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Photo: Dolly Faibyshev for The New York Times
In a ceremony at the Abrons Arts Center in New York, Emily Johnson acknowledges the Lenape tribe, which inhabited Manhattan before Europeans arrived. The bonfire event is part of an initiative by artists called “land acknowledgment.”

It’s interesting to me that at the same time that nationalism and harsh attitudes about migration are sweeping the Western world, some very different movements are gaining traction. One is the increased acknowledgment in some English-speaking countries that Europeans were once interlopers, too.

Siobhan Burke writes at the New York Times about arts groups starting to pay attention to first residents.

“On an evening in early June, before the sun had gone down, a bonfire blazed outside Abrons Arts Center on the Lower East Side. Handmade quilts lined the steps of the outdoor amphitheater. Anyone walking down Grand Street could come in and take a seat. As a group of singers arranged themselves around a large cylindrical drum, the choreographer Emily Johnson stood up to speak a few careful, welcoming words.

“ ‘I’d like to acknowledge and pay my deep respect to Lenape people and elders and ancestors — past, present and future,’ she said. She gestured toward the ground and in the direction of the East River. ‘I acknowledge and offer deep gratitude to this Lenape land and water that supports us, as we’re gathered here right now together, and I invite you to join me in that acknowledgment, that respect and that gratitude.’

“In recognizing Manhattan’s original inhabitants — the Lenape (pronounced len-AH-pay) — and their ancestral homeland, Lenapehoking, Ms. Johnson was taking part in a ritual that, with her guidance, has become increasingly common at New York performing arts spaces in the past year.

“Routine at public gatherings in Australia, New Zealand and Canada, the custom of Indigenous land acknowledgment, or acknowledgment of country, has only recently started to gain traction in the United States outside of tribal nations. In New York City the practice is sporadic but growing, occasionally heard at high-profile cultural and educational institutions like the Whitney Museum of American Art and New York University. …

“Ms. Johnson, 42, a Native Alaskan artist of Yupik descent, has been the catalyst for much of that progress in the city’s dance scene. … Wherever she tours, she publicly honors — and engages with — the Indigenous people of that place.

“And behind the scenes she has been working to strengthen relationships between predominantly white institutions and Indigenous communities, to ensure that more Indigenous voices are heard at all organizational levels, from the artists onstage to the board of directors. That process, she said, begins with institutions recognizing where they are: on land taken from Indigenous peoples. …

“For the inexperienced, speaking an acknowledgment can be awkward at first. Hadrien Coumans, a co-founder of the Lenape Center, said false starts were to be expected. …

“While land acknowledgment might be a mere formality in some contexts, Mr. Coumans emphasized that he sees it as something much greater, an invitation to consider and appreciate where, really, you are standing.

“ ‘We’re part of a living being,’ he said. ‘Earth is a living entity, so in acknowledging land, what we’re really doing is acknowledging life. Not nationalism, not patriotism. Life.’ ”

More at the New York Times, here.

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nerisgarden

Photos: Lucy Sherriff/PRI
Neris Uriana, the Wayuu tribe’s first-ever female chieftain, stands in her garden. With her leadership and new water-saving techniques, the northern Colombia tribe is finally able to grow food year-round.

I’ve been reading articles by my friend Ann Tickner on Jane Addams, best known for founding Hull House in Chicago in the early 20th Century. Addams, an international peace activist who influenced the thinking of world leaders after WW I, was a more extraordinary woman than I realized in third grade, reading one of those little orange biographies in the school library. She was a model of all that women can be if they choose.

In South America, there’s another surprising example of female leadership that I just heard about. It’s in an indigenous tribe, where the women are making sure that the people achieve their potential while living in harmony with nature.

Global Post reporter Lucy Sherriff writes at Public Radio International (PRI), “For years, the Wayuu tribe in La Guajira, a remote area in northernmost Colombia, was run by a male chieftain. But 13 years ago, male elders decided to appoint a woman as its leader. After the success of being led by a female head, the community changed its governance traditions and now exclusively appoints women to lead.

