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December 1998 - Issue No. #33 (p.14-16)

Indigenous Peoples -

Alive and Well in Your Classroom

by Dorothy Dufour (Hokkaido, Japan)

I'll start by telling you what I know. I cannot tell you what I don't know. I'll start by telling you what it is that I don't understand. This is my story. This story starts with me. It has to start with me.

I'm not Ainu. I'm not Japanese. What right do I have to speak about Japanese-Ainu relations? I could very well be told that it is all none of my business. I could very well be told that Americans have no moral ascendency over the Japanese when it comes to annihilation attempts, assimilation programs and ethnocide/genocide campaigns.

When people of one group or nation encounter people of a different group or nation, I think most of us try to be friendly, helpful and understanding as individuals. However, we must never forget that we are representatives of the group or nation of which we were born and raised. It takes a long time to get to know and really trust each other as individuals on a really deep level. And even if we do, it is always a somewhat tenuous relationship. It can fall apart at anytime, especially if we think we really understand what has happened in the past.

In 1991 I was asked to become translator for Yai Yukara no Mori, an Ainu culture preservation group that was the offspring of the Yai Yukara Academic Society, founded in 1973 with the purpose of reclaiming the stolen Ainu heritage . . . of taking it out of the hands of Japanese academics who inadvertently often proclaimed that the Ainu were a dying people. This is easy to say if you are not Ainu. It is impossible to accept if you are.

In your roots lie your strength, your pride, your hope for your children and your great grandchildren. Without your roots and your vision for the future, you lose your confidence, you are floating without anchor, you cannot put forth your best. You are easily manipulated. You don't understand your purpose in life. You become a kind of decoration. You make the other side look good. The other side is credited for being broadminded and liberal and understanding because they are associating with you. This is called the colonizer-mind set. Needless to say the "vanquished" peoples cannot accept this. Their ancestors may have been murdered, their lands may have been stolen, and their languages may have been repressed, but their spirit is not dead. Their culture has not been eradicated. They are still fighting for their very lives . . . and that is something we colonizers must admit that we don't understand. To pretend that we do is to trivialize their experience.

This was made very clear to me one day in May of 1992. Yai Yukara no Mori was having its first spring camp. Sixty of us, Ainu, Japanese, me and my three Japanese-American children, had been gathering wild mountain vegetables and had finished cooking and eating our banquet of traditional Ainu foods.

Food is culture that you can eat and share. Eating is a form of intercultural communication. Drinking is, too. I love the taste of home brewed doburoku when it is young and still has the sightly sour taste of yogurt. It is a strong rice wine that is not clear like sake. It has a cloudy white color. The fact that we were drinking an illegal home brew definitely added to the flavor

Mr. Akibe, an Ainu-Japanese man who had recently started using his mother's Ainu family name, Mr. Akibe and I were talking. He had been an Ainu activist for most of his adult life and was about the same age as I was. He was talking about how the Ainu language had been repressed, but that now Ainu language classes were being taught.

I began telling him my story. I told him how my family had been living in what is now northern Maine since the 1700's and had been French speaking until my generation. In the 1950's and 1960's we were forbidden to speak French in school. Then in 1964, we were encouraged to start speaking French again. They were afraid we were losing it. Thursday was declared to be French Speaking Day. We had to be proud of our heritage, you see.

I was telling him that at the age of six, my elder daughter Kiyo had stopped speaking to me in English on a daily basis, because her Japanese friends would laugh and say they didn't understand. I was saying that I wondered in what language I'd be speaking to my grandchildren. I said I understood about losing a language. I was sympathizing.

He flared up and in a booming voice said: "No! You don't understand!" I didn't say anything. He said: "You don't understand! Your experience is not the same as ours. The difference is that if you want to speak your language, you can go to a place or country where that language is spoken by everyone. There is no place that I can go to where this is so." I didn't say anything. I didn't even understand that for me to equate my experience with his was to trivialize his. I didn't say anything. I didn't know what to say.

I can say now that I think it is a crime for a state to intentionally repress the language of a people. It is an attempt by those in power to take and maintain control over another people. It tells them that their heritage is inferior. It tells them that their ancestors are losers. That their culture has nothing to offer the dominant one. In the United States, this is very clear. The phrase used to muffle the foreign-language or second-language shouts about any injustices the succeeding waves of newly arrived immigrants or their descendants may experience is: "Well, if they don't like it here, they can go back where they came from." We can't say that to Native Americans, however. There's a different expression reserved for them. They get to be told: "The only good Indian is a dead Indian." I feel, though, that most Americans, as well as all of us here today, don't have that mind-set. I don't think anyone here would say, "The only good indigenous is a dead indigenous." But it might be possible to say that our eyes are clouded and that we don't see so clearly.

There are still between 200 and 250 million indigenous people living today. For two million years or more, since humans appeared on earth, families, tribes and nations have surfaced, migrated, converged, and died out. But in the modern age, as never before, distinct cultures and languages are vanishing. Is our time to be remembered as the age in which human diversity disappeared from the face of the earth?

In China, 67 million people, 7% of the population, are ethnic minorities. About five million of these are Tibetans. In 1950, Tibet, for centuries an isolated independent nation in the Himalayas, was declared to be a part of the Republic of China. One million two hundred thousand Tibetans out of a population of six million lost their lives in the invasion, the occupation and the famine that followed. The U.N. passed three resolutions telling China to stop killing Tibetans and to recognize their right to self-determination, but these were ignored. Neither the U.S. nor any other nation stepped forward to challenge China.

