"The only good Indian is a bad one."
Continental Summit of Indigenous nations and pueblos, Iximché, Guatemala, March 2007
As the historic march flooded into the old colonial central plaza, there was a moment of great jubilation. From the side streets flowed legions of people from the feeder marchers, swelling the ranks of the main body. As the rivers of indigenous marchers merged, a tremendous roar filled the air as hundreds of smiling faces greeted each other like long lost brothers and sisters re-uniting-which of course in many respects, they were.
Guatemala City had never seen anything like it: thousands of Indigenous people from almost every country of the Americas coming together, celebrating their culture, and organizing resistance. This is the grand finale march on Guatemala City to top off the successful weeklong summit at nearby Iximché. The grey, suffocating streets are filled for once not with smog and gridlock, but with a blaze of color from the forest of rainbow colored flags and banners, and the sound of drums and pipes and maracas and the multitude of voices each with their own distinct language uniting to chant and sing together. Like the march of an army of the dispossessed-the lowest of the low, the invisibles-reclaiming the city of fear where once, not so long ago, they were hunted down, disappeared, and murdered with impunity by the state security forces.
"After more than 500 years of oppression and domination," proclaimed the Bolivian speaker from the stage before the cheering crowd, "they have not been able to eliminate us. Here we are alive and united with nature. Today we recuperate together our sovereignty Our task is to begin to govern ourselves."
The Intriguing Annals of Iximché
This Third Continental Summit of Indigenous Peoples and Nationalities of Abya Yala (referring to the North and South American continents in the Kuna language) is being convened amidst the ebullient upsurge in the fortunes of indigenous peoples across the Americas. The flagship on the rising tide is Evo Morales presidential victory in Bolivia. He is not the first indigenous president elected in Latin America, but he is the first indigenous and staunchly left representative in office-as much part of the indigenous revival as the Latin American left turn captained by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. And this is the starting point of this summit-indigenous, left, and premised on the theme "from resistance to power."
"The indigenous people have decided to recuperate our identity, citizenship, natural resources, and culture," explained one representative from Ecuador, "and now we are setting our sights on taking political power."
This latest indigenous’ summit (the first was held in Mexico 2000, followed by Ecuador, 2004) is being convened in a suitably prestigious location. The sacred Mayan site of Iximché, 60 miles outside of Guatemala City is a place with a both lauded and turbulent past. The great city was once the capital seat of the Kaqchikel people. Typical of the rambunctious nature of indigenous history in general, Iximché -founded in 1470-has a complicated past. The Kaqchikel first collaborated with the invading Spanish conquistadores led by Pedro De Alvarado in 1524, against their old rivals, the neighboring K’iche states. Such a duplicitous collaboration soon came undone as they learned the true nature of the avaricious Spaniards. The Kaqchikel rebelled, overrunning the Spanish garrison in 1527. The Spaniards in turn came back in greater numbers and with new local allies, eventually vanquishing the Kachikel.
This week Iximché is transformed from a museum of the past and a case study for academics to being a vibrant theater for political discourse and cultural dynamism. Foremost on the minds of the organizers is to cleanse the space of the bad vibes left by President Bush, who visited here two weeks earlier while on his monumentally doomed Latin American tour. In an elaborate cleansing ceremony-signifying ignominy for the US President-the Mayan priests purified the space to replace "the politics of war with a politics of life, dignity, equality, transparency, inclusive democracy, and indigenous people’s unity founded on a sustainable co-existence with Mother Nature."
In the shadow of the old ruins, huge tents have been set up and a flurry of activities is going on as workshops and plenums take place in multiple locations. It is an autonomous space, controlled for the duration of the summit by the people themselves, without the presence of cops or authorities from the state.
Among the hordes of colorfully dressed delegates, the most prominent are the enthusiastic 70-strong Bolivian delegation, wearing distinctively beautiful textiles and the women in their signature bowler hats. The press is all over them, snapping away photos, knowing that this exotic indigenous eye-candy sells.
But as Ecuadorian Blanca Chancosa points out in her opening address – "We are not just for folklore or adornment, we want to be authors and constructors (of our own destiny)."
