“When I was thirteen, I was beginning to hate my mother,” says Amaru, a twenty-eight-year-old Quechua man from the small mountain village of Cusco in the heart of the old Inca empire. “I hated her because I hated my roots. To be an Indian in Peru can be really awful.”
In recent years, Amaru and I have had lots of opportunities to talk candidly, for on his many visits to the United States I have become something of a surrogate father to him. “If you look Indian,” he told me on one such visit, “people taunt you like an animal. Teachers tell you, ‘bring me some alcohol, and bring me your sister.’ You don’t know if you want to be an Indian at all. Sometimes you act like you are white and sometimes you act like yourself.” Far more devastating than their taking of Inca’s gold say Amaru, “is the way the descendants of the conquistadors are still taking the souls of our people.”
“Nowadays, I don’t think even one-quarter of the Quechua in Peru feel proud of being Indian,” Amaru, said. I really don’t see any happiness in my people. I see sadness in their eyes. They feel bad for being born Indian. I had to struggle very hard to be proud of who I am. The turning point came when I began to know my father better. Since I was a little boy, I knew that my father was shaman, a medicine man. This was just a normal thing for me. I didn’t give any importance to it. But when I was sixteen I began to see that he was really extraordinary. I saw his skill in curing people, and I learned that all of his knowledge came from our ancestors. He began to teach me all his hearings and introduce me to the world on natural medicine. This was the time when I woke up, the first time I could begin to feel proud about my culture and myself. For me, this was like being reborn. I was able to sing in the streets.”
These days, however, the out of the way streets (a away from the façade that is put on for tourists) of Cusco and most other Peruvian towns are unsafe for visitors and residents alike. The entire country has been terrorized by a prolonged civil war. One night, Amaru told me, some of his friends were celebrating the marriage of their daughter. Suddenly a policeman appeared. “Let me have some beer,” he demanded.
“We don’t know you,” they said.
“I want to drink,” said the policeman. Clearly he had been drinking.
“Please leave,” someone said. The policeman drew his gun and tried to kill everyone there.
“When they kill everyone, it’s like it never happened,” says Amaru. “Families disappear. Whole villages disappear. Then a month or two later, someone finds a hole containing hundreds of bodies/ sometimes they line people up by a canyon to make it easier-once the people are shot they fall into the canyon and the soldiers, or terrorists, or drug dealers, or whoever killed them don’t have to lose time covering the bodies. It’s a nightmare of blood, just blood and blood and blood and blood. Nobody knows why.”
And few want to ask questions. “If you see something, you’d better keep your mouth shut or they will kill you,” says Amaru. “Soldiers come into our village and rape teenage girls. But who is going to say anything? These men are the law you see? The law is raping girls. To me, Peru is now a land without laws. And I think our culture is becoming extinct. The end is coming and it’s going to be very hard. We have already lost so much of our knowledge. In fifty years there may be nothing left of us but paintings and photographs of who we were.”
As part of his personal commitment to saving Quechua culture, Amaru began reviving the music of his people, playing the flute, repairing old instruments, listening to tapes, learning from the oldest musicians. He went to the temple ruins where the Incas had once played their music. And he went to their places in the jungle, up in the mountains; to hidden ruins, caves, and waterfalls. “I discovered that this music is not for listening,” he said. “It is deeper than that; it touches your spirit, like the wind or the ocean. The Inca melodies come to me and make me cry. They make me feel alive and help me talk with God. They make me understand the happiness and sadness of the world. They help me remember that I am a part of nature, a part of the sunrise and rain in the jungle.”
On a personal level, Amaru began to realize that he was using the music as a buffer from the violent realities of modern Peru. “My music is like a wall that shields me from the things people want to do to me and my people,” he once told me. “Sometimes militias come and kill our animals to feed themselves. Then the police come and say that we work with militias, so they take us to jail.”
Amaru makes a modest living by selling pottery and playing music, but his calling in life is as a medicine man. He is one of the very few young Quechuas who know the old ways of healing. “My work is to see into the hearts of people,” he says. “It doesn’t matter to me what color, what race they are, I can see into them.”
