From World Cup to Washington, indigenous people fight to be heard

June 27, 2014
Jeguaka Mirim, from the Guarani tribe, with the banner he displayed at the World Cup opening ceremoony.

A 13-year-old boy from Brazil’s Guarani tribe makes a political stand in front of 70,000 football fans and what he thinks is an international audience. A movement led by indigenous women in the United States beats a billion-dollar brand of the big, bad NFL.

These two stories share more than the fact that they took place during the same week. They share the ways that people in power have sought to combat their courage by trying to render them invisible.

They both demonstrate how an indigenous person can be on the highest possible cultural platform and their presence can still be denied.

Before the opening game of the World Cup, FIFA, the group that oversees international football, thought it would be a good idea to have three Brazilian children each release a “dove of peace”. One of those children was a 13-year-old from the Guarani tribe, Jeguaka Mirim.

The Guarani are Brazil’s largest tribal group. They have been subject to large-scale violence by ranchers who occupy their land for cattle and sugar production.

Forcibly herded onto reservations where disease and malnutrition are rife, their situation may be getting worse. The ruling Workers Party is trying to take away more of their land, leading to violent confrontations on the eve of the World Cup.

The effects on the tribe are brutal. They suffer poverty, high infant mortality and in the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso do Sul, the highest suicide rate on earth.

So after releasing the dove, Mirim unfurled a banner that read, “Demarcação” or “Demarcation Now!” This is the highly charged slogan used by indigenous groups trying to retain land rights.

Mirim’s father, Olivio Jekupe, said the action “showed the world that we are not standing still … My son showed the world what we need the most: the demarcation of our lands.”

There was only one problem, however, with this brave display; the cameras quickly cut away. His actions went undiscussed by broadcasters and analysts on the scene.

They also met with a series of non-comments by FIFA as to who made the decision to cut the cameras. Whoever was responsible for censoring Mirim, the end result was that the only politics FIFA allowed to be displayed was the banality of doves.

There is a similar dynamic happening in Washington DC, where a federal trademark court made legal what was obvious: that the NFL club Washington Redskins' name is racist as all hell.

The team now has no trademark protection because the name, the court ruled, “disparages” an entire group of people. This effort to recognise the moral bankruptcy of the name has been led by powerful indigenous women such as Suzan Harjo, Jacqueline Keeler and the person whose name was on the trademark lawsuit, Amanda Blackhorse.

It is a movement that stretches back decades. But in recent years, the tribal councils of the Oneida Nation, the Seminole Nation, the Choctaw Nation, and the oldest Native American civil rights group the National Congress of American Indians have all called on the team to change the name.

A commercial funded by the Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation that aired during the NBA Finals has been viewed on YouTube more than 3 million times.

And yet, the response to the victory by DC sports radio host Steve Czaban was that this was really a win for “guilt-ridden white liberal sportswriters”.

Czaban said: “Go ahead, dance around and do whatever it does that assuages your white liberal guilt, but nothing has changed … Maybe we can get therapy for [them], chip in, get to the core of their guilt and understand what is it that’s nagging you.”

In response to Czaban, the NCAI said the comments “represent a sadly typical attempt to dehumanize Native Americans by pretending we do not exist”.

“In this case, Mr. Cooley insultingly pretends that the Native American groups representing hundreds of thousands of Native Americans haven’t been leading the fight to end the Washington team’s use of a racial slur.”

One has to wonder if the Czabans of the world realise how racist it comes off to willingly ignore the very existence of those who have been “leading the fight”.

This gets to the heart of the connection between Brazil and the US ― two nations who share a horrific history in their treatment of indigenous people.

The battle by indigenous groups across the hemisphere is for land, recognition, respect and, most of all, their own humanity. It is an unassailable argument.

Their opponents increasingly realise they have lost the debate, so they are reduced to pretending their opponents do not exist. But by branding indigenous people invisible, they have provided the most damning evidence of the persistence of anti-indigenous racism and the power of a new hemispheric-wide movement for indigenous rights.

[Reprinted from The Nation, where Dave Zirin is maintaining a blog from the World Cup in Brazil.]

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