Awakening collective vision – an alternative telling of America’s story


Across North and South America, indigenous peoples are making their voices heard.

By: Luke Disney

Indigenous peoples of North and South America have sought recognition of their identities, ways of life and their right to traditional lands, territories and natural resources for years, yet throughout history, their rights have been violated. However, in recent decades, indigenous peoples have strengthened their resilience on all fronts, increased their capacity to advocate for their demands and to lead a global wake-up call to respect and abide by indigenous traditional knowledge and worldviews. Around the world, indigenous leaders and activists have taken on unprecedented agency and prominence, leading movements to protect their cultures, lands and rights from hegemonic forces.

Having seen their numbers drop from 100 million to just 4.5 million 150 years after Columbus’s arrival, there are now an estimated 49 million indigenous people spread across the two continents, and their numbers are growing. In 2010, there were an estimated 42 million indigenous people in South America, making up nearly 8% of the total population. Mexico, Guatemala, Peru, and Bolivia had the largest populations, with more than 80% of the regional total, or 34 million. In the United States, an estimated 5.6 million people identify as Native American or Alaska Native, either alone or in combination with another ethnic identity. In Canada, indigenous people are collectively known as Aboriginals. In 2016, there were 1.67 million Aboriginal people in Canada, accounting for 4.9% of the total population. This was up from 3.8% in 2006 and 2.8% in 1996.

Indigenous peoples growing presence in North and South American politics is arguably the greatest sign of their resurgence. Indigenous political parties are increasingly shaping national politics and making their voices heard. In Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, and Guatemala, indigenous parties have launched presidential campaigns and in a host of other Latin American countries indigenous parties have competed in legislative or municipal elections.

In Bolivia, the Movement Towards Socialism (MAS), which represents most of the country’s close to six million indigenous people – more than 50% of the country’s total population – saw its share of the vote rise from 3% in 1997 to 21% in 2002, with its leader Evo Morales finishing second in the race for the presidency. In 2005, Morales won more than 53% of the vote, becoming the first president from Bolivia’s indigenous population and the first president to have emerged from the country’s social movements. Morales will soon have been the President of Bolivia for 13 years, heralding the ascent of the indigenous social movements to governmental power.

There are an estimated 1.1 million indigenous people living in Ecuador, 24.1% of  which live in the Amazon. During the past decade, indigenous organizations in Ecuador have become increasingly critical of government policies on water rights and exploitation of natural resources. For its size, Ecuador is the most biodiverse country on Earth: with over 5,490 species of mammals, countless birds, and abundantly lush regions that range from tropical to wetland, there is much to protect. Research has shown a correlation between support for indigenous peoples to maintain their way of life and preserving the biodiversity of sensitive areas. In the new 2008 constitution, the rights of indigenous people, montubio, were recognized, including their right to maintain their languages, customs, and traditional land. Pacha Mama, or Mother Earth, is given rights by name, such as protection from the endangerment of native species, restriction of invasive species, and a promise to restore damaged land to its original state. This is crucial because the Amazon is the world’s greatest oxygen supplier and carbon sink, with more than half of the world’s above-ground carbon in its trees.

Elsewhere indigenous peoples are on the verge of making political and environmental breakthroughs. In 1999, Indigenous Venezuelans established political representation for the first time thanks to the introduction of a new constitution. The country now celebrates October 12 as ‘the day of Indigenous resistance.’ In Columbia, the indigenous communities that depend on the Amazon rainforest for their survival will have more say over their ancestral lands, as Colombia adds 8 million hectares to its protected areas in an effort to stem forest loss. The new measures announced by Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos aim to create a buffer zone for the country’s southern Amazon region.

Photo Courtesy of Amazon Watch


The emergence of indigenous parties has led other parties to undertake greater efforts to seek support of indigenous voters. Political parties of all stripes have recruited indigenous candidates, sought the support of indigenous organizations and leaders, and adopted some traditional indigenous demands, like support for agrarian reform and bilingual education. Latin American democracies have become more inclusive and multicultural, and in the long term this may be the most important legacy of indigenous parties in the region.

Progress is being made in the northern hemisphere as well. In 2005, The Dogrib First Nation in Canada signed the Tli Cho treaty with the Canadian government. Under the terms of the agreement, the Dogrib will gain control of 39,000 square kilometers (an area roughly the size of Switzerland) of their ancestral lands. They will have exclusive ownership of all natural resources (which includes Canada’s two diamond mines) and significant control over their development. The historical treaty also includes unique self-government provisions for the 3,000 Dogrib.

In an address to the UN General Assembly, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said that “Canada remains a work in progress,” pointing to the struggles Indigenous peoples have faced from the times of colonialism through today. He emphasized the government’s responsibility to improve that relationship, saying the world has a similar duty to respond to global challenges, such as inequality. “We can’t build a better world unless we work together, respect our differences, protect the vulnerable, and stand up for the things that matter most,” Mr. Trudeau said.