“ ‘When I first started, I didn’t know anything,’ Neris Uriana, the tribe’s first-ever female chieftain, told PRI. ‘But over time, one learns how to lead, the required skills you need to be head of a community.’

“Neris Uriana was elected in 2005. She was already involved in providing support to the community’s mothers, and Jorge Uriana, along with other elders, believed she had the qualities needed to lead the tribe. It was a first for Wayuu communities in Albania, in La Guajira.

“ ‘We had had some problems with communicating with leaders of other tribes and in our own village,’ explained Jorge Uriana, who was the community leader until 2005 and is Neris Uriana’s husband.

“Jorge Uriana explained that traditionally, Wayuu men negotiate and resolve disputes but that some male leaders can come off as confrontational and even aggressive at times.

“ ‘Whereas women, when they speak, they address the human side. They tend to be more peace-loving and more humanitarian in their outlook.’ ”

Excuse me, I have to stop here and marvel: that is exactly why Jane Addams and her contemporaries in the peace movement are considered the founders of what is known today as feminist diplomacy.

Back to my story.

” ‘We wanted to turn the way things were on its head. We wanted women to use their way of dialogue to resolve our conflicts, and we wanted to transform our culture,’ [said Jorge Uriana].

“ ‘I realized I had a commitment and an obligation to my people,’ said Neris Uriana, who will lead for as long as she likes (or until someone else steps up). ‘I really trained myself in leadership, and now, I feel like I am able to really achieve great things.’

“Marta Pushiana is one of the many women who have become more involved in the tribe’s community since Neris Uriana’s appointment.

“ ‘Now, we have a female leader; more women are taking more responsibility in the tribe. Before, we always had to stay at home and look after the children and cook and clean,’ said Pushiana. ‘Now, the men share those responsibilities with us, so that women have the opportunity to work, to help build, to be involved in leadership. The whole dynamic in the tribe has changed for the better.’ …

“Although Wayuu tribes have traditionally treated women as equals to men and have a more matriarchal culture than other nonindigenous Colombians, few tribes are led by women, and even less — if any — have permanently pledged to only appoint women. …

“Since Neris Uriana took up her position, she has introduced a long-term agricultural initiative to help sustain her community, rather than continually living hand to mouth. Neris Uriana sought the help of outsiders to teach her and other women in the tribe about irrigation, crop cycles and land use, so they could have ample produce throughout the year. The women also use their ancestral knowledge of lunar cycles to plant food and strongly believe the can use their connection with the Earth to sustain themselves.”

Oh, my, I am in love with these people! Read more about them at PRI, here.

A woman from the Wayuu tribe who is part of the female chieftain’s food initiative waters the saplings. The initiative has been such a success that the tribe now produces surplus food and sells it to other communities.

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Photo: Tim McDonnell /for NPR 
Samuel-Richard Bogobley holds a GPS-enabled tablet to capture the location of one corner of an underwater clam “farm.” Collecting data is the first step in protecting indigenous livelihoods.

I love reading about how people around the world come up with constructive ways to use technology. This story is about clam farmers in Africa enlisting GPS data as a first step in protecting indigenous rights.

Writes Tim McDonnell at National Public Radio, “Samuel-Richard Bogobley is wearing a bright orange life vest and leaning precariously over the edge of a fishing canoe on the Volta River estuary, a gorgeous wildlife refuge where Ghana’s biggest river meets the Gulf of Guinea.

“He’s looking for a bamboo rod poking a couple feet above the surface. When he finds it, he holds out a computer tablet and taps the screen. Then he motions for the captain to move the boat forward as he scans the water for the next rod. …

” ‘Before you can start to recognize a fishery, you need to have a lot of data,’ says Bogobley, a researcher with Hen Mpoano, a Ghanaian nonprofit that supports small-scale fishers. ‘These people don’t have any platform to fight for what is theirs.’

“The Volta River is rich with clams, harvested year-round by a bustling community of several hundred fishermen and women. The meat is packaged for sale across West Africa, while the shells are ground into an additive for whitewash and chicken feed.

“The riverbed itself is divided into intricate real-estate parcels, each one an underwater clam ‘farm’ with its own caretaker.

