Saturday, October 16

Native Americans Demand a Reckoning with Brutal Colonial History | Indigenous people

TOs statues of queens and conquerors fall amid protests in North and South America, indigenous peoples are pushing for a reckoning throughout the region with the bitter legacy of colonialism’s slaughter and cultural erasure.

From the Arctic Circle to Tierra del Fuego, Native Americans have targeted the Catholic Church, national governments, and other powerful institutions.

In Canada, the horrifying discovery of the anonymous graves of indigenous children near former Catholic boarding schools has sparked widespread calls for a reassessment of the country’s colonial history and the structural inequalities that persist today.

In Chile and Colombia, uprisings over social inequity have also been accompanied by demands for a reconsideration of national narratives and the persistent aftermath of the conquest.

And although contexts and stories vary dramatically across the region, a common experience of marginalization, poverty, and low life expectancy has led many indigenous peoples to draw parallels across colonial borders.

Following her election last month as president of Chile’s new constituent assembly, Elisa Loncón, a member of Chile’s largest indigenous group, the Mapuche, expressed solidarity with First Nations and condemned Canadian residential schools, where thousands of children died over the course of a century. “It is a shame how colonialism has attacked the future of the original nations,” he said.

Elisa Loncon, a member of the Mapuche people, will direct the drafting of the country's new constitution.
Elisa Loncón, a professor at the University of Santiago and a member of the Mapuche people, will direct the drafting of the country’s new constitution. Photograph: Elvis Gonzalez / EPA

Loncón will preside over the drafting of a new Chilean constitution to replace the document from the Pinochet era, which does not even recognize the existence of the country’s indigenous peoples, despite the fact that they constitute around 12.8% of the population.

“It is possible, brothers, sisters and friends, to re-found Chile,” he said.

Across the Andes in the Bolivian capital of La Paz, feminist activists recently marched towards the disfigured statue of Christopher Columbus, denouncing the genocide perpetrated in indigenous communities.

It was something they had done many times before, said Adriana Guzmán, an Aymara member of the Bolivian anti-patriarchal community Feminism group, but the discovery of the graves in Canada added fuel to their anger.

“You assume, because of colonialism, that Canada is perfection,” he said. But that is the colonial logic. Erase the memory of our communities [and] erase his own crimes. “

Fast guide

Canadian residential schools


Canadian residential schools

Over 100 years, more than 150,000 indigenous children were separated from their families to attend state-funded Christian boarding schools in an effort to forcibly assimilate them into Canadian society.

They were given new names, forcibly converted to Christianity, and prohibited from speaking their native languages. Thousands died of disease, neglect, and suicide; many were never returned to their families.

The last residential school closed in 1996.

Nearly three-quarters of the 130 residential schools were run by Roman Catholic missionary congregations, while others were run by the United, Anglican and Presbyterian Church of Canada, which is today the largest Protestant denomination in the country.

In 2015, a historic Truth and Reconciliation Commission which concluded that the residential school system amounted to a policy of cultural genocide.

Survivors’ testimony made it clear that sexual, emotional and physical abuse was rife in schools. And the trauma suffered by students was often passed on to younger generations, a reality magnified by the systematic inequalities that persist across the country.

Dozens of First Nations do not have access to clean water and racism against indigenous peoples is rampant in the healthcare system. Indigenous peoples are overrepresented in federal prisons, and Indigenous women are murdered at a much higher rate than other groups.

Commissioners identified 20 unmarked graves in former residential schools, but also cautioned that no more unidentified graves had yet been found across the country.

Photo: Saskatchewan Provincial Archives / SASKATCHE PROVINCIAL ARCHIVES

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Canadian residential schools were part of a policy to forcibly assimilate indigenous children into colonial society, according to which at least 150,000 children were separated from their families over the course of a century.

“The goal of the residential schools was to disrupt indigenous communities, attack the very heart of our culture, and assimilate our people into a political body of settlers. That was necessary as part of the colonial project that is Canada. Canada had to establish itself by destabilizing indigenous communities, ”said Courtney Skye, a researcher at the Yellowhead Institute, run by First Nations.