I once asked Amaru what he would like to ask of people outside Peru. I thought he would ask us to put pressure on the government of Peru, but he said, “I think I’d ask other people of the world to respect their ancestors. When you know your ancestors, you respect yourself. But we’ve lost our ancestors and have become enemies of ourselves. That is why we are killing ourselves.”
From one end of the Andes to the other, indigenous people have had to cope with the same forces of alienation, repression, and terrorism that Amaru described. The Quechua, Aymara, Mocovi, and dozens of other people speak-cautiously-of their governments’ systematic attempts to destroy their cultures.
“All attempts to Europeanize or Americanize us are doomed to fail,” said a coalition of Quechua and Aymara Indians in Bolivia. “We want economic development, but based on our own values. We do not want to lose the virtues we have inherited from our ancestors. We fear the development concepts from abroad because they do no consider our deepest values. These powers have never understood or respected the great treasures that Indian souls posses.”
From Argentina comes another version of the same story. “The Mocovi people have been at war with Argentina since the beginning of the century,” says Ariel Araujo, a young Mocovi man whose angelic face is fiercely determined. “For many years Argentina boasted to the world that no indigenous people existed in its territory. It is only since we have been making international appearances that we are starting to ‘exist’ again.
I spoke, too, with a Mapuche man from Tierra del Fuego at the southern tip of Chile. When he was a teenager, the authorities suspected him of subversive activities and pulled out his fingernails. Now, living in exile in the United States, he thinks back. Once we were all in jail at the same time and saw each other through bars. I tried to stop the army from taking the land of our village, and now I face a life sentence if I return to Chile.”
An Aymara man from Bolivia shared his grief over living in exile from his people. “It is so hard to understand why everyone is against us. Many times we don’t know how many people are left in a tribe or if they are gone altogether.”
“My brother was held in prison and tortured for many months,” Reynaldo Mariqueo, a Mapuche man, told me. “They arrested me, but couldn’t prove I was a dangerous person, so they let me go. As soon as I was free, I ran away.”
The stories go on and on, they are numberless and numbingly similar. Like thousands of other Chileqans, Reynaldo Mariqueo has sought asylum abroad. He settled in England, found work as a printer and graphic designer, and now has a wife and young child. “It was only after traveling to Europe,” he says, “that I realized how much the Chilean government discriminates against the Mapuche.”
The Mapuche have a long history of revisiting adversity. They held off the Incas long before the Europeans came. When the conquistadors arrived, the Mapuche defended their homeland so fiercely that they won a rare concession from the Spanish; a treaty. In 1641, the Treaty of Quillan secured for the Mapuche twenty-five million acres, a third of their original homeland. For the next two centuries, they held intruders at bay, but in the 1880’s Chile defeated them, and the Mapuche culture has been under siege ever since.
By 1929, the original Mapuche homeland had been reduced to a million and a half acres divided among widely scattered reserves. Between 1943 and 1947, legislative gerry-mandering sold off vast tracts of the remaining lands without Mapuche consent. Then, in 1910, Salvador Allende won the presidency and began reversing decades of systematic abuse. Within three years, he had returned two hundred thousand acres of land to the Indians and created a special office of indigenous affairs. But in September 1973, Genreal Augusto Pinochet staged a U.S. supported coup, bringing an abrupt end to Allende’s reforms. Mapuche who had supported Allende were routinely imprisoned, tortured, and executed by the police and paramilitary death squads.
As with so many indigenous Cultures, the heart of Mapuche life is the community and its day-to-day relationship with the land. “But in 1979,” Mariqueo told me, “they passed a law meant to destroy us by destroying our communities.” Pinochet’s law 2568 called for the liquidation of Indian communities and mandated that, if just one person in a community asked for title to a piece of land, the community had to divide its land. By 1985, this law had cut the number of Mapuche communities from 2,066 to 655. The land was reduced to less than nice hundred thousand acres (about 1 percents of their original territory).
“At this moment in our history,” said Mariqueo, 1992, “the Mapuche are fighting very hard for salvation. We are determined to regain the land that has been illegally taken from us. The government that has replaced Pinochet is trying the present a democratic image to the world and show concern for the rights of the indigenous people. But in practice, they do very little. For example, the government says that Mapuche territory confiscated by the state and then sold to individuals cannot be returned to Mapuche. The law always favors the landowner over the Mapuche.”
