Category Archives: Indigenous struggles

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San Antonio Missions preserve Native American history in Texas’ first World Heritage Site

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Story and photos by Tracy L. Barnett
For The Washington Post

Two weathered gravestones sit in a small, dusty rectangle in front of the grand Spanish church at the heart of the nation’s newest UNESCO World Heritage Site, the San Antonio Missions. I’ve been to Mission San Jose many times — to attend the lively Mariachi Mass, to photograph its antique majesty, to reflect on the history of this place and its role in the settlement of the American Southwest. But this is the first time I’ve thought of it as a cemetery.

I’m seeing it through the eyes of two direct descendants of the missions’ original inhabitants, members of the Tap Pilam Coahuiltecan Nation, whose ancestors inhabited this part of what is now Texas for thousands of years. Some 300 years ago, they helped to build these missions, and their descendants maintain a vital connection to them.

Last year the five missions, spread out over about 12 miles along the San Antonio River, received the coveted designation of World Heritage Site. Four of them are still active Catholic parishes, attended by some of the original Native American descendants; the fifth, Mission San Antonio de Valero, went on to become a military garrison — the legendary Alamo, now converted into a memorial to the battle fought there.

Ramón Vásquez, a straight-talking Texan with a dark ponytail, and the soft-spoken Jesús “Jesse” Reyes Jr., an anthropologist in a cowboy hat and bolo tie, are my guides today. Ramón, executive director of a nonprofit organization called the American Indians in Texas, has teamed up with Jesse to create Yanawana Mission Tours — named for the pre-Hispanic name for the San Antonio River — which offers an eye-opening perspective not just on the missions, but also on American history itself.

Read the rest of the story here

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Remembering Yuka+ye: Wixarika teacher and activist left a storied legacy

By Tracy L. Barnett
For El Daily Post

If Wixarika, or Huichol, culture and language have a future, if the world view of this magical people persists, if their sacred lands remain a spiritual sanctuary, the tireless struggle of Jesús Lara Chivarra will not have been in vain. The death of this indigenous fighter leaves a void in the hearts of many.

Wixarika (Huichol) culture lost a champion when Yuka+ye died

Jesús Lara Chivarra and Cilau Valadez face the entrance to First Majestic Silver Corp. headquarters in Vancouver, demanding entrance to the annual stockholders meeting. All photos: Tracy L. Barnett

While most people were celebrating the holidays, others  from Canada to Mexico mourned the loss of a leading Wixarika scholar and teacher, a cultural ambassador and an indigenous activist whose work on behalf of indigenous unity spanned North America.

Yuka+ye Jesús Lara Chivarra’s path took him from the Huichol Sierra to the halls of power. He hobnobbed with rock stars and artists, he faced down police and corporate executives, he taught college students, film producers, attorneys, journalists – but he was always most at home in his village.

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10 Films You Need To Watch On This International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples

By John Ahni Schertow
Intercontinental Cry

For over two decades, the United Nations has observed the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples on August 9. An effort to promote and help protect the rights of the world’s Indigenous Peoples, each year the event is attributed to a specific theme. This year, the theme is “health and well-being”.

Referring specifically to the ability of Indigenous Peoples to access health care services, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon marked the occasion earlier today, stating,

“On this International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, I call on the international community to ensure that they are not left behind. To create a better, more equitable future, let us commit to do more to improve the health and well-being of indigenous peoples.” [sic]

Due to their relative remoteness, Indigenous Peoples tend to have significantly limited access to health care services. It is a particularly alarming reality given the complex health challenges that Indigenous Peoples often face: systemic opiate addiction in northern Ontario, Canada; the plague of cancer that is decimating Indigenous Peoples in Ecuador; the police raids and military assaults to which Indigenous Peoples are routinely subjected for simply saying “no” to the ravages of industry. The list could go on for weeks.

Indeed, there is much more to consider when talking about the health and well-being of Indigenous Peoples, as the following ten films remind us.
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Huicholes Film wins best documentary: Red Nation Film Festival

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The film Huicholes: The Last Peyote Guardians has won Best Documentary Film by the Red Nation Film Festival, the premier showcase for Native American and Indigenous film in the United States. The award was shared with The Life, Blood and Rhythm of Randy Castillo, by director Wynn Ponder and producer Johnny Depp.

The selection was the only Latin American film to be awarded.

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Film chronicles the movement to save a sacred land and a visionary culture

Turama2-HuicholesFilm-esThe film Huicholes: The Last Peyote Guardians will be on a North American tour with 30+ screenings in more than 20 cities in the United States and Canada, with the U.S. premiere at Rice Theater in Houston, Texas, and theCanadian premiere hosted by Cinema Politica in Montreal, Quebec. The documentary presents the emblematic case of the defense of Wirikuta, sacred territory to the Wixárika (Huichol) people against the threat of transnational mining corporations. The Wixárika people, native to the Sierra Madre, have since time immemorial made their pilgrimages to this land; now they find themselves at the forefront of a spiritual crusade to protect life, evidencing the internal contradictions in our materialistic world.

