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Acts of healing

By Ashish Kothari

In the heart of Washington DC is an official museum that is brutally honest about the genocide that the white man wrought on the native Americans five centuries ago. When will India begin to provide a more balanced view of the history, culture and current status of its indigenous people?

“Baker’s massacre was a psychological and physical blow. It is still relevant to the Blackfeet because it has never been brought to closure. The government refuses to acknowledge what happened.”

National Museum of the American Indian

The words took me by surprise. I was in an official museum in the heart of Washington DC, and here was signage pointing an unequivocally damning finger at the United States government. It spoke of a little-known incident during the expansion of the ‘white man’ into the homelands of the native American tribes, in which soldiers ambushed a camp of sleeping members of the Blackfeet tribe and killed 173 of them, mostly women and children. It was one of very many shameful incidents in the ‘discovery’ of America by settlers from Europe, five centuries ago.

It got me thinking: is there any museum in New Delhi that even begins to acknowledge what settlers have done to the native populations of the Indian subcontinent? None that I can think of. Nothing that speaks of the way in which indigenous peoples (‘tribals’ we call them, for we don’t even want to acknowledge the term ‘indigenous’) have been pushed into marginal lands through centuries of expansion by dominant non-tribal communities, and then increasingly displaced from even these lands in the name of ‘development’ and ‘conservation’.

The Baker Massacre story was one of the exhibits of the extraordinary National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI). The NMAI is part of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, and has been established by an Act of the American Congress. Designed by native American architects and landscape designers, what immediately strikes the visitor is the sensitivity with which its theme has been treated. Even while showcasing the incredible histories, crafts, technologies, foods, and cultures of the indigenous peoples of North, Central and South America, it does not romanticise them, nor is it patronising. It is brutally truthful about the genocide that the white man wrought on them, recounting for instance that nine out of every 10 natives were wiped out by disease and war brought by the European settlers. It is uncompromising on the horrendous way in which they were herded into smaller and smaller reservations, and almost every promise of leaving them alone in sufficiently large territories was broken by the white Americans. And it does not hide the internal contradictions that these tribes are now living, their younger generations caught between tradition and modernity, their economic desperation driving them into starting businesses like casinos. Each of the exhibits has been conceived of by or with people from the relevant tribes, and is a mix of the sensitivity and innovation this brings along with the latest in display technologies. Even the museum restaurant is unique, in that it serves a variety of native American foods (including traditional drinks) rather than the standard bagels and burgers one would find in other such places.

I asked one of the guides what the native Americans themselves thought of this Museum. He said all the people he has spoken to from different tribes, including his own, accept the legitimacy of the Museum and its message. In the past they have hated museums for distorting their image, for stealing their artefacts, for profaning their sacredness. But this one they seemed okay with. Indeed the Museum has also helped spearhead a legislation to return elements of sacred value to the tribes (eg those taken from burial grounds), that have in the past been stored in various museums and displays.

On the day I was visiting, there were many groups of excitable schoolchildren being taken around, and given talks by the museum’s guides (many of them also native Americans). I could not help thinking, at least some of these kids are going to grow up understanding their native co-Americans much better, and hopefully being more sensitive about the way in which generations of their less fortunate native counterparts had their future stolen.

Which brings me back to India. Museums or other official institutions of public education, even school textbooks, continue to portray the country’s adivasis with a nice rosy tint: their ‘exotic’ cultures, their clothes and dance and music, and occasionally their technologies and knowledge. Most of them talk of the efforts to bring adivasis into the ‘mainstream’, never mind the erasure of identity and cultural disruption this may have meant. None, as far as I know, narrate the sorry tale of displacement and dispossession that is so widespread, or the even sorrier tale of genocide that some tribes have faced. I may be mistaken, perhaps there are one or two museums or textbooks that do this….but the general reality is one of a thoroughly lopsided portrayal. As a result, entire generations of ‘educated’ non-adivasi children….and ironically even many adivasi children studying in schools run by outsiders….are growing up with very distorted and incomplete views of the adivasi story.

One museum and a few textbooks, however extraordinarily sensitive, are of course not going to be an adequate act of healing. The Australian and Canadian governments publicly apologised to their native populations, both in 2008; in the US there is reportedly a bill being formulated for the same. The South African government has taken forward a brave land restitution programme to give back territories to communities who were dispossessed in the apartheid era. None of these countries are yet to restitute, anywhere near fully, the lands and resources stolen from their indigenous populations. But all of these, and many South American ones, have started serious programmes of healing that include recognition of territories, granting of relative autonomy over decision-making, and other such measures. These include honest museums such as the NMAI and another that I saw last year, at Yellowstone National Park, which finally records the sorry story of how native Americans were hounded out of the area around the time of the creation of the Park. They also include some radical livelihood restoration plans, such as the dismantling of two dams in Maine to revive the river and fisheries which once formed the lifeline of the Penobscot tribe (see Several Amazonian countries have recognised massive indigenous territories and in some cases guaranteed complete isolation from any external contact where requested by the tribe.

In India, we are going in the opposite direction. Explicit safeguards to protect tribal environment and cultures, guaranteed by the Indian Constitution, are being dismantled and tribal territories being opened up for mining, tourism, industries, and other megaprojects. The Orissa government has repeatedly violated both national and international norms and policies relating to indigenous or tribal peoples, in giving permission to companies like Vedanta and POSCO to initiate mining, industrial, and other activities. Chhattisgarh, created after years of adivasi struggle to form an independent state with an adivasi identity, is betraying this movement by opening up Bastar and other areas to industrial incursions, including a massive Tata steel plant. Across north-east India, sparsely populated tribal populations amidst some of the country’s most biologically rich areas, are threatened by several dozen proposed hydroelectricity dams. Even conservation projects, obviously well-intended for protecting India’s beleaguered wildlife, continue to dispossess adivasis of traditional livelihoods and homes.

Severe crises of livelihoods, identity, and culture are following adivasi populations across India….60 years after independence and the formulation of explicit legal guarantees for their protection.

Amidst this sorry tale there are some slivers of hope. Resistance amongst adivasis, against development and conservation projects that threaten to dispossess and displace them, has been steadily growing.

Some policy initiatives (very much against the grain of general

governance) such as the Right to Information Act, the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers Act, and the Employment Guarantee Act, provide tools for adivasis to empower themselves, though implementation of all is expectedly patchy. Exceptional governmental officials who have worked with and for adivasis also offer elements of hope.

The Forest Rights Act in its preamble explicitly recognises past injustices to forest-dwellers. This is certainly a step forward.

However, it will take much more than one legislation in an important but limited sphere, to start the process of healing. Implementation of constitutional guarantees protecting adivasis and adivasi lands from external incursions, facilitating their self-defined governance and development, respectfully involving them and their knowledge in conservation processes, and other such steps are urgently needed.

Obviously, easier said than done. But perhaps a simple yet potentially powerful first step could be to provide a more balanced view of adivasi history, culture, and current status in all official forums of public education, including museums, textbooks, and media. The US, despite its horrific past and present, has started doing this, why can’t India?

Infochange News & Features, January 2009