Friday, August 3, 2007

The Music of Indigenous Peoples: An Example from the Kalahari

I remember as a kid reading adventure novels and travel narratives of individuals who would talk about the fantastic skills of the Kalahari Bushmen. I would spend nights reading about the amazing hunting skills these indigenous people had, their complex and sophisticated cosmology, particular rituals they performed in the middle of one of the most dramatic - yet extreme - environments on the plant. I guess I was not the only kid who read these great stories and took them to heart, for the Kalahari Bushmen have long been of interest to anthropologists, religious studies scholars, indigenous rights activists, and many others.

As I went through undergrad, and then graduate school, however, I found out that many of the ideas I had about the Kalahari Bushmen were not accurate. Movies had been made that falsely depicted them hunting and killing giraffes. Texts had been written that depicted them in a particularly negative light, allowing the larger colonial powers to take over their traditional land and resources, forcing them onto smaller and smaller bits of their former homeland. It was a sad situation - my romantic notions had been shattered - yet another indigenous people were struggling to maintain their cultural lifeways in today's globalized world.

There are many ways that indigenous peoples have, and continue, to fight the larger colonial and imperial powers that are destroying their traditional lifeways. They keep their oral traditions alive. They teach their traditions to their kids. Prayers are offered to the earth and the sky. And music is played. That's right, music! Music is one of the most powerful mediums for expressing grief, resolving tensions, and keeping traditional lifeways and cultural knowledge alive and intact.

Well, my colleague Victor Grauer has been documenting and looking into the music of indigenous peoples on his blog Music 000001. In a series of extremely well written and argued posts, Victor has argued that the music of the Kalahari Bushmen can be used to place them, as an indigenous people, in their homeland for thousands and thousands of years.

Beginning with Part One, and continuing through Parts Two, Three, and Four, Victor discusses and resolves what has been called the "Great Kalahari Debate."

The "Great Kalahari Debate" revolved around two basic issues: 1. whether or not certain Kalahari "Bushmen" groups can be regarded as genuine foragers who remained largely isolated for most of their history and adapted to outside pressures without losing their identity; 2. whether or not certain aspects of primordial hunter-gatherer culture could have survived into the Twentieth Century among such groups. The genetic research appears to have resolved the first question -- in the affirmative (see previous post). But no amount of genetic research can, in itself, resolve the second.

So what did Victor do? He turned to the music of the Kalahari Bushmen to look further into this question. I won't repeat all of his posts here, there is simply too much good information in them. However, by using music, Victor is able to successfully argue that certain Kalahari Bushmen groups have been in their homeland for thousands of years, just as the genetic evidence establishes their biological indigeneity, thus settling the Kalahari debate firmly on the side of the traditionalists. I suggest anyone interested in this debate to visit his blog: Music 000001.

But there is more to this musical story. Not everyone may be interested in the Kalahari Debate - it involves a particular indigenous group and a particular set of arguments held mostly by anthropologists. No, the original reason I wanted to let everyone know about this blog is that on top of its great information, it has INDIGENOUS PEOPLES MUSIC THAT ONE CAN LISTEN TO. That's right, Victor has MP3s all over the site, ranging from an Aka Pygmy Divining Song to songs from the Bisorio of highland New Guinea, to the Mehinacu of Brazil and on and on. Listening to some of these songs brought me back to my childhood, letting me envision in my mind a world that is slowly disappearing. It didn't bring back the romantic notions I used to carry, but the music did resonate within me, and gave me hope. Music is a powerful tool, and through this blog Victor has found a way of using it to help indigenous peoples in his own small way. Cheers to you.

I think I will put on another great song and let my heart drift...

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Thursday, August 2, 2007

Can Indigenous Peoples Unite to Leverage Their Voice?

Last week I received some really good feedback on one of my posts. I wrote a couple things on the current situation up in British Columbia over overlapping land claims and the treaty making process. At the end of the post I had suggested that perhaps the various indigenous First Nation groups could get together, form a giant company, and use that as leverage to deal with the Canadian government and natural resource companies in terms of land claims.