“The farms have become a flashpoint in a broader conflict over the land rights of indigenous peoples in Africa: The clam fishers have no legal claim to their farms, and are under increasing pressure as they compete for prime real estate with the booming tourism industry and cope with the impacts of climate change. …

“[Clam farmer Kofi] Amatey spends most of every day working here about ten feet below the surface, gathering clams into a basket. Wearing eye goggles and a weighted belt, he breathes through a makeshift scuba apparatus that pumps air from a compressor on his canoe.

“It’s a subsistence living: Amatey estimates that he earns less than $1,000 per year. And in recent years, it’s gotten even harder.

“A crop of new luxury resort hotels now crowd the riverbanks, forcing the clam fishers off of land where they used to live, dock canoes and process clams. Tourists’ speedboats and jet skis churn the water, threatening to topple the narrow dugout canoes loaded with clams. …

“Without a formal, legal claim to the clam farms, Amatey and his neighbors say they have no way to protect themselves from hoteliers and other developers who acquire deeds from the government. …

“Many indigenous land rights lack protection because of a scarcity of data. …

“That’s where the GPS tablets come in. A growing number of research groups and international aid organizations are rolling out software aimed at making it easier for anyone with a tablet or smartphone to accurately map community-held land and record basic information about its proprietors. This data alone doesn’t offer any legal protection, but it’s an essential starting place.”

More here.

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Photo: David Bedard
An example of the resurgence of indigenous theater is
Our Voices Will Be Heard, directed by Larissa FastHorse. It was performed at Perseverance Theatre in 2016 in Alaska. 

Another way that culture gets shared, revitalized, and preserved is through theatrical performances. Alaska and Hawaii, in particular, are seeing a resurgence of indigenous theater.

As Frances Madeson writes at American Theatre, “The pace at which producers of Hawaiian and Alaskan Native theatres are creating original offerings specific to their lands and peoples and mounting them on their mainstages ranges somewhere in the giddy spectrum between prestissimo and full-tilt boogie.

“ ‘We’re experiencing a Native arts revival right now,’ said Alaska Native playwright Vera Starbard, whose autobiographical advocacy play Our Voices Will be Heard was performed in Juneau, Anchorage, Hoonah, and Fairbanks. …

“Part of the exhilaration comes as a result of resources to match the rhetoric of support for Native theatre arts. In 2016 Starbard was granted $205,000 from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to sustain her while she creates three full-length Alaska Native plays over three years. …

“There is also an attitudinal shift by institutional gatekeepers toward inclusion of Native theatre artists, some of whom have been maintaining the vision for a very long time with minimal support.

“The first Hawaiian-language play presented at the Kennedy Theatre at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa was in February 2015, ‘in the theatre’s 51st season,’ said Tammy Haili’ōpua Baker, who wrote it. … She repeated for emphasis: ‘Half a century to get anything Hawaiian on that stage.’

“But now that the vessel’s been unstoppered, there’s a growing groundswell of audience demand for shows with Native-centric realities and expression.

“ ‘The success of Our Voices was completely community-driven,’ said Starbard. …

“Tlingit actor and playwright Frank Henry Kaash Katasse said he sees a category shift. ‘Indigenous stories are now seen as American stories.’ …

“Katasse teaches theatre in schools to Alaska Native kids, and encourages them to take acting seriously. ‘They didn’t even know this was a career option,’ he said.

“Indeed, to keep pace with demand, artistic directors Harry Wong III at Kumu Kahua Theatre and Eric Johnson at Honolulu Theatre for Youth (HTY) on Oahu, and Art Rotch of Perseverance Theatre in Juneau and Anchorage, are prioritizing both actor training and play development. …

“In Fairbanks, Alaska, [Allan Hayton, language revitalization program director at Doyon Foundation] pursues theatre as a vehicle for cultural and linguistic survival.

“ ‘We are restoring balance,’ Hayton said. ‘In indigenous tradition theatre is performed to achieve something for the people and balance for the world in the natural environment. Theatre is a healing art form in which we can address very serious and difficult issues safely, and offer a larger healing for society.’ …

“For Starbard, Alaska Native theatre artists literally standing on thousands of years of storytelling tradition have nothing to prove.

