Survival At Stake
by George Rich, Innu Nation
published on www.timesofindia.indiatimes.com
The Jarawa tribe of the Andaman Islands has long captured imaginations around the world, especially among other tribal peoples like my people, the Innu of north-eastern Canada. Since the final years of the twentieth century, when they stopped resisting with lethal arrows any contact with outsiders, the world has watched the Jarawa with fascination.
We don’t know why they stopped shooting at the settlers and poachers encroaching on their land. Perhaps they felt overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of settlers from the Indian mainland now living on their islands. But for indigenous peoples who have already lost their land, the drama unfolding before our eyes is far too familiar.
We are holding our breaths as we watch the future of this strong, proud people balancing on a knife-edge. We Innu know only too intimately the devastation that results when a tribe of hunters loses its land, its way of life and its independence.
When these things are lost, self-respect and a sense of who we are also disappear, and for many, the reason for living is gone. For the Innu, all of this happened within a generation. Not so long ago within the last 50 years, in fact our parents and grandparents lived on the land.
Survival was, for them, part of daily life as a hunting people. They depended on the movements of the caribou, the abundance of small game, and predictability of the weather. A small thing a simple mistake, a run of bad weather, or a shift in the wind could mean the difference between starvation and survival.
Our parents learned to be attentive to what was happening on the land and among the animals. These were the skills that enabled us to survive as we have for thousands of years in a land so harsh the Europeans called it the ‘land given to Cain’.
Survival was something different for my generation. We grew up in the communities to which the government lured our parents in the 1960s with promises of houses, health care, and a better way of life.
Within a few short years of settlement, most of our parents were reduced to alcoholism and idleness, many of our brothers and sisters were sexually abused by teachers and priests, and almost all of us were caught up in a system that seemed to be designed to destroy us as a people.
Over a span of perhaps 20 years, we were reduced from self-reliance to a situation of almost total dependency. Our parents, hunters all their lives, were branded as poachers and prosecuted by wildlife officers for trying to feed their families; our teachers tried to make us ashamed of our identity and our culture.
It was like we’d suddenly become unwelcome guests in our own land. At the time, we didn’t have the skills we needed to survive as colonised people. Few of us spoke English or French. We depended on the priests to deal with the outside world on our behalf, but they were as much a part of the system as were the government officials.
As young people, we found that our grandparents could teach us little about talking to the government, or negotiating a land claim, or dealing with proposed mining and hydro developments. We didn’t understand how the Canadian system worked only that we had somehow ended up at the bottom of it.
The devastation wrought by these changes is evident in the shattered self-esteem of my parents’ generation, and is a gaping wound for the generations of Innu growing to adulthood today. The evidence of this damage is in the epidemic of suicides and solvent abuse among our youth.
Children as young as 12 have hung themselves; others have lost themselves in solvents and drugs. Our communities have some of the highest suicide rates on the planet. But among this wreckage are the survivors. This is perhaps our people’s greatest strength: we know how to survive. It is what we have always done.
The Jarawa may be luckier than we have been. It seems that some in India have learned from the mistakes of colonial history.
The Indian government promises that it will not try to assimilate the Jarawa into mainstream society at least for now and that the Jarawa will be able to remain on their forest land, hunting and gathering, and developing as they themselves choose.
Yet reports from the ground suggest that the reality in the Jarawa’s forests is sadly different. The Jarawa are not being settled like the Innu in villages far from their hunting grounds but poachers are stealing the animals they depend on, depriving them of an independent livelihood and of a central part of their culture.
Alcohol, drugs and sexual abuse, all of which have ravaged my people, are being introduced by local settlers and sometimes, as with the Innu, by the very people the government has sent to ‘look after’ them. And the Jarawa, much more than the Innu, are in danger of being wiped out by new diseases brought by outsiders.
We Innu are looking to the future as we find new ways to survive. We don’t want to have to relive our own painful story as we watch the Jarawa unfold. We can only ask the Indian government to act quickly to protect the Jarawa before it is too late. India need only look at my people’s tragic story to see the alternative.
The writer is a leader among the Innu of the Labrador-Quebec peninsula.
*Also see this Press Release from Survival International
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