So each day, after the pre-dawn spiritual ceremony, such cosmological immaterialism is overshadowed by hardcore anti-neoliberal political discourse. The themes highlighted by the summit and its numerous workshops and panels include: land and territory, the depletion of natural resources, the environment, climate change, autonomy, migration, and privatization. Concrete campaigns and struggle against neo-liberalism, militarization, the US war and the US border wall were consolidated, as well as specific campaigns such as promoting economic alternatives, legalization of coca leaves and opening up Bolivia’s access to the sea.
Bolivia’s foreign relations minister David Choquehuanca sets the tone of the discussions, quoting a Chotewanka by saying , "Our minds are colonized, but not our hearts. It is time to listen to our hearts, because this is what builds resistance." Indigenous people, he said, should look how to "live well," to seek a "culture of life" rather than the one-dimensional development.
"Our world is not for sale," continued Blanca Chancosa. "Bush is not welcome here. We want instead people who support life. Yes to life! Imperialism and capitalism has left us with a historical debt and they owe us for this debt."
Bush is not welcome, but the US contingents are warmly received. Making the link between struggles north and south-across the despised Rio Brava wall-a representative from the Western Shoshone people said, "The indigenous here are facing the same kind of issues we are facing in the North, and face the same threats by the multi-national corporations such as mining and environmental contamination. These affect the traditional foundation of our nations which is the land, the air, the water, and spirituality."
Linking the environmental and the political is a constant underlying theme here in this construction of a "culture of life." Capitalist neo-liberalism is fueling environmental destruction, as Miguel Palacin from Peruvian peasant organization CONACAMI emphasizes: "They are trying to create economic blocs to impose treaties based on the exploitation of nature. But now we are becoming visible, because they are messing with Mother Earth, and we are organizing in order to respond. "
From the panels discussing Territory, Natural Resources, and the Indigenous People, Magali Rey Rosa, of the Guatemalan Madre Tierra organization has the final word: "Mother Earth is not bearing up any more with the kind of use that the dominant civilization is imposing on its ecosystem. Development is smothering life. If we continue with this boss," she said wittily, "our Earth will not survive."
The Zapatista No-Show
The set up of the indigenous summit is modeled on the World Social Forum, both in method and style. There is the usual elaborate registration process, accompanied by the ubiquitous paraphernalia-t-shirts, shoulder bags, glossy brochures, and posters. Oxfam and other NGOs are footing the bill. Considering that the political formation of many groups and organizations is old-school Left, the methodology of the summit is centralized and hierarchical.
There is little of the new methodology of the more anti-authoritarian elements of the movement-no horizontalidad or Zapatista-style assemblies. Indeed the absence of a Zapatista delegation is telling, being so close to Chiapas. Chavez and Fidel are the non-indigenous inspirations here, not Marcos or Flores Magon. Said one Guatemalan delegate hailing from a group linked to the ex-guerrilla URNG, "We think the Zapatistas have ceased to have any significance."
So the dominant political overture is about constituting a new democratic Left. The new Continental-wide radical indigenous resurgence is marked by a division between the Zapatista model-anti-Capitalist, anti-electoral, and focused on building grassroots autonomy-and the Bolivian model-anti-neo-liberal, constitutional, and seeking power by uniting social movements in a common electoral platform. While many people in the attending the summit would probably position them in varying degrees between the two poles, the final documents and declarations clearly assume the latter line.
And going down the constitutional road in an effort to take political power necessitates a strong central leadership. As Bladimir Painecura, Mapuche, points out, "The maturity of the leaders participating today and the solidity they bring to the discussions [is the strong point of this movement]. As a result of this maturity, the movements have been consolidated and bring social transformation to the nation-state, as witnessed in Bolivia. Indigenous peoples have advanced and have continued resisting, so much so that they have arrived at power, and are administering well."
Tecpan: Building a Culture of Life from the Ruins of War
In a vast old rustic town hall, thousands of delegates join with the local townspeople to celebrate the finale. Although Tecpan is a racially evenly mixed town, it’s noticeable that very few of the Mestizo population have come out to celebrate with the indigenous. The wounds of Guatemala’s 30-year long brutal civil war linger in rural towns like these despite the peace accords signed over ten years ago. The rebels were supported predominantly by the indigenous poor and the state by the Mestizo middle class. Tecpan was witness to guerrilla combat, army massacres, disappearances, and all the horrors of counter-insurgency repression.
