Damiana Cavanha, a member of the indigenous Guarani-Kaiowà people in rural Brazil, has almost nothing left to lose. She’s seen her community come under violent attack as a sugar plantation consumes her land. Several family members, including her husband and three children, have perished in their precarious encampment by the highway. As one of the last holdouts of her community, the grandmother and chief described her situation plainly to human rights advocates: “We are refugees in our own country.”
The idea of being a refugee in one’s own homeland disrupts the assumptions we often carry about who belongs where and about the legitimacy of one’s citizenship. Cavanha is locked in a unique position as an internal refugee as well as a native person. But if you listen to her words you hear the same sense of rage shared by dispossessed peoples across the hemisphere. These are people trying to defend their traditional indigenous lands, and they’re also those claiming the right to stay in the places where they’ve resettled and built new lives. The right to move and the right to stay both turn on the struggle for self-determination and sovereignty.
Earlier this month, many native communities celebrated Indigenous Peoples’ Day as a counterpoint to the conventional celebrations of Columbus Day, aiming to honor the histories and the cultural survival of indigenous communities despite centuries of cultural genocide and ecological destruction. Since the late 1970s, community groups and educators have used to the day to draw attention to ongoing struggles for land and cultural rights.
But it’s not just about honoring the past. The uprisings of indigenous folks that continue today resonate deeply with other social justice struggles, and increasingly, movements are turning to indigenous insurgencies as examples of how to organize communities across racial divides and national boundaries.
The familiar activist slogan “We didn’t cross the border, the border crossed us” bridges migrant and native resistance, from the first genocides of native peoples to the enslavement of Africans to contemporary campaigns for racial justice.
So when activists representing the indigenous Mapuche of Chile clashed with police in anti-Columbus Day protests earlier this month, they were not only demanding respect for ancestral land rights, they were advocating for democracy. They called for cultural autonomy and condemned what they see as “state terrorism”—a pattern of government crackdowns so brutal it has provoked condemnation by United Nations human rights monitors. The Santiago Times quotes Patricia Lienlaf of the Mapuchu activist group Meli Wixan Mapu:
“We are here to say enough of state terrorism, enough of militarization and police agents in our communities which … keep our community, our children, women, elders and men repressed. We are all stigmatized by this fight.”
That outcry has attracted supporters from indigenous groups and others across Chile, because it touched on widespread social and economic frustrations that are not limited to native communities.
A similar sentiment colored a simultaneous uprising in Canada, where the Idle no More movement, led by grassroots First Nations groups, is stepping up its fight against corporate exploitation of natural resources on their ancestral homelands. Their resistance to fossil fuel extraction has inspired solidarity protests from environmental and human rights activists across the continent.
For months a battle has raged in Elsipogtog (Big Cove First Nation) in New Brunswick over the Canadian government’s plans to exploit shale gas resources (and deliver huge profits to a U.S.-based energy company) in the region of the Mi’kmaq people—culminating in a blast of tear gas and rubber bullets last week as police brutally cracked down on protesters.
It may seem like a local land dispute, but the fate of the New Brunswick battle may parallel the fate of many other resistance movements, whether they are to defend land rights or to defend families from being torn apart by deportation.
The challenge to borders—legal, social, and physical—is one reason why the groups behind Idle No More have embraced other peoples’ movements by building alliances with people of color and immigrants from the Global South, encompassing broader issues of racial, gender, and economic equity that resonate beyond native territories and challenge the legitimacy of policies that violate people’s basic dignity.
Just north of the southwestern border, the transnational ethos of protest is articulated in the manifestos of indigenous activist groups like O’odham Solidarity Across Borders—a grassroots campaign that has protested against immigration crackdowns and demanded “self-determination, and true sovereignty of our lands.” Recently O’odham activists have lent transborder support to the nearby Yaqui people in a blockade of the highway in Vicam Pueblo, Sonora, Mexico—a grassroots response to a borderlands water dispute over the planned construction of an aqueduct to bring water to the Mexican city of Hermosillo.
The challenge facing all of these movements is that we live in a world of overlapping, often conflicting territorial claims. But today, transnational movements, from the Zapatistas of Chipas to the Dream 30 in federal detention, are looking toward a more inclusive definition of rights, where resources are shared democratically rather than allocated through corporate or official power.
The experience of dispossession and displacement can take place within or across national boundaries. In fact, a large portion of Latin American immigrants in the U.S. identify as indigenous—most tracing their heritage to some 60 Mexican indigenous peoples). The braiding of migrant, Latino, native, and “American” identities raises complex, ambivalent identity questions. One Central Valley youth activist interviewed by the Oaxacalifornian Reporting Team, a project of University of California, Santa Cruz, talked about his experiences as a migrant, both within Mexico and in the U.S., and the many overlapping barriers he faced as indigenous as well as a transnational Mexican migrant:
“Here in the United States they don’t like us—and we know it, because we’re not from here. In Mexico, they’re tired of us. But our own government in Oaxaca doesn’t even like us. They don’t even respect our most basic rights. The question is, where do we indigenous people belong? Where can we live in peace? The answer is: we don’t know where. That being said, we’re here in the United States. But we have to go deeper. We have to understand why immigration occurs … .”
One of the central driving factors of migration is a deep yearning for a better life, which is also exactly what indigenous peoples are striving for when they resist displacement: both movements center on the concept of self-determination. By challenging colonization as well as national borders, their protests draw a through-line from the claiming of ancestral land rights to the universal right to freedom of movement.