” ‘Our goal as Native artists and theatremakers is not to develop this “uncultured” audience so they can come in and understand what a Western theatre is like. I think that’s the attitude taken sometimes,’ she said, choosing her words with great care. ‘I’m proud of Native artists who are pushing back against this mindset. It’s not about how we can help our people adapt to the Western theatre, but how we can help Western theatre to be an even more dynamic and beautiful thing.’ ”

More here.

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Photo: Zuma Press
A game called pelota mixteca helps to keep an ancient language alive.

I never thought about it before, but there are languages that go with certain pursuits. For example, the vocabulary of ballet is French, so when you are learning ballet, you are learning a little French.

Here’s a story about a sport that relies on the vocabulary of an indigenous people, helping to preserve not only the words but also cultural pride.

Walter Thompson-Hernández writes at the New York Times, “The men gather at an open field in a recreation area of the San Fernando Valley [of California] every Sunday, putting chalk to the dusty ground to draw the boundaries of a game that has been a weekly ritual as long as many can remember. After they are done, these men and others who filter in cluster into distinct teams, tossing a six-pound rubber ball to warm up.

“On a recent Sunday, one of them, Jorge Cruz, 39, lifted a 15-pound glove studded with nails and other ornamentation in the air. He glanced back at his teammates and asked, ‘You guys ready?’ in Zapotec, an indigenous Oaxacan language, before bouncing the ball on a cement slab known as el saque and hitting it toward the opposing team.

“This is how you start a game of pelota mixteca, a ballgame said by its players in California to have originated hundreds of years ago in Oaxaca, Mexico, though theories abound about whether it is an offshoot of an ancient Mesoamerican game or a European sport brought to the New World. Wherever it arrived, it serves not only as a pastime: It is also a way of keeping its players’ culture alive, and serves as a network for an immigrant community throughout the West Coast. It has even spawned an under-the-radar international tournament. …

“Oaxacan players who speak indigenous languages like Zapotec and Mixtec travel to the pasajuegos (games) every week from Southern and Northern California cities, and each makes the journey to the San Fernando Valley for many of the same reasons. …

“Because a majority of the pelota mixteca players live in communities where Spanish or English are spoken rather than Zapotec, second-generation Oaxacan children are less likely to preserve that language or any of the other indigenous languages spoken during play. …

“A number of Oaxacan youths are making efforts to ‘revitalize’ these indigenous languages by playing sports like pelota mixteca and making frequent trips to Oaxaca. It provides an environment free from the stigma or the expectation to adopt Spanish. …

“Pelota mixteca continues to be played in relative obscurity every Sunday, but a younger generation of players has appeared on the field. Mr. Cruz now brings his son Jorge, 15, and his nephew, Miguel Angel, 9, to the games with him every weekend, as his father once did more than 20 years ago.”

Says the younger Jorge Cruz, ” ‘I feel empowered and excited that I’m playing the same game that my ancestors did. … If I have children one day, I’m going to teach them this game, too, so that they don’t lose our heritage.’ ”

More here.

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Photo: Richard Vogel/AP
A statue of Gene Autry and Champion at the entrance to the Autry Museum of the American West in Los Angeles. The museum opened in 1988
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My family had one of the early televisions because my father was writing a story about Dumont for Fortune. It was a clunky little thing, showing black and white only, of course, but we loved it, and all the kids in the neighborhood came to watch.

My hero was Gene Autry, the singing cowboy. (Want me to sing the opening number for you, the one Autry sang when he rode Champion up close to the camera and reined him in with a little bounce?)

Recently I learned that in 1988, Autry founded a museum in Los Angeles about the American West. Here’s an Associated Press report by John Rogers at US News on the museum’s 2016 expansion.

“The Autry Museum of the American West [is expanding] to include a garden of native Western flora, as well as new galleries showcasing hundreds of Native American works, some from present day, others centuries old, many never seen publicly.

