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Indigenous Peoples and the State

By Rigoberta Menchú Tum

Latin America has a long history of dictatorships and authoritarian regimes, of imposition by the force of rifles and bayonets violating the most elementary rights of peoples.

In our America, States have not been formed on the basis of Western culture criteria. This is not negative in itself. What is negative is the fact of not taking into consideration the organizational experiences specific to indigenous communities, it's forms of social and political organization; hindering or impeding indigenous peoples from deciding their form of social and political organization in response to their needs and interests. This is the reason why States that exclude people were established, as well as societies where the dominant culture continues marginalizing indigenous and all expressions that attempt to democratize economic, political, social and cultural life of American countries.

For political leaders the construction of societies integrated to world or regional markets, has been their fundamental issue and concern, not so the construction of internally integrated societies. This does not mean that there must be a tendency towards equality, which is destructive dynamic that we, American indigenous peoples, know very well through campaigns of acculturation and assimilation.

The relationship between indigenous peoples - State in our America has been towards exclusion and margination of indigenous peoples. This is explained easily because the submission, exploitation and oppression of our peoples has been directed by the State.


One of the greater richness of our America is it's cultural diversity, the existence of diverse identities. Cultural and identity differences are generally seen by the dominant culture as synonymous with inferiority and backwardness, which in turn is used as a reason to justify oppression. In our continent there is cultural diversity regarding the presence of cultural differences but not in the recognition, the respect and the right to exercise those differences. The negation of that right has been one of the fundamental weapons of the empires that have dominated us and still rule us in order to maintain our people in poverty and underdevelopment.

The consideration of indigenous cultures as inferior has been a motivation to impose the idea of cultural integration through mestizaje and forced assimilation as a condition for development. This means that indigenous people have been charged with the responsibility for the causes of underdevelopment when what has really happened is that conditions of poverty and extreme poverty that we face are due to exclusion, margination, discrimination and exploitation. Nobody wants to see and understand that one of the key factors to achieve the integral development of our countries is to make possible for indigenous peoples, the poor, the marginalized, to contribute with our intelligence, our creative force, our identity and our dignity to produce common wealth and welfare for everybody and not only wealth for a few.

In countries like ours, it is difficult to speak about plurality and tolerance. On the contrary, exclusion and intolerance have been and continue being distinctive characteristics of these societies. Indigenous peoples are excluded because we have cultures, because we have customs and traditions that are qualified as primitive as they are different from the Western dominant culture. That discriminatory and racist mentality is absurd when we are in the dawn of a new millennium and it is one of the real causes for underdevelopment.


In this situation, the richness of the cultural diversity of our America must be the basis and sustenance for the construction and development of new type of nations. Cultural diversity implies a diversity of identities which lead us to pose a key issue: How to construct a national identity. It seems to me that an unavoidable issue is Interculturalism. If up to now, the relations among different peoples, among different cultures have been exclusive and intolerant towards others and have been marked by the imposition of one culture over the other, it is necessary to start building intercultural relations.

This new form of relation among cultures must be sustained in the acknowledgment and respect for the rights of all peoples; in the acknowledgment of national and world multiculturalism in such a way that it contributes to the construction of multiethnic, multicultural and multilingual nations. These cultural relations can contribute to the peaceful coexistence among peoples and cultures with equality and justice, at the same time, they constitute the contribution of each nation to peace, cooperation and solidarity that should rule relations among States.

Intercultural relations also imply understanding that comple mentarity among different cultures can generate the continuos enrichment of one's own culture and the cultural and material enrichment of peoples as a whole. It must not mean the isolation of one culture from the others but the openness and interrelation among them. Intercultural relations must be fair, democratic, egalitarian, of cooperation and of solidarity. They must be based on equal rights and be the sustenance of national unity.

Also, interculturalism must allow for the creation of new mechanisms, new forms and instruments of relation between indigenous peoples and the State, based on a permanent dialogue and consultations a result of a process of reconstruction of States tot urn them into democratic, inclusive and tolerant instances.

We, indigenous peoples have struggled for all this and we will continue struggling with humility, strength and decision, convinced that this is necessary for the future of humankind.

The International Decade of Indigenous Peoples of the World: A favorable framework

The International Decade of Indigenous Peoples of the World (1994-2004) proclaimed by the UN at the end of 1993, represents a favorable framework for our claims and demands. Throughout the International Decade we face great challenges and enormous possibilities for the advancement towards the establishment of more fair, egalitarian and democratic societies. I think that during this Decade, indigenous peoples should fight for the adoption, ratification and/or fulfillment of international instruments referring to indigenous peoples' rights.

We will make an effort to put into practice intercultural education, which is a key element in intercultural relations. This intercultural education is not limited to institutional formal education but it should be understood as that world of daily relationships, of daily life experiences, of permanent sharing of experiences and interactions which are influenced by transformations derived from the very practice and actions of men and women. Intercultural education has it's origins and grows within the complex social fabric that shape societies and so it must be the basis of official and institutional education.

We are also committed to the promotion and encouragement of the sharing of technology and scientific knowledge among different cultures and peoples; among indigenous and non indigenous peoples, taking into consideration that there must be an equitable appropriation that promotes sustainable development.

In the same way, we will fight for peace, contributing to weaving the fabric of equality, justice, participatory democracy and the establishment of intercultural relations that make possible harmonic and peaceful coexistence in the framework of cultural plurality.

For this purpose, we will make proposals to the main mechanisms of our participation as social subjects and agents of change. We must move from denunciation and protests to proposals. We, indigenous peoples, cannot expect the solution to historical problems originate in proposals alien to them. Proposition, as a key mechanism of our participation, will allow us to change the serious situation in which we live.

Interculturalism must be based on equal rights and be the sustenance of national unity.

RIGOBERTA MENCHÚ TUM is a Guatemalan leader internationally known for her work in the promotion of the defense of human rights, peace and Indigenous Peoples' rights. She received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992, becoming the first Indigenous and the youngest person ever to receive this distinction.

For Rigoberta Menchú Tum, this Nobel Peace Prize acknowledges the struggles of Indigenous Peoples. It is also a symbolic recognition of the victims of repression, racism and poverty as well as an homage to Indigenous Women.

Through her work, Rigoberta has received world wide recognition and several honorary doctorates. In 1993, she was nominated by the United Nations as Goodwill Ambassador for the International Year of the Indigenous Peoples. At present, she is the Promoter of the International Decade of Indigenous Peoples, mandated by the General Assembly of the United Nations and was also appointed to be the personal advisor to the general director of UNESCO. Concurrently she presides over the Indigenous Initiative for Peace.

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"As we see all around us, racism and racial discrimination continue unabated. Although we refer to our world as a global village, it is a world sadly lacking in the sense of closeness towards neighbour and community which the word village implies. In each region, and within all countries, there are problems stemming from either a lack of respect for, or lack of acceptance of, the inherent dignity and equality of all human beings. Our world is witness to serious ethnic conflicts; to discrimination against minorities, indigenous peoples and migrants workers; the accusation of institutionalized racism in police forces; harsh immigration and asylum policies; hate sites on the Internet and youth groups promoting intolerance and xenophobia."
– Mary Robinson,
United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights
24 March 1999

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