“This documentary combines stunning cinematography with engaged and compassionate storytelling to bring an underrepresented tale of resistance to Cinema Politica audiences and beyond,” said Ezra Winton, co-founder of the Montreal-based media arts organization. Continue reading

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Ten Years on the Front Lines of Indigenous Struggles: Interview with Intercontinental Cry Founder/Editor John “Ahni” Schertow

By Tracy L. Barnett
For Truthout

PLT2013-coverTen years ago, when John “Ahni” Schertow launched the award-winning magazine Intercontinental Cry, about 50 Indigenous Nations led their own front-line struggles to save some of the last intact habitats on Earth from the ravages of modern industrial development. Now more than 500 such struggles are raging around the globe. You’d never know it, even if you were a dedicated reader of mainstream and alternative media – unless one of those publications happened to beIntercontinental Cry. IC has had a hand in bringing some of those struggles to the international stage, most notably with the publication of the crucial essay by First Nations writer and activist Russell Diabo, which played a vital role in helping to spark the Idle No More movement. Diabo was the first to fully expose Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s plan to terminate First Nations treaty rights, and the world first learned about it at IC.

Schertow, from his bunker in a home office in Winnipeg, Manitoba, has taken up residence on those front lines, watching as the global indigenous movement has grown exponentially. He’s dedicated himself to telling the stories and to building a worldwide network of indigenous and non-indigenous reporters to serve as his eyes and ears. On any given day, he might be editing an eye-opening article from a writer in a far-flung land like the Philippines or Papua New Guinea; or investigating a fracking project threatening to contaminate the waters of an indigenous community in Canada or Botswana; or editing and designing the annual best-of collection, People Land Truth. How he does it all without a paid staff, a newsroom or even a journalism degree is worth a story in itself.

Truthout contributor Tracy L. Barnett took advantage of IC’s tenth anniversary to ask him a few questions.

Tracy Barnett for Truthout: Let’s start with your personal background. Where and how did you grow up, and how did that play into the journalist you are today?

I was born in the city of Winnipeg, quite a ways away from Mohawk territory. You might say I was a poster boy for neglected children, since I spent most of my youth wandering around drag strips, gas stations and the like. I actually grew up in a fairly anti-social and amoral environment. About the only lesson I was taught back then was that I was an emotional and psychological punching bag for almost everyone that mattered to me and I was powerless to stop it.

In my teens I developed a strong interest in poetry, which might’ve been my saving grace. I didn’t have much of a vocabulary back then – I mean, I wasn’t learning anything in school, so I started studying a dictionary. About four months after that I wrote and illustrated a small book of poetry that caught the attention of my English teacher. She was so impressed by my book that I never saw it again!

A few years later I rebelled with a vengeance. I dropped out of high school, rejected Catholicism and immersed myself in music, politics, poetry and art and alcohol and drugs. You might say that these were the first steps in my personal decolonization project, although I still had a very long way to go.

What inspired your decision to claim and embrace your indigenous identity? 

It wasn’t until I met my two mentors and agreed to quit drinking and drugs that I was finally able to put things into perspective and come to terms with myself as a Mohawk breed and as a Two Spirit. It was sort of like someone turned the power on for the first time. Not only did they teach me every lesson I never had, they offered me the cultural foundation I always needed and showed me how to stand on it by example. They enabled me in all the ways that count. I was very fortunate in this respect.

What was it that inspired you to start the magazine?

I started IC just a couple days after walking away from a big political project I was working on at the time. I had this idea of creating an international confederacy of Indigenous Nations and an independent indigenous economy that would stand outside the capital system. I thought it was urgently needed, but after talking to the late Mohawk activist Dacajeweiah “Splitting the Sky” who started the League of Indigenous Sovereign Nations some years earlier, it became clear that the foundation was already in place. I still wanted to move forward with the economy, but around that time the group I was working with became obsessed with the fringe politics of the so-called sovereigntist movement. I tried to reason with them, to get back to the core vision, but they just weren’t interested, so I walked away. As soon as I did that, it occurred to me that I could work on something that was almost as important: informing the international community.

In 10 years of publishing Intercontinental Cry, what have been the highlights?

Back in 2010, we published a story about PetroWorth Resources’ fracking plans an arms stretch away from a Mi’kmaq community in Nova Scotia. At the time, this story was just starting to make headlines, which was great; but there was one thing missing in all that coverage: the Mi’kmaq! We put together a pretty good story that set the record straight. A few months after that, we covered the Kainai struggle against fracking in southern Alberta. That story rolled out a full six months before any other media picked up on it.

