"We are the people of Omam, together with our brothers the animals, the plants, the rocks, and rivers," says Davi Yokenawa, who lives in Demini, an isolated, self-sufficient village in Brazil's Amazon forest, deep in the state of Roraima. He is one of the few Yanomamis who speak Portuguese. And from the Peruvian highlands, Carlos E. Suelle Rojas, leader of the Collahuas and Cabanas Community, says: "We've been conducting scientific experiments on new grazing rotation methods that could improve the length and silky texture of our alpaca fleece, because those are the qualities our export market is looking for." Suelle Rojas is the head of a communal property in Chivay, near Arequipa, where eight hundred owner families breed the finest quality alpacas, vicunas, and llamas in the world. These two men represent the widely varying realities of human beings whom the rest of the world lumps together as "indigenous peoples."
Indigenous people account for more than forty million persons who live in hundreds of towns in just about every corner of the Americas. In some countries, they even constitute the majority population; in others, a minority. To this day, they carry the legacies of the civilizations that predated the arrival of the Europeans in the Western Hemisphere. Their many distinguishing traits vary, but they have one fundamental factor in common: to survive as a people, they have been forced to devise strategies to live in harmony with nonindigenous peoples.
History shows that the attitudes of the nonindigenous have undergone sweeping changes over the years. More settlers than soldiers, the first pilgrims who set foot on the Massachusetts coast may have, initially, behaved differently from the conquerors of Mexico and Peru. But each group of European colonists contained within it diametrically opposed positions toward native peoples, and those attitudes continued to change, both in colonial times and in the subsequent - and still surviving - republican phase.
Some readers might not know that Benjamin Franklin (as well as other of the U.S.'s "Founding Fathers") considered the native tribes to be foreign states deserving of treatment and relations comparable to those that the fledgling Union was disposed to offer the monarchies and countries of Europe. Similarly, the legal worth of numerous treaties and agreements concluded between the native peoples and the colonial powers - and even with the present-day American republics - is still a subject of profound juridical discussion. The process has by no means ceased to exist: In 1993, for example, the indigenous peoples of Manitoba signed a framework agreement with the federal government of Canada that would progressively restore their jurisdiction to those natives, create the requisite indigenous government structures to put that jurisdiction into effect, and replace the respective federal structures.
A phenomenon that seems to be gaining ever greater acceptance in academic, political, and even industrial and commercial circles is the realization that autochthonous cultures are not only an essential part of the national identity of the countries where they thrive, but are also a source of riches in the cultural, social, juridical, scientific, ecological, and technological sectors of modern societies - for example, the social organization of the Otavalos of Ecuador, which allows them to maintain their own network for local textile production and export throughout the hemisphere and Europe; indigenous penal systems that are based on moral sanctions rather than physical confinement; the Andean communal system of work, the minga; or the rich juridical native tradition of property organization that facilitates living together with the sustainable use of land and water. All of these have earned their own place in any definition of culture.
As persistent, discriminatory attitudes slowly disappear, and modern communication techniques penetrate and absorb every space available, the developed world is awakening to ever greater sources of indigenous wealth. …