Magazine article New Internationalist

500 Nations // Review

Magazine article New Internationalist

500 Nations // Review

Article excerpt

Return of the Indian by Philip Wearne Cassell/Latin America Bureau (ISBN 0 - 304 - 33458 - 8)

500 Nations by Alvin M Josephy Jr Pimlico (ISBN 0 - 7126 - 7421 - 7)

OTHER PEOPLE HAVE always felt free to impose upon the indigenous peoples of the Americas more or less whatever took their fancy at the time. Five centuries ago, greed for gold was enough to justify unbridled savagery by European adventurers who used the term 'Indian' to describe the 2,000 distinct peoples and cultures they encountered. Today, the 800 peoples that remain find themselves portrayed as the guardians of ecological wisdom, the last remaining reason to believe that it survives at all in the human mind. Meanwhile a more gradual but equally relentless form of genocide continues across the two continents, North and South. In Canada, 90 percent of the indigenous languages are in decline or endangered. The most remarkable thing is that they have survived at all.

With Return of the Indian Philip Wearne has rescued us - quite as much as the 'Indians' themselves - from the clutches of anthropologists, missionaries and sentimental hogwash, the muzak of cultural destruction. He has given us an extremely lucid, informative and compelling account of what really matters: how some 40 million indigenous people in the Americas see themselves. What we then discover is their giddying diversity, through which Wearne leads us with a sure - footed deftness.

There are, nonetheless, unifying themes as well. One is a form of indigenous 'multinationalism' that engages with the nation - states and vested interests of the two continents on its own terms. Another is resistance, amplified by a more recent shift away from the limitations of mere survival towards the possibilities of revival.

Rigoberta Menchu, the youngest - ever winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, says in her foreword to the book: 'We are moving into the light of a new era for our peoples. …

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