October can evoke ambiguous feelings among indigenous peoples across the world. About 200 members of the Penan tribe, in Malaysia, have expanded their blockade to prevent the construction of a 900-megawatt hydro power project in the state of Sarawak, since it would displace seven indigenous communities. Six people were killed and 34 wounded in Totonicapan, Guatemala, during a protest over electricity prices and new rules that would force teachers to leave a poor rural area in order to obtain necessary credentials. Native Brazilians from the Amazonian basin are protesting the construction of the planned Belo Monte hydroelectric dam on the Xingu River in the state of Para. In India, thousands of indigenous peoples from across the country are marching to the capital in New Delhi to claim the right to the land that they have inherited from their forefathers, who are the original inhabitants of the subcontinent.
But the second Monday of October is also observed as Columbus Day in the United States. While most of the world confronts the repression of indigenous people, the United States celebrates an event that began a long period of subjugation of indigenous Americans.
In 1992, in hopes of providing an alternative to Columbus Day, a group of Native Americans began celebrating the same date as Native American Day. The United Nations, however, chose to observe an International Day of the World's Indigenous People on August 9, since 1994. The holiday is little noted in the United States, especially compared to the attention given to Columbus Day, but the concerns it reflects cannot be more pressing: It is important for Americans to understand that the needs of a vast section of the world's populations are not considered when "development" projects are designed. Often, the projects reflect the endless quest for profits by local and multi-national corporations and their government allies.
The indigenous peoples across the world, who have been the guardians of forests, rivers, animals, and mountains, are ignored and displaced. Like the Native Americans of a century or more ago, they are looked down upon as wilderness people; they are only remembered when tourism needs a boost or the market is hungry for artifacts or a new sound of music. When the ground beneath their feet is found to be rich in minerals, they are brushed aside in one sweep of legal notices, or arson; rapes and mutilations and murders are not uncommon.
Sodi Sambo, if alive today, would be 31. Three years ago, she was the hapless mother of four, who had suffered bullet injuries in her leg, and had thus become the sole survivor in her village in India’s Chhattisgarh state. In October, 2009, her village was the target of the Indian government's Operation Green Hunt, which was aimed to cleanse central India of the “menace” of Maoists. Suddenly, every indigenous person living in the forests of central India, and whose small patch of arable land sat atop minerals worth millions, became a “Maoist guerrilla.” Anyone joining protest rallies or signing petitions was silenced. Several women were raped by men attached with the state government’s counter-insurgency militia.
A local journalist who tried to tell the story of his people, Lingaram Kodopi, was beaten inside police toilets, and is today in jail. His aunt Soni Sori, a school teacher who defied the government by refusing to have her name associated with the Maoists, was arrested in October last year, and since been tortured in jail — with stones being shoved into her body cavities, among other forms of torture. Amnesty International has declared her a Prisoner of Conscience.
The plight of the people in Chhattisgarh is shared by millions of other indigenous peoples across the world. According to one news report from October 2009, when the Indian government launched the Operation Green Hunt, a police source was quoted as saying, "The forces will penetrate Maoist-dominated areas, clear and sanitize the locations and hold the territory so that other government agencies could move in to initiate developmental work. The operations are expected to last around two years, an ample time frame for winning the hearts and minds of local people through developmental activities."
This rings true with what had happened after Columbus discovered the New World. Many areas inhabited by the Native Americans were “sanitized” and replaced with modern structures that cater to a different population. The development works initiated on these lands did not include the Native Americans as the beneficiaries. Have the governments then managed to win the hearts of local people? Probably yes, by assigning the second Monday of October as Columbus Day, and thus a long weekend to enjoy.
Priyanka Borpujari is the IWMF Elizabeth Neuffer Fellow for 2012-2013.