Thursday, August 9, 2007

International Day of the World's Indigenous Peoples

Today, August 9th, is International Day of the World's Indigenous Peoples. The day, originally designated in 1994, is a day to commemorate and to act on issues effecting indigenous peoples.

In recognition of the first meeting of the United Nations Working Group on Indigenous Populations in Geneva in 1982, this year’s observance at the United Nations is being organized by the Secretariat of the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, Department of Economic and Social Affairs; and the NGO Committee on the Decade of the World’s Indigenous Peoples.

For more information of the Day and events at United Nations Headquarters, please visit the U.N.'s Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues website.

I can't make it to Washington, and I don't think most other people can, especially indigenous people. So, the day is really a Western day to help raise awareness of what is going on in the world and the particular issues that indigenous peoples face. It is ironic that the U.N. is sponsoring this day, since its biggest players have been actively involved in delaying the adoption of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Let's just hope it doesn't turn into a Hallmark Holiday, with people sending cards, flowers, chocolates and the such. That would be even more ironic sense most cards come from trees harvested on traditional indigenous peoples land.

How can we honor the world's indigenous peoples on this day then. I don't want to fly to Washington, using one of the most carbon-taxing methods of travel ever (i.e., the airplane). I don't want to send cards or flowers or anything else that causes environmental damage and encourages companies to continue to push into more and more traditional lands looking for natural resources to extract. Well, how about the old fashioned way. Tell a friend. Word of mouth, according to most marketing gurus, is still the most powerful means of marketing. At coffee this morning, tell your mate. Email your office buddies. Stand around the water cooler and let people know. I bet they will be surprised that you know such a fact, that such a day exists, and that they were unaware of it. Nothing may come out of it. People will still drive their massive SUVs, buy this fall's fashions, fly all over the world for vacations and holidays, and eat strawberries for Christmas, but at least they can't claim ignorance. Who knows, next August 9th they may even decide to ride their bike to work, take a hike in the mountains and enjoy the trees, air, water, and other sacred beings of Earth. It may be a small step, but it is a step.

Happy Indigenous Day!

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Wednesday, August 8, 2007

The Dongria Indigenous People, Mining, India, and a Chance to Make a Difference

I presented a paper last year at the annual Society for Applied Anthropology meeting in Tampa, Florida, on large-scale resource extraction by multinational companies. What I found on doing a little research is that there are really only a few ways that indigenous peoples can combat such large companies: by means of media (in various forms); through legislative processes; through economic incentives and pressures; and through direct collaboration with the companies or their proxies.

Well, this post is in the vein of media. When people think of indigenous peoples, they rarely think of India. The country has been "civilized" for thousands of years, is a major player on regional and international arenas, and has so many people that there can't be any indigenous peoples left. Well, this is a misunderstanding, largely the result of people's lack of knowledge and the media's lack of reporting. In fact, in India there numerous different indigenous tribes or groups (couldn't find a link; another example of lack of media on this topic), including the Dongria Kondh.

Located in the state of Orissa, the Dongria Kondh are facing major changes thanks to a UK mining company. The construction of a £400m bauxite mine on Niyamgiri Mountain, the Dongria Kondh's homeland and a hill they worship as their god, along with the adjacent alumina refinery by Vedanta Resources has caused untold environmental and cultural damage.

As one Dongria Kondh elder stated "Niyamgiri Mountain is a living god for us, ... It has provided us with food, water and our livelihoods for generations. Even if we have to die protecting our god we will not hesitate, we will not let it go." What is Vedanta's take on this cultural destruction? They claim that they have followed all of the environmental laws and are in perfect compliance with all regulations. Environmentalists, activists, and the Dongria disagree.

In fact, a Supreme Court committee has already accused Vedanta of "blatant violation" of planning and environmental guidelines. A separate report from the Wildlife Institute of India also criticised the project citing its "irreversible" impact on the environment. Likewise, activists say the project is a threat to the environment and to the distinct culture and practices of the three Kondh tribes that for centuries have had a symbiotic relationship with their sacred mountain, foraging and hunting in some areas and eschewing other areas out of respect.

