Friday, August 31, 2007

Impersonating Indigenous Peoples to Get Benefits: Two Wrongs Don't Make a Right

Claims of indigenous status are very tricky these days. Some places have such a long, convoluted history that it is almost impossible to tell what cultural group arrived in an area before another. Sure it is easy to say that American Indians are indigenous to the Western Hemisphere and recent immigrants from Asia are not. But what about when you begin to get a little time behind the "indigenous" claim? Or what happens when there is an arbitrary geo-political border that designates the "indigenous" status? This is where things get tricky and where more bad can come than good.

In a recent case, an American Indian tribe not recognized by the government (a problem in and of itself) sold memberships to illegal immigrants in a fraudulent scheme that promised protection from U.S. immigration laws. The Kaweah Indian Nation Inc., of Wichita, Kansas took up to $400 each from an unknown number of immigrants for the guarantee of a social security number and a "Certificate of Citizenship" card that the Kaweah Indian Nation claimed would protect the buyers from deportation proceedings. The company also told immigrants that the card also would be good for U.S. citizenship if the Kaweah Nation gained federal recognition as an American Indian tribe. However, the Bureau of Indian Affairs rendered a decision on the Kaweah Nation's federal recognition process way back in 2004, deciding not to acknowledge them as a federally recognized American Indian tribe.

So, what is happening here is that a group of people are pretending to be American Indians so that they can help illegal immigrants come into the U.S. and gain certain benefits. This sounds like a wrong+wrong=right strategy to me. We have a group of people pretending to be an indigenous group (Wrong). They are then helping illegal immigrants into the U.S. under false pretenses (Wrong), all in the hopes of making money and allowing people to claim indigenous benefits (a supposed right). Does it get any worse than this? Indigenous peoples, whether in the U.S., Canada, Brazil, South Africa, Siberia, Australia, or anywhere else already have a hard enough time just claiming their own, legitimate rights. They don't need a group of people messing things up. This is worse than cultural appropriation, it is appropriation of identity!

Indigenous peoples issue's are perhaps some of the most complex issues in the human rights arena today. They are fighting for their rights and an equal voice on the local, regional, state, federal, and international levels. To add insult to the already poor track record people have in dealing with indigenous peoples, we can not add this. Like I said in several other posts on intellectual property rights (here and here), it is better in the long run to get your own than to steal from someone else - this mantra goes for business, it goes for ethics, it goes for governments, and it goes for indigenous peoples.


Here is the latest update on this case.

"Kansas Tribe Raided in Immigration Probe," Roxana Hegeman, Associated Press Online, September 6, 2007. Copyright 2007 Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.

"The leader of an unrecognized American Indian tribe was arrested Thursday in a raid by federal authorities investigating claims that the group sold tribal memberships to immigrants with the promise that joining would provide U.S. citizenship. Agents from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Social Security Administration's Office of Inspector General raided the Kaweah Indian Nation's two Wichita offices and arrested Malcolm L. Webber, also known as Grand Chief Thunderbird IV, according to the U.S. attorney's office and the immigration agency. ICE said it is investigating whether Webber, 69, illegally sold tribal memberships to both legal and illegal immigrants under the misconception that the documents provided immediate U.S. citizenship. Becoming a member of a tribe gives no protection against deportation, authorities have said. Webber is not an American Indian, and his group, which calls itself the Kaweah Indian Nation, is not a legitimate tribe, Cross said. The search warrants were for anything related to sales of tribal memberships, Cross said."

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Monday, August 27, 2007

Indigenous Wisdom and the Modern World

I did a post the other day on Intellectual Property and indigenous peoples. I was slightly critical of how companies, especially pharmaceutical companies, take indigenous people's intellectual property without proper compensation (whether it be monetary or not). Well, there are other means of using intellectual property (or indigenous wisdom as some are want to call it) that I do favor. A recent example came from an unlikely group: archaeologists.