“The expansion, named California Continued, adds 20,000 square feet of gallery and garden space to the museum that, with its red-tiled courtyard and distinctive beige bell tower, evokes images of an 18th century, Spanish-styled California mission . …

“Museum officials say visitors will now see one of the largest collections of Native American artifacts found anywhere. Also included will be more than 70 plants native to California — many medicinal and some endangered — as well as new displays that include Western mixed-media paintings and interactive works showing such sights as California from the highest point in the continental United States (Mount Whitney in the state’s midsection) to its lowest (Death Valley on the Nevada border).

“Because it’s the Autry Museum, visitors also will still see such venerable Hollywood artifacts as the Singin’ Cowboy’s Martin guitar, TV Lone Ranger Clayton Moore’s mask and a wealth of silent cowboy star Tom Mix memorabilia. …

“[Autry] died at age 91 in 1998, just a few years before … its 2003 merger with Los Angeles’ Southwest Museum of the American Indian. …

” ‘This collection that is now in the Autry Museum is a native collection of the very same rank, and in some quarters even better, than the Smithsonian’s,’ said [the museum’s president, W. Richard West Jr.,] who was founding director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian.

“Some of the best of the collection on display is contained in the exhibition ‘The Life and Work of Mabel McKay,’ a Pomo Indian basket weaver, healer, civil rights activist and person believed to be the last speaker of her tribal language when she died in 1993. Her intricately woven, often colorful baskets are accompanied by a recreation of her workroom, narration by her son and other works. …

“The garden contains native plants that caretaker Nicholas Hummingbird hopes will make people realize there is more to Western flora than cactus and sagebrush.”

More at US News, here.

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Photo: Colombia Games
A scene from the ‘Ancient Wisdom’ smartphone games, which allow players to learn about Colombia’s indigenous peoples.

As we have discussed before, there are many cultures and languages in danger of dying out, often because few people know about them.

A Colombian game company has taken a step toward addressing that ignorance, providing school children with entertaining phone games to help them learn about their indigenous neighbors.

Joe Parkin Daniels writes for the Guardian, “In a simple wooden hut on a Caribbean beach, a young girl sits at the feet of her grandmother, who is crocheting a brightly coloured shoulder bag whose intricate design draws on the mythology of the Wayuu people.

“It’s the opening scene from a smartphone game that seeks to educate Colombian children about their country’s endangered indigenous cultures.

“Some 3.4% of the Colombia’s population belongs to 87 different indigenous groups that speak 71 languages. But experts warn that these diverse cultures are at risk of dying out, threatened by climate change and violent armed groups operating in isolated regions the state has not reached. The National Indigenous Organisation of Colombia (Onic) estimates that 35 ethnic groups are at risk. …

“The games, available for iOS and Android devices, challenge players to learn the languages and cultures of the country’s indigenous groups, which vary from farming communities in the northern Darién jungle to nomadic hunter-gatherers in the Amazon. …

“The games narrate indigenous creation stories, and players must solve puzzles and draw the wild animals that populate indigenous myths.

“ ‘From one day to another these cultures could be lost,’ said Juan Nates, the CEO of Colombia Games, which recently relaunched the games. ‘When we started this project, I assumed there were three or four indigenous tribes; it was a shock to know how many there are – and how little we know about them.’

“The project was funded by the Sura Foundation, an educational subsidiary of the Sura banking group. The Sura Foundation has also sent about 200 teachers to schools to educate children about endangered cultures. …

“For Nates, raising awareness is key to preserving at-risk indigenous cultures. ‘People can’t worry about something, can’t do something, if they don’t know about it,’ he said. ‘It feels good to help with that.’ ”

Unfortunately, native children themselves usually don’t have smartphones, so it seems like the next step for a kindly philanthropist or foundation would be to get them some to use in school. (Can’t imagine anyone wants children looking at phones more than that.) And it would be nice if the different groups of kids could actually meet.

But what a good start! I’d love to see a game like this in parts of the US where there are large indigenous populations.

Finally, I don’t want to close without giving a shout-out to the Tomaquag Museum, which works to improve New Englanders’ knowledge of Rhode Island tribal culture through educational activities for children.

More at the Guardian, here.

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