United States Continues Support for Indigenous People Worldwide

United States Continues Support for Indigenous People Worldwide

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February 11, 2007

It boggles my mind how a few students going to Bolivia makes the United States into a hero for indigenous People…

The United States continues to support the aspirations of the world’s more than 370 million indigenous people, who historically have been largely excluded from positions of influence in both politics and industry in their own countries.

In Bolivia, for example, U.S. programs have trained nearly 4,500 representatives of indigenous groups on the importance of democracy and the rule of law, and produced democracy-oriented radio programs in widely understood indigenous languages.

A State Department-sponsored program for the second consecutive year recently brought 15 Bolivian indigenous student leaders on an educational visit to various sites in the United States from January 13 through February 9 to provide the students with a deeper understanding of America and to enhance their leadership skills. The United States Institute for Bolivian Indigenous Student Leaders program reflects the U.S. commitment to work with historically marginalized populations.

The Institute for Training and Development, based in Amherst, Massachusetts, served as the host for the program and the students spent much of their time at Amherst College learning about the history, culture and government of the United States.

Philip French, the State Department’s director of the Office of Andean Affairs, told USINFO February 9 that the Bolivian students were “all impressed by the way U.S. democracy worked, and it was obvious this trip had erased some of their negative stereotypes” of the United States. He said the students showed a strong desire to improve their country and “that they were going to take back lessons learned on American democracy.”

French repeated to the group U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s declaration that “we impose no ideological litmus test on governments, but we do expect them to govern democratically, and that means, among other things, respecting the rights of minorities and legitimate opposition.”

During her January 18, 2005, confirmation hearings on her nomination to lead the State Department, Rice emphasized the importance of helping the 5,000 different groups of indigenous people who live in some 70 countries around the world.

Valuing The Contributions of Indigenous People

Indigenous people generally are defined as the sector of the population descended from the original inhabitants of the region. Among the indigenous populations identified by the United Nations are the Indians of the Americas, the Inuit and Aleutians of the northernmost regions of the world, the Saami of northern Europe, the Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders of Australia and the Maori of New Zealand.

Among the reasons that have been cited for helping indigenous people is that they are excellent stewards for environmental protection. More specifically, indigenous peoples often live in areas rich in biodiversity, and their cultural knowledge of medicinal uses of plants can be transformed into medicines that help save lives.

Jeffrey Krilla, the State Department’s deputy assistant secretary for democracy, human rights and labor, told USFINO February 8 that indigenous people are “frequently one of the [world’s] most vulnerable and marginalized populations.” His bureau is responsible for the State Department’s annual report that documents human rights restrictions or abuses against indigenous people in countries around the world. The report also acknowledges governments that are “effectively protecting indigenous peoples’ civil and political rights.”

The State Department’s Country Reports on Human Rights Practices detail U.S. cultural and educational programs for helping marginalized groups, especially in Latin America where many indigenous people live.

Sharing Personal Observations

One student in the Bolivian group, Benito Mamami Guzman, told USINFO in a February 8 interview that he was pleasantly surprised and moved after talking to members of indigenous tribes at the Tohono O’odham Reservation near Tucson, Arizona. Those Arizona tribes, Mamami said, share the same family customs, challenges and Spanish language of his people in Bolivia.

Mamami, a civil engineering student at the Universidad Mayor de San Simon in Cochabamba, said through an interpreter that he shared a common desire with his American counterparts “to give our children basic education and cultural opportunities that will allow our people to be more helpful to the [overall] community.”

Nadesdha Guevara Oropeza, a law student at the Universidad Mayor de San Andres in La Paz, told USINFO she was surprised that Americans are not hesitant about criticizing their political leaders.

Guevara said the “opportunity we have enjoyed this whole month to share with our counterparts in the United States has allowed me to see that many people from [both] the upper and lower classes in America do not [always] agree with their government. I never expected that.”

Indigenous issues have been recognized by leaders of Western Hemisphere countries at the four Summits of the Americas. At the last summit, held in Mar del Plata, Argentina, in November 2005, the leaders expressed their commitment “to create the necessary conditions” that give indigenous people “access to decent work and living conditions that will allow them to overcome social exclusion, inequality, and poverty.”

More information about indigenous people and the Summit of the Americas is available on the Summit Web site.


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