Like all encuentros of this kind, much of the important work is done beyond the official panels and workshops. At social events like this, personal and political networking takes precedent, and the unofficial stories emerge. For example, why did Nobel Peace Prize winner and prominent indigenous rights spokeswoman Rigoberta Menchu not appear at the summit? She is currently running as a presidential candidate in the upcoming Guatemalan election. Although she has little chance of winning, one would expect support from this very summit considering she is indigenous, of the Left, and running for political power.
"She is a thought to be a pawn of the Right Wing and the ruling class," a community leader from the Coban region tells me. "She doesn’t represent the indigenous; she is interested in power and has cut a deal with the Mestizos and the rich. They tolerate her so as to show the world that Guatemala has changed and has stopped oppressing the indigenous. But it’s a lie "
The time for speeches and presentations has arrived. I discover to my horror that they are awarding all the different delegations with plaques to commemorate their participation in the event. When the moment arrives to call the Irish delegates to receive theirs, it seems I am the only Irish person present to accept the award. The other two Irish are nowhere to be seen. The truth is that I am here somewhat accidentally-a gatecrasher of sorts-and certainly don’t merit any sort of accolade. I had been traveling across Guatemala on my way to cover a story in Nicaragua when my Irish magazine, Island, sent an email to say they had folded, and there was no more Island to write for. Fortunately the photographer I was traveling with noticed in the morning newspaper that there was an indigenous summit taking place nearby. So we came here on a whim. Now I am approaching the organizing committee who are all smiling broadly to collect the plaque, and I’m wondering what I can possibly say. What have the Irish ever done to help the indigenous of the Americas throughout the ages? Should I quote the infamous US General of Irish descent, Philip Sheridan-the racist mass murderer who led the "Indian Wars" in the 1860s-accredited with the charming ditty "The only good Indian is a dead one"?
I am spared the ordeal as someone snatches away the microphone to make an important announcement. I scurry away with the impressive ornament feeling like a bit of a shyster. Later that night, over strong local hooch given out for free for those delegates still going strong by midnight, a garrulous Canadian delegate is telling me about the militant Six Nations struggle in Ontario where the indigenous resurgence is gaining ground, and he re-quotes Sheridan. "You see, buddy, the only good Indian is a bad Indian!" Yo, high five-slap!
The Declaration of Iximché: From Resistance to Power
Back on the central streets of Guatemala City, the thousands of marching delegates are joined by thousands of local indigenous peasant farmers from the CNOC, CUC, and CONIC organizations. These are groups formed by war victims, refugees and support base of the 80s resistance, and the remnants of the near genocidal state onslaught that claimed more than 100,000 lives, mostly rural indigenous. I remember being here in this same city in the early 90s staying at a human rights house, feeling petrified as police agents tailed us and death threats were left on the phone. To be a "bad Indian" in those days meant death. Now, here they are-the rebel indigenous, re-emerging from the shadows and re-claiming public space one more.
Amidst spiritual ceremony and music and dance spectaculars, the celebrated "Declaration of Iximché" is read out, to "announce the continental resurgence of the Pachacutic (the return) along with the closure of Oxlajuj Baq’tun (long count of 5,200 years), and as we approach the door of the new Baq’tun, we journey together to make Abya Yala a "land full of life." Then the declaration gets down to the hard political specifics: against the FTAA (Free Trade Agreement for the Americas), against transgenics, against multinational mining and resource extraction, against Bush’s war and the US border wall and condemning the practices of the Inter American Development Bank, the World Bank, and similar global institutions which manipulate the indigenous. The document stands firmly for indigenous peoples’ sovereignty, autonomy, and self-determination, ratifying historical rights to stolen territories, and consolidating unity between the different indigenous groups.
To the somewhat mysterious and haunting epitaph, We Have Dreamt Our Past and We Remember Our Future, the demonstration and the summit concludes, and the multitude disperses into the ominous dusk of the dangerous and insecure city. The departing mood is not triumphant but resilient and quietly optimistic. Despite everything-500 years of colonization, dispossession, poverty and migration-the resurgent indigenous of the continent have survived and are looking to the future.
Ramor Ryan is the author of Clandestines: The Pirate Journals of an Irish Exile (AK Press, May 2006).