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Original peoples of Abya Yala, you are not alone

Special to Shunpiking Online

I TRAVELLED from Montreal to La Paz, Bolivia, just in time for the Continental Encounter of Indigenous Peoples and Nationalities of Abya Yala. From October 8 to 12, indigenous people arrived from Canada, the United States, Venezuela, Colombia, Chile, Peru, Panama, Mèxico, Argentina and even England. I had the privilege to interview indigenous people from all around Abya Yala, the name of this continent before the Spanish Conquest.

"This was the first time that this Encounter has been held here in Bolivia, uniting the whole continent, and in reality the whole world," said Alejandra, one of the organizers, "because we have our first Indigenous president." "The president promised when he got elected that he would hold the congress," remarked Kenneth Deer, Secretary of the Kahnawake Branch of the Mohawk Nation, "and he followed through on that." At the Encounter, I began to get a sense of what the Aymaran president of Bolivia and of this five-day event are giving to indigenous people, both in Bolivia and in the rest of the world. "The Encounter that we are carrying out is called From Resistance to Power," explained Rudy Atiare, from the department (region) of Pando. "It is a demonstration of how the original people, Indigenous People, are now awakening." "I think what impressed me is the hope that people have," said Kenneth Deer, "because my experience in the past has been the despair you run into ... especially [among] the poor, and here I don't see that despair. I see hope."

On the first night of the Encounter, I arrived in time to see a dance performance by children from the Talita Cumi Centre - which means Girl, Get Up in the Aymara language. Later, the performers, aged 8 to 14, huddled around me to have their say about the importance of conserving indigenous cultures and the environment. "We came to this Encounter to teach adults to take care of nature and not to destroy the world." They were proud of their Aymaran heritage, because "other cultures that have come to Bolivia have tried to destroy the Aymaras, but they have not succeeded."

On a more "grown-up" note, the ten work commissions included topics such as: sovereignty and governments; historical, social and ecological debt; organization and economic perspectives; youth in the process of change; identity and conviviality; education and languages; international Indigenous rights; the complementarity of woman and man in the process of change; strategic alliances; and Indigenous communication.

According to Alejandra, if there is one message from the Encounter, it is about unity. "Andean culture is present in the entire world. So what we want now is to unite the ideas and traditions of all Indigenous Peoples on a global level." If there was one central belief that children and adults alike shared at this event, it was the Pachamama, which means Mother Earth in the Quechuan language. "We believe in the earth, the air, the sun, and fire and we have seen these four elements among Indigenous Peoples worldwide." At the Encounter, Alejandra learned that in Bolivia and England alike, incense is used to thank the Pachamama.

Others, like Limberth Jovio and Rudy Atiare, came to this Encounter to remind the world about the under-represented indigenous cultures of their departments in Bolivia, such as the Macheteros from Beni and the Yaminaguas of the Amazonian lowlands in Pando. They are not alone in their quest. "We are here to demonstrate the cultures of faraway places in the Amazon," said one child from the Talita Cumi Centre, which aims to teach youth about the values and lifestyles of all forty-three cultures in Bolivia, not only Aymara and Quechua.

These children are lucky, I thought, to know so much about their heritage. I had to come to Bolivia, to this Encounter, to learn that the Mohawks in Canada not only consider themselves to be a sovereign nation; they also have autonomous passports. An indigenous president in Bolivia "adds legitimacy to our government and our claim to sovereignty as a nation," said Thomas Deer from Kahnawake, who believes that the relationship between the nation of Bolivia and the Mohawk Nation "already began when we found out it wouldn't be a problem to travel here on our passport."

It was the Ojibway delegates from Manitoba who brought me to tears at the Encounter. In the middle of an auditorium full of people who did not speak their language, they communicated more than words through music and dance, showing a cultural and historical face of Canada so often ignored and forgotten. An Ojibway delegate then spoke via his translator. "You are not alone," he comforted his mostly indigenous audience. "The eyes of the world are watching."

But Kenneth Deer believes that it is not enough to watch. "I think those chiefs who were here have a duty to go back to Canada to inform people of what they saw and heard," he said. They also need to become "better informed about the situation" and encourage other chiefs to share with indigenous people in Bolivia, through mutual trade agreements or in the area of governance. "We have a lot of experience in governing as indigenous people," he said, citing the example of Nunavut, a Canadian territory managed by the Inuit.

Deer also wonders how other nations, like Canada and the United States, are going to treat an indigenous president with different ideas about how a country should be run. "I think this is a test not just for Bolivia," he said, "but also for other countries that have a history of subverting indigenous people. We should be watching very closely."

It can only remain to be seen whether Canadians will take the time to watch closely, or, as Kenneth Deer suggests, take further steps to learn about and actively support this nation and the hope that clearly still survives among its indigenous peoples, after more than 500 years of colonization and injustice, at encounters such as this one.

*Nadia Hausfather is a Canadian international volunteer working as a Participatory Action Qualitative Researcher at a womenís organization in El Alto, Bolivia. Her research is also sponsored by the Canadian Islamic Congress. This article was published in the CIC's Friday Magazine.

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