For indigenous and tribal peoples all over the world, the end of this millennium seems to represent something of a historical crossroads. There is no longer an "outside" to the world economic system; there will be no more first contacts or first encounters--those ended in this century. Peoples are experiencing an accelerated penetration now as population growth and a new wave of capitalist expansion bring new pressures to bear on space, ecology, resources, with an intensified ruthlessness and aggression. Many tribal and indigenous peoples find themselves more vulnerable now than they were twenty-five years ago.
At the same time, in the communications revolution indigenous and tribal peoples have found new ways to claim agency in these processes, to assert their demands and aspirations, insert their values and worldviews into dialogues and negotiations, and to bring themselves together in pursuit of common interests. For instance, the Declaracion de Quito, published in 1991, is one of the first documents produced in this century by a coalition of indigenous peoples from across the Hemisphere. That document was the result of a convention of indigenous leaders held in connection with the 1992 quincentennial. Colombia in the early 1990s passed a new constitution in which the rights of indigenous peoples were recognized for the first time and in which indigenous representation in the houses of government was guaranteed. In Canada's debates over sovereignty, indigenous rights have played a new and central role in determining outcomes, as the country accepts the fact that no solution to its constitutional problems will be legitimate without the consent of the large indigenous minority. Out of Guatemala's holocaust in the 1970s and 1980s has emerged a network of Maya intellectuals who are pursuing a cultural and epistemological project that is quite remarkable and unique. Bolivia elected its first indigenous vice president, who inspired and created space for powerful cultural and political expressions. The third international congress of indigenous peoples held in 1995 was attended by delegations from Australia, New Zealand, Scandinavia, Hawaii, and the Americas. And of course by e-mail and fax the Zapatista movement in Chiapas has spread around the world a quite powerful and fascinating critique not only of local circumstances but in a broader way of Mexico and global capitalism itself.
What peoples are straggling for now, as indeed in the earlier periods, is not the hope of remaining in pristine otherness. That is a Western fantasy that gets projected on indigenous people all the time. Rather, people are very clear that they are struggling for self-determination, that is, significant control over the terms and conditions under which they will develop their relations with the nation-state, the global economy, the communication revolution, expansionist Christianity, and other historical processes.
For peoples and communities engaged in such struggles and negotiations, the commonplace Western idea of culture as "the icing on the cake" is usually incomprehensible. Westerners have tended to work with an idea that culture is what develops after a group has secured subsistence. It is defined as that which exists above and beyond "mere survival." But for contemporary indigenous peoples, an opposition between culture and survival makes little sense. Culture--language, religion, cosmology, everyday lifeways, historical vision, concepts of education, knowledge, wisdom, relationships with land, space, place, seas, skies, plants, and animals, ethics of production and consumption--these things are at the heart of what is at stake in survival. Culture is survival, and survival is not "mere." It is what is happening, what one is doing in the course of living. Separations of base and superstructure, or the economic versus the social often make no sense from indigenous perspectives.
This experience of culture as survival is a product of the apocalyptic and genocidal history that indigenous peoples have lived in the modern world. On the one hand, it is the task of culture to give meaning to this apocalyptic history; on the other, this history is the context within which groups must seek to reproduce themselves and their humanity. This is why what culture critic Jean Franco has called "the struggle for interpretive power" can be for indigenous peoples a matter of life and death. It is interesting that some metropolitan intellectuals are beginning to see that this coarticulation of culture and survival is true of their own societies as well. How easily they (we) then forget the role indigenous peoples have played in conveying that message to us!
The term "contact zones" refers to the places where cultures from disparate historical trajectories come into contact with each other. They are often the result of invasion and violence, resulting in social formations based on radical inequalities. In such areas, from an indigenous perspective, being the "other" of a dominant culture involves living in a bifurcated universe of meaning. On the one hand, one must produce oneself as a self for oneself. That is survival. At the same time the system also requires that you produce yourself as an "other" for the colonizer. This is an old story in the Americas, this bifurcated universe where the subordinated "other" has to produce itself as a Self and also as an Other. This is the legacy with which indigenous intellectuals and activists grapple today, whether they are Maya thinkers, Zapatista communicators, Aymara filmmakers in Bolivia, or native ethnographers in Canada.
Let us add some historical depth to this question of struggles over interpretive power in the contact zones of the Americas. The year is 1562, some thirty years after Pizarro's landing in Cajamarca, and ten years before the fall of the last dynastic Inca, Tupac Amaru. The text is a petition addressed to the Spanish crown by a group of several hundred Andean indigenous leaders gathered for this purpose. There is a sentence in this document, which in Spanish reads:
Que se nos guarden nuestras buenas costumbres y leyes que entre nosotros ha habiclo y hay, justas para nuestro gobierno y justicia y otras cosas que...