Well, I was a little unclear exactly what I was talking about in that last post, so I would like to clarify. I don't know if this will ever happen, but it seems like a good idea. As people were quick to point out, and as I have experienced myself working on dozens of environmental impact assessments, social value analyses, natural resource damage assessments, and even NAGPRA cases, things are extremely complex. There are differing tribes or bands at play, elite family groups (many of whom are rivals), differing tribal entities, "status" and "non-status" or federally recognized and unrecognized groups, various levels and branches of government involved, and of course differing types of industry who all throw their hat into the mix when it comes to dealing with land, its resources, and its management. This is quite a complicated mix to resolve!

My thought was that if indigenous peoples, in this case First Nation tribes, could get together and form either a company or some governmental entity to act on their behalf towards the other "players" in the land claims and management arena, they may have a stronger voice. Then, any disputes between differing elite families, bands, individuals, tribes, etc., could be resolved within the indigenous-controlled entity. This would allow the indigenous people to resolve their claims free of outside colonial forces, using whatever methods or techniques they felt proper for the situation.

Let me try and make this even more clear. Is it possible, say, for all those indigenous First Nation bands (both "status" and "non-status") in British Columbia to form some entity that can act with the government, lawyers, and industry to resolve land claims and management issues on the federal, state, economic, and industry level. Internally this entity, because it is formed by and run for the indigenous peoples themselves, could resolve various issues amongst themselves in a way that they see fit. Could this be applied to the Tsawwassen and Semiahmoo controversy? Not this second, but eventually if it gets put in place it could make a big impact on future cases.

What are some other examples of this? Well, there is the National Congress of American Indians, but that is not really what I am talking about here. No, a closer example to what I am envisioning is the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission. This Commission, built on indigenous principles, has been effective in working in the larger arena of fish, power, water, environment, and land along the Columbia River than any of the individual tribes could have been by themselves. Do the members of the Commission get along all the time? No, I have worked on several projects in the region, and just like up in B.C. there are various types of inter-tribal jockeying and posturing. However, the Commission is able to act on behalf of the tribes when it comes to dealing with the State, the federal government, and the giant power companies that control the over 50 dams along the Columbia River.

It may not be a perfect solution; rarely is there one. But at least it would allow the indigenous First Nation bands to have more leverage when dealing with outside colonial entities. How they resolve their internal power struggles is up to them. In this version, it would be resolved indigenously rather than through some colonial process imposed upon them from the outside.

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Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Indigenous Human Rights and the United Nations

In an earlier post I talked about the United Nations and their inability to help indigenous peoples around the world. There are many reasons for this, most stemming from the fact that it is an institution run by, and for, those who already have the power. However, that does not mean that we should give up working with the United Nations. For example, currently they are working on several important papers that will eventually end up as a U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. This would be an important Declaration, giving indigenous peoples one more piece to use when confronted by colonial, global, or imperial processes.

I'm not the biggest fan of big government, and the U.N. fits within that category. I prefer the form of activism that deals with issues where one can actually make a direct impact. Blogging is one of those. However, when the opportunity arises, I will lend my voice to larger issues. In this case, it is a petition aimed at telling the U.N. and the U.N. Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues that they need to adopt and move forward with their Declaration. The petition is online, takes 2 seconds to fill out, and will give you a couple of karma points for the day. Please, if you care and have a voice... use it!

Online Petition in Support of Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.


Update: The UN is set to adopt the Declaration, thanks for all of the support. Here is the clip:

UN set to adopt native rights declaration, no thanks to Canada: critics
Thu Sep 6, 5:39 PM

By Sue Bailey

OTTAWA (CP) - Canada was cast Thursday as a bad actor that aggressively campaigned alongside countries with tarnished human-rights records in its failed bid to derail the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

The non-binding declaration is expected to be adopted Sept. 13 by the UN General Assembly.

Its success would thwart what critics say was a well-financed campaign under Canada's new Conservative government to undermine a process supported by the Liberals.