The Palawan’s recent victory against mining and oil palm development in the Philippines was another good moment for us. For quite some time, we were the only group outside of the Philippines to cover the Palawan’s struggle. Of course, that all changed when the highly successful “No to Mining in Palawan” campaign was launched; nevertheless, for almost a year we documented the Palawan’s efforts to protect their lands when others wouldn’t even so much as send out a tweet.

We were also the first to expose the Citizens Equal Rights Alliance’s 2013 launch of an ongoing national offensive that’s aimed at terminating American Indian treaty rights in the US. As well, we provided ground-breaking coverage on the convergence of Wall Street and the Tea Party in the political battle against Coast Salish First Nations defending the fisheries of the San Juan and Gulf Islands, which are threatened to become one of the world’s major carbon corridors.

What have been the biggest challenges you’ve had to face?

Fundraising, for one, has been extremely difficult. A lot of people think we have big money because we’re in Canada and because of the sheer strength of our investigative work, but we really don’t. I mean, we can’t even afford to get a bank account!

Keeping up with the news has been another big challenge. There was a time when I could cover all the major stories on my own, but those days are long gone – and it’s been very tough finding strong and credible writers to help cover everything, especially on a volunteer basis. We’ve had to turn a blind eye to a lot of important stories.

What have you learned along the way?

I never went to university or received any kind of training as a journalist, editor, or web designer so I’ve had to figure everything out on-the-fly. In that sense, IC has served as a kind of university for me. It’s been a constant challenge – but it’s one that I’ve thoroughly enjoyed.

In a broad brushstroke, what are some of the biggest challenges facing indigenous peoples today?

I would have to say it’s centered on building and maintaining a healthy relationship with Nation States that allows all Indigenous Nations to live in peace, without being constantly infringed upon, threatened, abused and extinguished. It’s the relationship so elegantly symbolized by the Kaswhenta or Two Row Wampum Treaty that the Confederacy signed withthe Dutch 400 years ago.

Ever since the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples was passed, there has been a steady rise of governments considering sweeping legislation that targets Indigenous Rights. We’ve seen it in Canada, Australia, Brazil, Peru and a few other countries. We’ll see it in India soon enough. And we might see it in the US as well, given the recent court ruling that removed legal protections for the Indigenous population in Guam because those protections were “discriminatory.”

On the opposite side of the spectrum, there is a much larger rise in the number of Indigenous Peoples who are striving to quite literally defend the Earth. When I first started IC there were about 50 Indigenous Nations leading their own front-line struggles. Now there are easily more than 500.

Who has really inspired you over the years?

I’m continuously inspired by all the Indigenous communities that are stepping forward to reclaim their lands, revitalize their cultures and languages and re-establish themselves as self-sufficient Nations. I don’t know of anything more inspiring than that. I also draw a lot of inspiration and strength from people who lead by example and who tell it like it is, like Taiaiake Alfred, Evon Peter, Leanne Simpson and Russell Diabo.

What have been the hardest stories to cover? 

We regularly face an uphill battle. We can’t exactly afford to send someone to Kenya to find out what’s happening to the Samburu or the Maasai. And we almost always have difficulty reaching people to get the bottom of something that might be happening. So, unless we happen to have someone on the ground to conduct interviews or someone from the community to document whatever might be happening, unfortunately our hands are tied.

With all challenges facing indigenous peoples today, what is there that gives you hope, that keeps you from despairing?

I consider myself to be a relentless optimist, but there are times when I’m filled with far more despair than hope, especially when I spend days working on different stories about grave human rights abuses while the media-at-large is obsessing over some silly spectacle; but, I press on anyway. I was taught that, as Kanienkehaka, Mohawk, I have a responsibility to serve the people. It’s always been my way, but now it keeps me going.

I also sincerely believe that, despite the constant stream of attacks and abuses and outright terror campaigns that so many Indigenous Peoples face today, we are going to overcome it. There’s just no question in my mind.

What is your goal for IC in the next 10 years? 

I don’t know about the next ten years, but we have a big plan in motion to turn IC into a professionally run news service. Just last month we created a board of directors. Now we’re in the process of registering IC as a non-profit. Were also raising funds at Indiegogo so we can start offering more investigative pieces. Later, we plan to set up free media production workshops for Indigenous Peoples, offer a Spanish version of the site and among other things, host interdisciplinary gatherings, here in Winnipeg.

Why should non-indigenous people care about the stories you’re reporting? In a world where even the most caring can end up with a serious case of compassion fatigue, why should the average hardworking info-overloaded non-indigenous person take the time to read your publication?

