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The Americas 61.2 (2004) 283-284



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The Politics of Ethnicity: Indigenous Peoples in Latin American States. By David Maybury-Lewis. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003. Pp. xxii, 386. Notes. Index. $24.95 paper.

This volume is a collection of anthropological essays about recent indigenous movements and government responses in Latin America. Originally presented in 2000 at a conference on indigenous peoples in Latin America, these timely essays help explain the contradictory process by which recent indigenous uprisings have drawn so much attention on the international stage, while concurrently enjoying so few improvements within their respective nation states. As a reflection of the cutting edge of scholarly approaches to its field, this collection will become an important teaching tool for anthropological and historical courses specifically focused on indigenous resistance and a comprehensive complementary source to Latin American studies in general.

In many Latin American countries, the last two decades have seen indigenous uprisings and organizational movements that reflect responses to deteriorating living conditions, the theft of lands, and continued threats to the environment, health, education, and cultural traditions. For example, in 2000 indigenous peoples in Ecuador allied themselves with young army colonels, besieged the national Congress in Quito and pushed forward their goal of a plurinational state. Indigenous communities caught in the drug and guerrilla crossfire in embattled Colombia likewise discovered the strength of their united political voice by forming alliances with opposition forces; working together, for the first time indigenous cabildos gained recognition of their ethnic and cultural diversity in the 1992 Colombian constitution. In Panama, James Howe shows how Kuna leaders formed alliances with national political parties, voluntary organizations and the Congress to protect Kuna resources and comarcas.

Despite superficial gains in national legislation, however, indigenous people across the continent have not made significant improvements. In Paraguay, as Richard Reed demonstrates, the Guaraní actually lost power and influence when they traded protection from traditional caudillos for interaction in participatory politics. Moreover, as contributor Bret Gustavson makes clear, these "movements do not represent any uniform response to neoliberalism as a set of governing logics. . ." (p. 293). Rather, the essays show indigenous movements and leaders collectively to be "sophisticated, multi-layered actors simultaneously engaging an array of international, national and regional processes" (Ibid.). Taken together, the contributors [End Page 283] demystify these movements by cutting through abstract theory and thus showing the native struggles for what they are: savvy collective efforts by victims of cutthroat politics struggling to stay alive in competitive environments ruled by oppressive nation states and their elite supporters.

If neoliberal economics and politics have pushed indigenous peoples to the edge, at the same time native groups have altered their countries in dialectical fashion. These essays definitively prove the collective failure of corrupt and ineffective indigenista efforts by the state. Only in the last decade, and in response to indigenous organization and international pressures, have most Latin American states revised their constitutions to make them more politically correct. Hence, Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Mexico and Paraguay are among those nations that legally proclaimed themselves multiethnic and in the process have granted token measures of "recognition" to their mobilized indigenous populations. Even in the midst of its ongoing civil war, the Colombian state promised to consult indigenous peoples before using their natural resources in order to determine the potential impact on their communities.

While still struggling to improve their situations, this volume shows that indigenous peoples throughout Latin America have successfully forced their way into national dialogues. Far from assuming passive roles, indigenous peoples have recovered their voices and intend to make them loudly heard. From the recent demonstrations in Mexico, Ecuador, and Panama to the vice presidential election of Aymara leader Victor Hugo Cárdenas in Bolivia between 1993 and 1997, indigenous peoples have proven that they are here to stay and that they intend to continue making their distinctive presence felt on a continent that once belonged to them.

Appalachian State University
Boone, North Carolina


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Additional Information

ISSN
1533-6247
Print ISSN
0003-1615
Pages
pp. 283-284
Launched on MUSE
2004-10-29
Open Access
No
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