In Guatemala, between 1981 and 1996, 45,000 Indian women, descendants of the ancient Maya people, became widows. 200,000 children became orphans, and 2,000,000 Guatemalans became refugees.

In 1970, there were 13,000 Penan tribesmen in Sarawak, Malaysia. In 1990, there were fewer than 500. Their forests are disappearing, they are disappearing.

When teaching about indigenous peoples, however, it is very important NOT to focus on the statistics. Do not spend too much time on the "how many and "how much" questions. There are three things wrong with focusing on the numbers of people and how much money or food or education or modern housing complexes they would need to get them out of their sorry conditions and be able to pursue life styles like ours:

  1. Asking the how much and how many questions focuses our attention on the victims.
  2. The solutions, therefore, seem to be that if "we", the rich, (over)developed, industrialized nations could help "them", the underdeveloped peoples, "their" problems would be solved. This is charity. It is not justice. There is a difference.
  3. By focusing on the numbers, it never seems to occur to us that the problem is with "us" and not with "them".

And so, we forget to ask the really important questions - the "who" and "why" questions. Here are a few examples:

  1. Who controls the land and other food producing resources?
  2. Who decides what food, timber, electricity, human labor, etc. is in surplus and, therefore, permits it to be sold off to other groups or nations?
  3. Who are the buyers and sellers who benefit from such transactions of cheap human and natural resources?
  4. Why do some nations oppress other nations?
  5. Why are some nations rich and others poor?
  6. Why are the poor peoples and indigenous peoples so often portrayed as lacking in something: lacking in money, of course, and education, know-how, diligence and even intelligence?
  7. Why can't they be seen as rich human resources that have a lot to offer human society?
  8. Why do we nations with the colonialist or neo-colonialist mind-set (sometimes called "globalization") think that these peoples WANT to become like us?

In October, 1992, Rigoberta Menchu, a 33-year old Quiche Indian woman from Guatemala living in exile in Mexico City, was chosen as the Nobel Peace Prize laureate for the year 1993. In closing, I quote from Rigoberta Menchu:

"Freedom for indigenous peoples wherever they are -- this is my cause. It was not born out of something good; it was born out of wretchedness and bitterness. It was radicalized by the poverty of my people, the malnutrition that I as an Indian have seen and experienced, the exploitation I have felt in my own flesh, and the oppression that prevents us from performing our sacred ceremonies, showing no respect for the way we are.

At the threshold of the 21st century, the struggle of indigenous peoples to gain respect for their rights, identities, and aspirations is dynamic and increasingly widespread. It can no longer be denied or hidden by any groups seeking to perpetuate oppression and discrimination. The new millenniium offers promise for those who have resisted for five hundred years in defense of their rights and their history.

We defend our roots not only to preserve them, but that they may flourish and bear fruit. In our struggle to gain respect for economic, social, cultural, civil, and political rights, we cannot agree to symbolic recognition or superficial concessions. Our aim is that all those rights should become effective at all levels: local, regional, and national.

None of the grave, deep-rooted problems of the world can be resolved without the full participation of the indigenous peoples. Similarly, the indigenous peoples require the cooperation of the other sectors of society.

Many people have said that indigenous peoples are myths of the past, ruins that have died. But the indigenous community is not a vestige of the past, nor is it a myth. It is full of vitality and has a course and a future. It has much wisdom and richness to contribute. They have not killed us and they will not kill us now. We are stepping forth to say, "No, we are here. We live." - Rigoberta Menchu (from the Forward to Endangered Peoples - see below)

Reading Lists

Materials in English
Bigelow, Bill and Bob Peterson, eds. Rethinking Columbus: Essays and Resources for Teaching about the 500th Anniversary of Columbus' Arrival in the Americas. Wilwaukee, WI: Rethinking Schools

Menchu, Rigoberta. I, Rigoberta Menchu. edit. by Elisabeth Burgos-Debray. London, Verso [Link no longer active], 1984.

Davidson, Art. Endangered Peoples. (photographs by Art Wolfe, John Isaac) ________, Sierra Club Books: 19**.

Wright,Ronald. Stolen Continents: The Americas through Indian Eyes. New York, Houghton Mifflin Co.: 1993.

Indigenous Women's Network. Indigenous Woman Magazine. P.O. Box 174, Lake Elmo., MN 55042, USA.

Kahniakehaka Nation, Ed. Akwesasne Notes Magazine. Akwesasne Mohawk Territory, P.O. Box 196, via Rooseveltown, NY, USA.

Leustig, Jack. 500 Nations. (A 1995 film series available via Warner Home Video, Ltd.)

Josephy, Alvin M. Jr. 500 Nations. New York, Alfred A. Knopf: 1994.

Materials in Japanese
Takahashi Sayo (trans). Watashi No Na wa Rigoberuta Menuchuu. Tokyo, Shinchosha: 1987.

Yay Yukara no Mori Newsletter. Set of 25 back issues available for 5000 yen. Order from: Yay Yukara no Mori, 4 jo 2 chome 19-32, Tokiwa, Minami-ku, Sapporo, Hokkaido, Japan, 005-0854. Fax: (+81) 011-592-6879 E-mail:


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