Photo courtesy of the Assembly of the First Nations


The growing political power of indigenous peoples makes it increasingly likely that their overlooked traditions will play an important role in righting many of the environmental, spiritual and social imbalances affecting communities and countries on both continents.

At a general level, it is easy to see the positive aspects of the indigenous people’s increased political influence. They are better placed to reform the ‘foreign’ political systems – imposed on them by the European colonists – to better accommodate their own customs and interests.  Indigenous peoples do not have a unifying political ideology. Plans for reform differ from group to group and from culture to culture. However, at a broader level they are united in their rejection of social inequality and the destruction of the environment.

In this respect it is no coincidence that indigenous populations have taken on a pivotal role in the growing anti-globalization movement, which has brought together a wide range of ideologies and interests under the banner of opposition to the current neo-liberal economic order and its proponents. We are experiencing the destructive effects of putting profits ahead of people; something indigenous groups have witnessed for decades. As the masked spokesman for the indigenous Zapatista group in Mexico – pioneers of the anti-globalization movement– put it in his address to the protestors gathered at the latest WTO talks in Cancun, Mexico: “We are the indigenous, the young, the women, the children, the elderly, the homosexuals, the migrants, all those who are different. That is to say, the immense majority of humanity.”

One of the hallmarks of the indigenous worldview is that all life on Earth is intrinsically intertwined, and that humans and nature are linked in reciprocity. As the Earth sustains us, we must sustain the Earth. We live in the world and the world lives in us. In the words of Martin Luther King Jr., we are all interconnected in an ‘inescapable web of mutuality.’

“The indigenous worldview has been marginalized for generations because it was seen as antiquated and unscientific and its ethics of respect for Mother Earth were in conflict with the Industrial worldview bent on treatment of the Earth as if what native people call gifts were nothing more than resources destined for consumption by humans. But now, in this time of climate change and massive loss of biodiversity, we understand that the indigenous worldview is neither unscientific nor antiquated but is, in fact, a source of wisdom that we urgently need.”

-Robin Wall Kimmerer, PhD at the Fifth Annual Conference at the United Nations in 2015.

Let us re-evaluate the worldview that we are the superior sentient master species on Earth and, instead, establish a relation and kinship with nature and spirit. There is accelerating momentum of the transition already in progress, in acts large and small, as humans reclaim an ancient way of knowing in which human life is aligned with ecological processes, not against them.

Each year, more cities, states, and universities are opting out of Columbus Day—a holiday marking the Italian explorer’s so called “discovery” of the Americas 526 years ago—in favor of Indigenous Peoples Day, which offers a more honest take on America’s origin story and refocuses our attention on the wisdom and holistic thinking that is central to many indigenous cultures.  If, by renaming the day off that we have every October, more people are made aware of the accomplishments of Native Americans, the cost that Native Americans have paid as the United States has grown, and the challenges indigenous people still face today, then that might increase the likelihood of positive change for our indigenous population and our world.

States, cities, counties, and universities that celebrate Indigenous Peoples Day in the United States, in alphabetical order:

The state of Alaska
University of Alaska Fairbanks

Phoenix, Arizona

Berkeley (First to adopt, 1992)
Santa Cruz
San Fernando
Long Beach
Los Angeles
San Luis Obispo
San Francisco


West Hartford

South Fulton


Oak Park

Iowa City
Johnson County





Traverse City
Ann Arbor
East Lansing

The state of Minnesota
Grand Rapids
St. Paul
Minnesota State University
Grand Marais and Cook County


New Hampshire

New Mexico
Santa Fe

New York
Village of Lewiston
Tompkins County
Cornell University
Syracuse University

North Carolina

North Dakota




Rhode Island
Brown University

South Dakota
The state of South Dakota


Bexar County

Salt Lake City

The state of Vermont

Bainbridge Island

West Virginia
Harpers Ferry


Organizations that are dedicated to protecting indigenous lands and rights:

The Pachamama Alliance
The Pachamama Alliance partners with indigenous people in the Ecuadorian Amazon to advocate for indigenous rights.

Amazon Watch
A non-profit organization founded to protect the Amazon rainforest and advance the rights of indigenous peoples in the Amazon Basin, Amazon Watch focuses on deforestation and global warming.

Rainforest Action Network (RAN)
RAN envisions a world where each generation sustains increasingly healthy forests, where the rights of all communities are respected, and where corporate profits never come at the expense of people or the planet.

Conservation International
Conservation International combines science, policy and fieldwork to help communities, countries and societies protect the Earth’s ecosystems.


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