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Native Policy

Comparisons With Indian Policy In The United States

Comparing the history of Indian policy in Latin America versus that history in the United States is instructive, particularly with respect to the issue of cultural assimilation of Indian peoples through mestizaje. Mestizaje as an intrinsic part of Latin American state policy profoundly departs from Indian policies in the United States, as elucidated by Les Field and Circe Sturm. In North America, treaty-making between indigenous peoples that began with the British colonial regime and continued under successive U.S. administrations in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries ultimately created a category of officially acknowledged Indian people, the "federally recognized Indian tribe."

While the federal government has since the 1880s on at least three occasions attempted to disengage from the premise of federal recognition, which more or less accepts the indefinite existence of Indian peoples, these attempts have so far failed to put an end to this officialized status. Federally recognized tribes hold onto a sharply circumscribed, but nevertheless always potentially valuable, set of properties, that is, Indian reservations; furthermore, recognized tribes are authorized to make claims upon various parts of the U.S. federal bureaucracy. Indians who do not live on reservations but are members of recognized tribes can return to their designated reservations and make claims to resources. Even in urban areas, Indians from federally recognized tribes still maintain access to certain federally funded services, such as health and education. These resources are substandard in the estimation of Indians and non-Indians alike, and in no way compensate for the loss of immense territories, not to mention economic and political liberty. For this reason, Indian identities in the United States are closely policed by both federal and tribal authorities; tribal membership is substantiated via genealogy, or blood quantum, and the policies of both the tribes (acting as semiautonomous internal state forms) and the federal bureaucracy are obsessed with counting Indians and allocating resources.

Compared with the United States, state policy in Latin America is much less concerned with policing Indian identities for three reasons. First, whatever rights accrue to being Indian in Latin America are minimal, and wherever such rights exist, they depend upon residence in demarcated Indian communities. Second, popular genealogical theories in Latin America, that is, theories of "blood," encourage mestizaje as a means toward social mobility, rather than serving as legitimation for Indian identities as in the United States. Finally, nationalist ideologies in Latin America profoundly stigmatize Indianness, associating it with poverty, ignorance, backwardness, and powerlessness. In the last regard, nationalism in the United States, and state policy over the last two centuries, do concur with state policies in Latin America. Yet without the history of treaties, reservations, and federal recognition that exists in the United States, which with all of its problems still provides a basis for both establishing and maintaining Indian identities, Latin American mestizaje has acted as a powerful ideological force aiding and abetting state policies aimed at disenfranchising and disarticulating Indian societies and cultures. Indeed, the struggles of indigenous movements to reconfigure nation-states in Latin America discussed above are aimed precisely at creating political and economic structures that will support the survival of Indian peoples into the future.


The year 1992 marked the 500th anniversary of Columbus's fateful voyage that initiated the destruction of indigenous civilizations and the rise of nation-states dominated by elites of European descent. Pan-hemispheric organizing among Indian peoples mixed resistance to the plans by many countries in both North and Latin America to treat the anniversary as a cause for celebration, as well as an opportunity to express demands for profound changes in the relationship between Indian and national identities. Ecuador's indigenous confederation, CONAIE, which brings together diverse peoples from the Pacific coastal region, the Andean region, and the Amazon, formulated its demands during a series of uprisings in 1990, 1992, and 1994 (for a full description of the formation and politics of CONAIE, see CONAIE). CONAIE leaders called for a new kind of nation-state—el estado plurinacional—in which Indian identities would become by definition central to the nation, and for state policies explicitly intended to build the economic infrastructure for technologically advanced and politically autonomous Indian communities.

Such demands are mirrored in the post-1992 pan-Mayan movement in Guatemala described by Kay Warren. Similarly, since the beginning of Mexico's Zapatista uprising in 1994, many anthropologists have been concerned to show this movement as both indigenous and national in scope. The economic and political goals enunciated by these indigenous movements in some ways resembled but in other ways markedly diverged from the objectives of the Latin American left in the 1990s. The differences manifested in anthropological analyses as well, with some anthropologists deciding to act as advocates for Indian movements, while others critiqued the Indian movements from Marxist or neo-Marxist perspectives (see, for example, the critical analysis in Alcida Rita Ramos's Indigenism [1998]). One area of future anthropological research will likely focus upon what happens when Indian movements in Ecuador, Mexico, Guatemala, and elsewhere achieve even some of their political and economic goals. Will finding a political and economic place in reconfigured Latin American nation-states exacerbate class differentiation and inequalities within and among Indian communities? How will new state policies affect such outcomes?

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