Recently archaeologists finished mapping Angkor in Cambodia, discovering that it was the biggest pre-industrial city ever founded! The size of this ancient city is amazing - at its zenith it sprawled out 1,000 square km from its center around the legendary temples and reservoirs of Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom. This giant city was bigger than today's Singapore, Sydney, New York, or most other industrial cities. Acting as the capital to a large agricultural empire that stretched from Thailand in the north across the flood plains and southwards to the Cambodia-Vietnam border, Angkor basically engineered its own demise.

You see, what apparently happened according to new archaeological evidence is that Angkor out grew its own resources. Apparently the city was linked by a vast network of irrigation channels, storage ponds and reservoirs. As the city grew, land was cleared, causing soil to clog these channels that were essential to the city's survival and agricultural production. Eventually it became too expensive and complicated to keep the system free-flowing and it collapsed, taking Angkor with it.

What is so interesting is that if anyone studies a little archaeology they would know that this same phenomenon happened to parts of the Maya (namely those in Belize and Guatemala during the Classic Period), to the Egyptians of the Nile Delta, to the American Indians living in Florida prior to modern colonization, and to many others. If we look beyond just irrigation and agriculture, most cultures "collapsed" based simply on over population and over exploitation of resources. Jared Diamond's two books Guns, Germs, and Steel and Collapse both follow this train of thought. Similarly, Shepard Krech's book The Ecological Indian discusses the same situation, just on a smaller scale.

The interesting point, however, is not that the rise and fall of various cultures or cities has taken place over time (for that is obvious), but it is how this knowledge is stored. Archaeologists and others are just know realizing much of this, displacing their romantic notions of indigenous peoples with other notions (often similarly stereotypical). No, the interesting point is in how indigenous peoples have kept this knowledge, this intellectual property. Study of indigenous people's oral traditions often reveals much, despite archaeologists argument that any data from such oral traditions is not empirical and thus not scientifically valid. The Maya have oral traditions that reflect what they learned in their "collapse." The oral traditions of the tribes of the Americas are replete with wisdom about their past experiences. The same could be said for almost any other place in the world.

This form of intellectual property, this indigenous wisdom, is extremely valuable. It holds lessons for the modern world. What we are doing to the land - over exploitation of the resources, over population, altering stream flows, building in deltas, redirecting the natural pattern of the world - is resulting in serious consequences. Just because we have science does not mean we know anything more. Indigenous peoples have knowledge that is also built on empirical data, it is just that their data comes from experience and thousands of years of living in their homelands. This knowledge - indigenous people's wisdom - is what we need to begin to pay attention to. Do we want another Angkor (Phoenix and Las Vegas come to mind as future version with their population to resource availability ratios)? No! Let's begin to listen to indigenous peoples and their oral traditions - when it comes to knowledge, the more the better.


Here is the abstract from the original Angkor article published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (Vol. 104, No. 36, Pp. 14277-14282).

The great medieval settlement of Angkor in Cambodia [9th–16th centuries Common Era (CE)] has for many years been understood as a "hydraulic city," an urban complex defined, sustained, and ultimately overwhelmed by a complex water management network. Since the 1980s that view has been disputed, but the debate has remained unresolved because of insufficient data on the landscape beyond the great temples: the broader context of the monumental remains was only partially understood and had not been adequately mapped. Since the 1990s, French, Australian, and Cambodian teams have sought to address this empirical deficit through archaeological mapping projects by using traditional methods such as ground survey in conjunction with advanced radar remote-sensing applications in partnership with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)/Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). Here we present a major outcome of that research: a comprehensive archaeological map of greater Angkor, covering nearly 3,000 km2, prepared by the Greater Angkor Project (GAP). The map reveals a vast, low-density settlement landscape integrated by an elaborate water management network covering >1,000 km2, the most extensive urban complex of the preindustrial world. It is now clear that anthropogenic changes to the landscape were both extensive and substantial enough to have created grave challenges to the long-term viability of the settlement.

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