaching Official U.S. Native Peoples Policies"

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For the second consecutive year a program sponsored by the U.S. State Department brought Bolivian indigenous student leaders to the U.S. to participate in a four-week program that involved visits to various sites in the United States.

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The program which ran from January 13 through February 9 was hosted by the Institute for Training and Development, based in Amherst, Massachusetts. The students who hailed from the Universidad Mayor de San Simon in Cochabamba and the Universidad Mayor de San Andres in La Paz, spent most of their time learning about the history, culture and government of the United States at Amherst College. They also traveled to Washington D.C. and the Tohono O'odham Reservation near Tucson, Arizona.
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According to various State Department officials, the United States Institute for Bolivian Indigenous Student Leaders program “reflects the U.S. commitment to work with historically marginalized populations.” Yet contrary to that commitment, the United States continues to engage in practices both domestically and internationally that threaten the mere survival of many indigenous communities.

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In November of last year the U.S. was instrumental in serving the world-wide indigenous community a devastating setback by heading a United Nations delegation that worked to deny approval of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

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The declaration - 30 years in the making - had achieved support from a majority of the U.N. General Assembly’s 191 member nations, but protests by the United States, Canada, Australia, Russia and New Zealand – all nations with large indigenous populations – prevented the declaration from being ratified.

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According to Armstrong Wiggins, a Miskito leader from Nicaragua who is director of the Washington, D.C. office of the Indian Law Resource Center, the declaration puts pressure on governments to live up to universal principles of justice, democracy, respect for human rights. ''It has been a long process working to advance our rights on every level with the United Nations, the World Bank, the Inter-American Development Bank and other agencies.''

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Although a non-binding resolution, the declaration would be a major step towards international recognition of the self-determination of indigenous peoples - often the poorest and most marginalized individuals in their respective societies.

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Bolivia serves as an example. The country boasts the largest indigenous population in the world and sits on top of vast resources of natural gas, silver and tin, yet is one of the poorest nation’s in the Western Hemisphere – even though one silver mine in the Potosi region bankrolled the entire Spanish colonial empire for over a hundred years.

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There are more than 370 million indigenous people world-wide with 562 federally recognized tribes resting in the U.S. alone. Native Americans in the U.S. suffer from the highest rates of poverty, unemployment, suicide, diabetes, heart disease, inadequate health care and inadequate food access.

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One of the visiting Bolivian students was quoted as being pleasantly surprised and moved after talking to members of the Tohono O'odham tribe who share the same family customs, challenges and Spanish language of his people in Bolivia. However, in the richest country in the world, the living conditions of the Tohono O’odham Nation are bleak: life expectancy among male tribal members is below 60 years of age and 52 percent of the Tohono O'odham people suffer from Type 2 diabetes - six times higher than the rest of the United States. The unemployment rate is 40 percent and per capita income is $19,000 annually. Half of the reservation’s households have no electricity or telephone service and one-third lack indoor plumbing.

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Curiously the Chairwoman of the Tohono O'odham Nation, Vivian Juan-Saunders, publicly offered support to Republican Senator John McCain, head of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee and 2008 Presidential hopeful, saying “You have my vote.” McCain has been supportive of the Secure Fence Act, legislation that passed the U.S. House of Representatives in September 2006. The law would approve construction of 700 miles of fence across a third of the U.S.-Mexico border, cutting through portions of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California. Beyond imposing ecological disruption on indigenous lands, the fence would cut off 1,400 Tohono O'odham members who live on the other side of the Mexican border.

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Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice has emphasized the importance of helping the 5,000 different groups of indigenous people who live in more than 70 countries around the world. Perhaps the U.S. should start within its own borders, beginning in the nation’s capital. Washington D.C. benefits economically from using a racially derogative team mascot for its football team that propagates negative stereotypes of Native Americans – a situation that is duplicated across sports genres throughout the country.

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Among the reasons cited by the State Department for assisting indigenous people is that natives are excellent stewards for environmental protection. Indigenous peoples often live in areas rich in biodiversity, and their cultural knowledge of medicinal uses of plants can be transformed to benefit non-indigenous people.

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Yet, the activities of capitalist societies reinforced by the United States and international economic institutions such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund continuously threaten the ancestral lands of indigenous people as global warming creates unknown consequences. Recently, scientists throughout Latin America have noted the rapid loss of glaciers in Peru, Venezuela, Colombia and Bolivia. According to predictions of Jaime Argollo Bautista, director of the Institute of Geological Investigation at Bolivia's University of San Andres – Bolivia’s glaciers will disappear in 30 to 40 years. The situation will wipe out Bolivia’s only ski resort in Chacaltaya where 80 percent of its glacier has melted in the past 20 years but most importantly threaten water supplies for drinking and hydroelectric plants that supply power to La Paz and El Alto.

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Most undoubtedly, the 15 Bolivian students who visited the U.S. gained an insight into the “official” American way of life that will remain unknown to most indigenous Bolivianos & those of the United States. However the information shared with these young collegiate age leaders about “American” style democracy and leadership may well be considered contradictory to U.S. actions that continue to undermine the human rights of indigenous people in the Americas and throughout the world. The State Department’s director of the Office of Andean Affairs, Philip French stated that the students “were going to take back lessons learned on American democracy.” With an active voter participation rate of just under 50 percent compared with Bolivia’s recent turnout of 83 percent that ushered in the election of its first indigenous president, perhaps the United States has lessons it could learn from Bolivian public participation in the political process called democracy.





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