We’re helping people stay on top of the efforts of the oldest and strongest movement in the world. On any given day, Indigenous communities are physically stopping mining companies from tearing apart biodiversity hotspots, preventing governments from enacting legislation that’s straight out of the 15th century and leading efforts to decommission hydro dams – all the while, fostering a global climate of political transparency and accountability. Suffice it to say, there’s a lot of insight and perspective to be gained from the work that Indigenous Peoples are doing, especially for those who are engaged in struggles of their own.

This article is a Truthout original.

Huicholes Katira

Interview with the Last Peyote Guardians: Marakame José Luis “Katira” Ramírez and son

José Luis “Katira” Ramirez invokes the sacred five directions of the Huichol people in a benediction before the showing in Guadalajara (Credit: José Andrés Solórzano)

By Tracy L. Barnett
For Intercontinental Cry

SECOND OF TWO INTERVIEWS
See also: Interview with the Directors of Huicholes: The Last Peyote Guardians

José Luis “Katira” Ramírez was serving as the governor of his community of San Andrés Cohamiata, Jalisco, when he met Argentine filmmaker Hernán Vilchez. He was not like any governor Vilchez had ever met. A Huichol shaman, or marakame, dressed in his colorful native clothing and distinctive plumed hat, he stood out in the urban environment of Mexico City. He had traveled far from his home in the Western Sierra Madre because his community was in crisis; the rains had not come in time, and the corn crop was ruined. He had come to the megalopolis to seek support for his people, who were in dire need with their failed harvest. Another crisis, too, loomed large in his mind: the fate of Wirikuta, the sacred land of his people, destined to be churned into ore by Canadian mining companies. He had no idea how it would be done, but he knew it had to be stopped. The fate of his people – and indeed, of the entire planet, according to his perspective – hung in the balance.

Hernán, for his part, was traveling the planet with his film crew, seeking subjects for a German reality show that portrayed the cultures and traditions of native peoples around the world. He asked Katira if he would be willing to participate in a filming of the program. Katira said he would consult with the elders of his community, and together they would decide.

Eventually the community gave their blessing, but they asked for something in return. They wanted Hernan to film the story of their struggle to save Wirikuta.

Katira’s family became the protagonists in the documentary, which follows the building of an extraordinary movement. I sat with Katira and with his son Clemente, a student at the University of Guadalajara, at the closure of the very intense Mexican film release tour to get a different perspective on the story behind the film. Producer Paola Stefani joined in at his invitation.

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José Luis “Katira” Ramírez introduces the film in Estación Catorce, in the sacred territory of Wirikuta, flanked by the film crew and his family. (Credit: José Andrés Solórzano)

Tracy: Katira, how was it to live with this film crew in your house, in your life, filming every day? Because of what I know of the Wixarika people, it’s a very private culture, very discreet, and people value their privacy very much.

Katira: Yes, it was very difficult. There were many people who think many things and said things to us (critical things), but you only think of the defense. I always said in the assembly, you also should do the work, this is what it costs. If there’s no support, it’s painful, but one does it because really they do it from the heart, because really they love the Mother and the territory, and also we have rights as guardians on this planet.

Tracy: I know that there are various documentarians who go to the sierra and ask for permission to film. Hernán is not the first; so why did you choose him to do this movie?

Katira: He has a heart to especially know us. It wasn’t his first time to come to an indigenous community; he had been to communities all over the world with almost the same problems, the same needs. So when we met it was like we had already known each other for many years.

Tracy: What were the most difficult challenges for you in this process?

Katira: The difficult thing was the distances, and because of the distances the cost of everything – it’s very far and that’s why, with work and with sacrifice, we did it.

Don’t think it was cheap; each trip was 1500 euros, 1,000 euros, from my pocket, from my work, but working together and with a lot of economic sacrifice we were able to do everything we needed to complete this documentary, so one day people will understand.

Thank God my heart is very strong, because I wanted to leave something for the children, for the grandchildren, for the future, because I’m not going to live 500 years, 300 years, who knows what’s going to happen; so this was very important for me.

Tracy: I really loved the opening you gave to the film in Guadalajara – the ceremonial blessing, the invocation of the five directions. I was curious to know if you opened each of the presentations with a benediction like that one, or were they all different?

Katira: Very different. Sometimes we arrived rested; other times the director was really sick and weak from so much travel, with the rains, with headaches, we had to take care of each other that week of the release tour.

Tracy: Katira, I know as a marakame you are also a healer, among other things. Were there times when you served as a healer for the film crew?

Katira: Yes, laying the hands on energetically, healing, that’s how we’ve always cared for each other.

Tracy: I’ll bet you had a lot of work, no?

Katira: ¡Sí!

Tracy: And did the treatments work?

Katira: Here’s Paola; ask her.

Read the full interview at Intercontinental Cry.
The film can be viewed online for $3.99 at huicholesfilm.com.
Anyone who is interested in organizing a film screening or supporting the effort may contact the director at hernanton@gmail.com.