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The Indigenous Peoples of the Americas Today
Digital History ID 732


Document: For more than three centuries, Europeans and their descendants tended to think of Indians as a vanishing people. This view is completely mistaken. The Americas' first peoples have neither abandoned their traditions nor died out. Today, there are now more than 40 million Indians in the Americas, including two million in the United States. They make up a majority of the population in Bolivia and Guatemala, close to half the population in Ecuador and Peru, and large minorities in Mexico and many other countries.

The conditions of Indian peoples' in the Americas vary sharply. Nonetheless, throughout the New World, there has been a growing trend among Indian peoples to resist encroachments on their culture, religion, and land; and to demand political and economic control over homelands. In 1992, Rigoberta Menchu, a Guatemalan Indian and human rights advocate, received the Nobel Peace Prize for her efforts to protect indigenous people from discrimination.

A wide economic gap still separates Indians from the rest of the New World's inhabitants. Yet far from being passive in the face of discrimination and poverty, the New World's first migrants have actively sought to reclaim territory and challenge existing laws.

In Canada, over 800,000 people--about three percent of the population--are Indians. In 1996, a government commission concluded that the country's Indian policies had been a shameful failure and that if they were not fundamentally changed, they would condemn the country's “First People” to lives of poverty.

Today, about half of Canada's Indians live on one of 633 small, isolated Indian reservations. Yet Canada's Indian people have not been passive. Through acts of civil disobedience and armed confrontation, they placed issues of Indian rights onto the national agenda. Largely as a result of Indian pressures, Canada in 1999 split its Northwest Territories into two parts. The eastern half, covering one-fifth of Canada's land mass, is now called Nunavut. Because about 80 percent of this area's inhabitants are Inuit, they have gained control of the new territory, which is the largest part of the Americas governed by its native peoples.

Across Latin America, a growing activism among indigenous peoples has arisen demanding protections for Indian lands, the right to an education in Indian languages, and an end to interference by missionaries who encourage Indians to abandon traditional religious beliefs. In Mexico, over 10 million people--10 percent of the population--are Indians. Most, however, live in desperately poor communities. Nearly half of all Indians are illiterate and only sixteen percent have completed the sixth grade.

In recent years, Indians have pressed hard for recognition of basic rights. In 1992, Mexico's legislature approved a constitutional amendment acknowledging the right of Indians to their own cultures and languages. On New Year's Day in 1994, Zapatista rebels in Chiapas State in southern Mexico seized several towns to expose the exploitation of Mexico's indigenous peoples. In 1996, Mexico's government signed an agreement with the rebels recognizing Indians' right to schooling in their own language, legal recognition of customary forms of government in Indian communities, and “adequate” representation in state and national government.

In Ecuador, where 45 percent of the population is Indian, a million Indians rose up in peaceful protest during the early 1990s, participated in protests during the early 1990s. They occupied churches and barricaded highways demanding the redistribution of land on large estates.

Many of Latin America's indigenous people are living as refugees. In Peru, a leftist rebellion led by Shining Path rebels led more than 200,000 Indian refugees to flee from the Andean highlands to shantytowns in the capital of Lima. In Guatemala, more than 100,000 people, mainly Indian peasants, died in a civil war that lasted 35 years. Some 45,000 fled to refugee camps in southern Mexico.

In Central America, Brazil, and Peru, mining and lumber interests, gold prospectors, farmers, and ranchers have encroached on Indian lands, which are rich in gold, tin, diamonds, zinc, and timber. As a result of pressure from Indian groups, international rights organizations, and environmentalists concerned about the destruction of fragile ecologies, a number of Latin American countries have created land reserves for their Indian populations. In the Amazon basin, Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, French Guiana, and Venezuela all restricted much of their Amazon territories as land reserves.

In the United States, Indians remain the poorest and most underprivileged segment of the population by most social measures. Today, about a third of the two million Indians in the United States live in poverty; the percentage is even higher on reservations, where one million Indians live. Only half of Indian students in the United States graduate from high school and just three percent graduate from college. Rates of alcoholism and suicide remain much higher than among the general population.

In recent years, many Indian peoples in the United States have witnessed visible improvements in their living conditions. It is a striking historical irony that the much despised reservation system has become an important basis for Indian rights and self-government. While many reservations remain areas of high unemployment and poverty, they have also provided a place where many Indian-owned businesses have opened. These include a growing number of oil, coal, and natural gas companies. Tourism on Indian lands is booming and Indian artwork has increased in value. Tribally-run colleges have grown from a single two-year institution in 1968 to about 30 colleges today. Much of the economic progress, however, can be traced to gambling. About 90 tribes have opened casinos since a 1987 Supreme Court ruling freed tribes from most state gambling regulations.

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