And yet the culture lives on. About half of the one million Mapuche now live in cities, where Spanish is the dominant language. But in the villages, most Mapuche children still speak their native language. “We Mapuche are very strong in preserving our identity and culture,” says Mariqueo. “Some religious ceremonies almost disappeared, but they are coming back now. The old people are teaching the youngsters to dance, to sign, to conduct the traditional ceremonies. We are living in an era in which our identity is being revived. It’s really amazing to be part of it.”
Of all the goals the Mapuche seek, the most fundamental is formal recognition by the Chilean constitution as a separate and distinct people. As long as Chile fails to recognize the Mapuche as an indigenous people, Mapuche human rights are not protected under international law. Says Mariqueo, “We are asking the government to revise the constitution to recognize the existence of the Mapuche, but out main goal is the adoption of a universal declaration of the rights of indigenous people.”
Creating a universal Declaration of Indigenous Rights has become a major objective of the indigenous leaders everywhere. Many of us in the West, particularly in the more prosperous countries, may wonder why such a document is necessary. After all, when the United Nations was formed in 1945, it made universal human rights declaration. However, the United Nation’s blanket guarantee has been revealed as empty sentiment.
Julian Burger, of the U.N. Center for Human Rights, calculates that in two-thirds of all countries, the rights of the indigenous peoples to self-determination are being denied or restricted.
By various estimates, there are between two hundred and fifty million indigenous people in the world, but dispersed as they are, they have little influence in the affairs of their countries and no official voice at all in the United Nations. And yet their very status as outcasts and their fierce desire to exist unifies them.
This quest for representation at the United Nations has been a long and sometimes maddening journey through endless layers of protocol. For more than eight years, Reynaldo Mariqueo has scraped together the means to travel to Geneva to plead for indigenous rights. Rigoberata Menchu, and dozens of other indigenous leaders have sacrificed their personal lives in pursuit of a Declaration of Indigenous Rights. Such a document they believe is essential for the survival of their people in the next century. Whatever form, the final declaration takes; they generally agree it must guarantee that:
· All indigenous populations have the right to self-determination, the right to chart their own economic, social, religious, and cultural destinies.
· All nations recognize their indigenous people and the rights of those people to their traditional lands and institutions.
· All indigenous people be afforded basic human rights.
· All indigenous people retain the rights to their artifacts, burial grounds, sacred sites, designs, music, art, and oral histories.
· All treaties made between countries and the indigenous people are to be honored through national and international law.
If the United Nations fails to create and ratify a Declaration of Indigenous Rights, the Mapuche of Chile, numbering a million people with an unflinching determination to survive, may be able to struggle through the next century; however, smaller and more vulnerable cultures are not likely to last.
“It shall soon be the end of us, and therefore I want to tell you what happened,” says a Tesere Guarasug tribesman. “There by the River Pauserna, we had lived in happiness. But today our end has come.”
When this man’s father was a young boy, white settlers came to their region for the first time and gave us axes, knives, iron machetes, dresses made of cloth, and combs. “What joy when they saw these things? Now my kinfolk have iron tools, but the traditional tools of our culture are lost.”
When the villagers came to get the mysterious gifts, the whites surrounded them, shooting at those who tried to escape. Most of the villagers who survived this ambush were marched to Santa Cruz de la Sierra to be sold. “The whites raped the women and the young girls,” said the remaining tribesman. “Almost all the young boys and girls died on the way to Santa Cruz.”
The Indians who escaped into the hills were soon infected with diseases they had never known. “Many of us died of the fever. People simply fell dead while fetching water, talking with friends. My mother’s sister got up one morning, set out for water and never came back. Relatives found the poor woman near the waterhole. Blood came out of her mouth. She had fever and they could hardly hear her last words: ‘We shall all die if we don’t get away soon.’”
But as one tribe after another has discovered, there are no longer places for escape. You can see for yourself,” said the Guarasug tribesman in 1977, “how small our tribe is now, and that our end is near.” Sixteen years later, in the Year of the Indigenous Peoples of the World, barely a trace of his people has survived.