The Conservatives say the declaration is flawed, vague and open to broad interpretation. Provisions on lands and resources could be used "to support claims to broad ownership rights over traditional territories, even where rights ... were lawfully ceded through treaty," says a synopsis of Canada's position on the Indian Affairs website.

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Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Indigenous Tribal Groups and Financial Sovereignty

One of the biggest problems indigenous peoples face is achieving financial sovereignty. By this I mean that they, as a distinct cultural or tribal group are able to be free of any form of financial dependence from the larger nation-state. In developing countries this is nearly impossible - the moment some resource is discovered on the indigenous peoples land that may allow them to rise up and become financially sovereign, the nation-state or some other entity comes in, takes either the resource or the land that the resource is part of (see my Mapuche entry). In Africa it is usually mining operations that force indigenous peoples out. In Brazil it is the conversion of rain forest to agricultural production. In the far north of Arctic Russia it is often mining or oil and gas development.

It's a sad picture, and for hundreds of years the story was the same (for a great introductory book on the subject, check out A Global History of Indigenous Peoples Struggles. Now, however, things are starting to shift. In the U.S., where American Indian tribes are considered (but not always treated as) sovereign nations, they own the land and resources that their reservations are upon. Some have been successful in building casinos and becoming financially free from U.S. government programs through gaming revenue. Others have not been so lucky. Casinos are not an option for all tribes. Other avenues for gaining financial sovereignty must be pursued. The Southern Ute in Colorado have found another path: creating their own energy companies.

Let's take a closer look at this example. In the 1870s when the state of Colorado was still getting started, governor Frederick Pitkin ripped apart the Southern Ute lands and gave them only a fraction of their original territory to live on - a small strip along the Colorado-New Mexico border that at the time seemed to offer few resources. As the years went by, it was discovered that this part of the U.S. is actually quite high in oil and natural gas reserves. Energy companies began to cut deals with the Bureau of Indian Affairs in the 1950s drilling for natural gas. At this time the Southern Ute had little say about what took place on their land and only received paltry royalties. By the late 1980s, the energy boom in the American West was in full swing, and by the late 1990s there were 63 oil and gas companies operating on Southern Ute land.

When I was down on the reservation at this time, it was obvious that none of the money being pumped out of Southern Ute land was going back to the tribe. Alcoholism was rampant, the educational achievement rate of tribal members was low, and the trailers and reservation land was in a general state of disrepair. Well, recently when I was down there again, things have turned around for the better. The Southern Ute now have some beautiful new buildings in Ignacio, tribal education is up, and several cultural programs are underway to help build tribal solidarity and cultural revival. How did the Southern Ute turn around their own situation? Simple. They took control of their resources, creating their own energy companies to develop and manage their own oil and gas resources.

In 1991 the Southern Ute formed Red Willow Production Company to manage the tribe's energy reserves. The success has been unbelievable. Today Red Willow has interests in more than 1,000 wells and operates more than 450 on the reservation alone. In fact, it is the 13th largest privately held energy producer in the U.S. A remarkable turnaround in only 16 years.

The question is, will the Southern Ute operate their new-found wealth like the rest of capitalist, material hungry America? Or will they be a little more savvy with it? What I can tell from recently being on the reservation and looking into it, I'm guessing that they will use their financial sovereignty to build cultural sovereignty and independence. The tribe is investing millions in new ventures aimed at preserving wealth for future generations long after the last well has been pumped dry. There are full scholarships and living stipends set up by the tribe for college. New houses are being built, and some of the money is being invested in other tribal programs aimed at preserving other aspects of their culture.

It's a great story, one that does not often happen in today's globalized world run by large nation-states and multinational companies. I don't think it will happen to all indigenous people - not all of them are sitting on billions of dollars in resources. But it is a start, and a good one at that. Perhaps the Southern Ute will see the wisdom of using some (just a tad) of this money in helping other American Indian tribes or other indigenous peoples try and find their own way towards financial sovereignty. Like it is for individuals, financial sovereignty is often the first step to full sovereignty.

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