So back to media. The Vedanta Resources company is a giant, multinational powerhouse in the arena of natural resource extraction. The Dongria are a small indigenous group with little to no access to media outlets (whether they are local, regional, or international). So who do we think will win this battle, and how will it be won? I'm betting on the Vedanta Resources company, and I'm guessing it will be won through media. The company already has massive operations in Zambia and Australia, all of which have caused untold environmental and cultural damage. It has direct lines into the major media outlets so that it can control what is said. The company even has people that "report" on its activities in a positive light so that it looks like nothing bad is happening. What do the Dongria have? Nothing. No media outlets, no media savvy, no nothing. In terms of how the world works, if the media doesn't cover it, no one will know what is happening and Vedanta will just go about its business.

Well, now the Dongria have this post and hopefully those who read it. That is the beauty of the Internet. It is not controlled by giant media companies, nor is it moderated by the people or companies in power. In fact, the Internet has the power to let more people know about the Dongria and other indigenous people's plight than any other form of media.

So, what can we do to at least give the Dongria a chance in today's globalized world controlled by only a few power brokers? One, don't invest in Vedanta and similar companies (look at your IRA portfolio... I bet there are a couple of nasty companies in it). Two, use the power of the Internet to make a difference. Email this post to all your friends. Send this link around. Go to your MySpace or other social network site and raise the issue. It takes you about 1.5 seconds to make a difference - a difference that in the end may save a way of life that has been around for thousands of years. Let the world know what you believe in: act with your heart, mind, wallet, and conscious!

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Monday, August 6, 2007

How has the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation (NAGPRA) Act Helped Anthropology?

Ever since the Native American Graves Protection and Repatiration Act (NAGPRA) was passed in 1990, and the subsequent rules were implemented in 1995, a fairly large body of literature has been written that either criticizes or praises its passage. The arguments over whether such a law has been properly implemented are a discussion that should be left to legal scholars. However, it is within the arena of anthropology that we can adequately discuss whether the law has been beneficial to the discipline or not. Because I tend to be both an optimist and a realist, I like to find the positive in any situation. Thus, in the argument over whether NAGPRA has been good for the discipline of anthropology or not, I look for positive results instead of fixating on what could have been. Three primary results that I see as positive effects on the discipline of anthropology are: increased communication, collaboration, and cooperation.

Communication between anthropological researchers, their institutions, and American Indian tribes has been greatly enhanced because of NAGPRA and its mandate. The opening of communication channels between these three entities has helped to break down single-sided approaches towards knowledge and how that knowledge should be put to use. This has meant that anthropologists have had to communicate with American Indians in terms of what are considered epistemic facts, how those facts can be validated, and the subsequent ontology those facts describe. In terms of contemporary anthropological theory and methods, NAGPRA has forced anthropology to relinquish its Foucaultian power claim on epistemology, and to open its epistemological doors to American Indian forms of knowing. Although this communication has not reached an acceptable level of openness and transparency (e.g., the poor epistemological weight given to oral traditions by some), NAGPRA has helped continue, and expand, a process many anthropologists began at an early date (see Jones and Stapp 2005).

Collaboration between anthropological researchers, their institutions, and American Indian tribes has also benefited as a result of NAGPRA. Such collaboration has taken place on all levels of inquiry and investigation, from the excavation and documentation of archaeological sites to the discussion and dialogue of what constitutes knowledge and how that knowledge is used to inform anthropological methods, theory, and policy. Furthermore, the level of collaboration between anthropologists and American Indian tribes has been deepened. Historically, anthropologists always “collaborated” with American Indian tribes in some form, though usually the form of collaboration was at the level of “data gatherer” and “data giver.” Now, however, because of NAGPRA anthropologists can no longer simply collaborate with American Indians in the form of data acquisition. Instead, the level of collaboration has taken on a much more holistic form whereby anthropologists and American Indian tribes collaborate together in determining appropriate topics of research, appropriate methods for investigating those topics, and appropriate policies and outcomes that result from the investigation of those topics.

Finally, NAGPRA has also benefited anthropology in facilitating cooperation between American Indian tribes, anthropologists, and their respective institutions by mandating that dialogue and compromise be reached not only in the stewardship of resources (including natural, intellectual, and other resources), but in the very foundations of what constitutes an appropriate epistemology and subsequent ontology in today’s globalized world. That is, through the cooperation that NAGPRA mandates between anthropologists and American Indian tribes, a newly emerging epistemology is taking shape, one that draws on the ancient wisdom of American Indians and their culture while also drawing on the scientific wisdom of anthropology and its culture.

Together, through communication, collaboration, and cooperation, NAGPRA has helped anthropologists and American Indian tribes take on the challenges that present themselves in a modern, globalized world. Challenges that could not be solved without the help of American Indian tribes and anthropologists working together.

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