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  • Print publication year: 2015
  • Online publication date: August 2015

7 - What Democracy Looks Like, 1990 to the Present


When Winona LaDuke, an Ojibwe from Minnesota, attended the Fourth United Nations Conference on Women in Beijing, China, in 1995 along with tens of thousands of others, she urged adoption of the Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. At the China gathering to represent the Indigenous Women's Network, LaDuke was long familiar with global endeavors. She had joined the International Indian Treaty Council after hearing Cherokee organizer Jimmie Durham speak during her first year at Harvard. “There's no such thing as an Indian problem,” Durham had said. “It's a problem with America.” Impressed by Durham's view that American Indians' fate was inseparable from that of aboriginals worldwide, LaDuke had traveled to speak at age eighteen, in 1977, to a UN conference in Geneva, Switzerland. After time spent researching corporate uranium mining on Navajo land in New Mexico, which she called “radioactive colonialism,” she moved in the 1980s to Canada, where she assisted a Cree campaign against a vast hydroelectric development project at James Bay. Long before Winona LaDuke arrived in Beijing, indigeneity and globality to her were one and the same.

From Chico Mendes, defender of native Amazonian rubber-tappers, to Rigoberta Menchú, Guatemalan human-rights proponent, indigenous voices had won global recognition in the prior decade. In 1992, protests throughout the Americas marked the five hundredth anniversary of Christopher Columbus's arrival, calling his legacy one of conquest, slavery, and genocide. Then came New Year's Day 1994, when Mayans in Chiapas in southernmost Mexico launched a Zapatista Army of National Liberation on the day of implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). “Zapatista” paid homage to Sandinista, with Mexican icon Emiliano Zapata as substitute hero. Subcomandante Marcos, the Zapatistas' spokesperson, created a wholly new genre of communiqué In an urbane prose bathed in Mayan allusion, he mocked the top-down politics of the traditional Latin American left, his self-deprecating title “Subcomandante” signifying subordination to the “collective and democratic leadership” of Chiapas's Indians. “We are gauche, stammering, well-intentioned,” he wrote. “We have not come to lead you, we have not come to tell you what to do, but to ask for your help.” No longer would Mexico's marginal be silenced: “Does the country want Chiapan oil, electrical energy, natural resources, labor, in short, the life blood of Chiapas, but not the opinions of the indigenous people of Chiapas about the future of the country?”

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