“Part of that was taking the children from their families, displacing indigenous peoples… all these political tools that stripped indigenous peoples of their lands. From there, Canada could more easily exploit natural resources and build its economy. “

The recent discovery of more than 1,300 nameless tombs at ancient school sites sparked a wave of revulsion as protesters threw paint into churches and toppled statues of Queen Victoria and Queen Elizabeth II.

A statue of Egerton Ryerson, one of the architects of Canada's indigenous boarding school system, was toppled in June following a protest on the campus of the university that bears his name in downtown Toronto.
A statue of Egerton Ryerson, one of the architects of Canada’s indigenous boarding school system, was toppled in June following a protest on the campus of the university that bears his name in downtown Toronto. Photograph: Olivier Monnier / AFP / Getty Images

These incidents reflected protests across the American continent, where indigenous peoples have increasingly rejected the routine veneration of the colonizers.

When Chile erupted in protest in 2019, statues of the Spanish conquerors were demolished and, in some cases, replaced by depictions of indigenous heroes.

Similarly, when Colombia was convulsed by anti-poverty protests this year, statues of colonizers were again attacked by protesters, who said the statues represent an invading class of warmongers and tyrants.

“Are [are] symbols that represent slavery and oppression, ”said Tata Pedro Velasco, leader of the Misak people of the Cauca province. On the first day of a national strike, Misak protesters in Cali toppled a statue of Sebastián de Belalcázar, a Spaniard who founded the city (as well as the Ecuadorian capital Quito) but has long been despised by many indigenous communities. Andean.

In late June, a monument to the explorer Christopher Columbus was torn down in Barranquilla, a major city on Colombia’s Caribbean coast. Authorities also removed a statue of the South American pro-independence hero Simón Bolívar, concerned that it might also collapse.

Protesters topple a statue of Christopher Columbus during an anti-government rally in Barranquilla, Colombia, on June 28, 2021.
Protesters topple a statue of Christopher Columbus during an anti-government rally in Barranquilla, Colombia, on June 28, 2021. Photograph: Mery Grandos Herrera / AFP / Getty Images

“As an indigenous people, it is important to begin to reevaluate the ‘official history’ and understand that the colonization of indigenous peoples continues five centuries later in the Americas,” Velasco said.

Lourdes Albornoz, a social worker and member of the Diaguita community in the Argentine province of Tucumán, said the events in Canada reminded her of the experience of her own people.

Just a generation ago, wealthy landowners in Tucumán used to bring indigenous girls to work in their homes, he said. “They took half the cows, half the harvest and the young women,” he said.

The girls were given religious names, new birthdays to correspond with those of the Catholic saints, and they signed up as members of their kidnappers’ preferred political parties. “They lost their identity, they worked for free, they were exploited, sexually abused,” Albornoz said. Even today, these experiences are largely denied or ignored, he said.

“We are embracing our brothers and sisters in Canada, because it must be a very difficult time for those communities,” he said. “They are not alone. We are embracing them and suffering with them. But from that pain and those tears, we will be reborn. “

The Canadian government has apologized to indigenous peoples for their actions, but Albornoz said their colonial practices continue throughout Latin America, this time in the form of mining projects, often in territories claimed by indigenous peoples and that have contributed to the environmental degradation, necessarily. displacement and human rights abuses.

In the Americas, indigenous peoples perform significantly worse on the vast majority of indicators, from multidimensional poverty to life expectancy and employment prospects.

Beyond token measures and weak declarations of solidarity, many are now demanding concrete and tangible improvements in their lives after centuries of seeing their demands marginalized or dismissed.

“Despite the various phases of colonization that Latin America has experienced, the cultural fabric of the founding nations has not been destroyed,” said Fernando Pairicán, a Mapuche historian at the University of Santiago.

“For every act of genocide, there must be economic, political and social reparation. Only then can we move towards self-determination, equality and the restitution of lands to the indigenous peoples of the Americas ”.

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