A Bunch of Indians!

By: Catalina Ruiz-Navarro
Originally published in El Espectador on July 18, 2012

“Muchos Indios” (lit: “Many Indians”) is how a website recently titled a news piece about how the indigenous guard threw the National Army out of their territory in Cauca, Colombia.
In Colombia, the colloquial expression “Indian” is used as an insult, while “White” is a compliment. To be “Indian” is to be ugly, savage, invisible, exotic; indigenous communities are valued only by tourists – always and only when in traditional dress.

The Nasa (Páez) people have every reason to be furious with a government that has never provided them social guarantees and whose presence in their lands has been, if anything, military. It’s only natural that these communities have little faith in an army that would rather protect a few cell phone towers before they would protect them. They ought to feel excluded when Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos hosts a Government Council meeting in their territory and doesn’t invite them. They owe little to a state that neglects their interests and would rather behave like an excited dog, wagging its tail enthusiastically, to appease the desires of multinational corporations that exploit our resources in the name of that all too frequently heard euphemism: “investment.”

Given the above, it’s probably natural that the Nasa would want to expel both the army and the guerrilla from their lands, even if that means through force. In no way is the aggression* justified, but the subsequent expulsions serve to explain and question the intentions of the state, which ought not be there to control them but to repair the damage and seek to regain the confidence of a community it has left behind.

Instead, so that nobody could call him a coward, Juan Manuel Santos said via Twitter yesterday morning: “We’re going to Vichada and then to Cauca. I don’t want to see a single indigenous person in the military bases.” Did it ever occur to the President that many, if not all, of the soldiers in the Colombian Army likely have at least some measure of indigenous ancestry? Would it have occurred to him that his order might mean the near complete abandonment of the bases? His tweet makes clear why the Nasa people are so screwed: because they are others, a mass of people outside and below the landscape of the majority of Colombians, whose racism and ignorance mean they are hardly recognized. Some people, with better intentions though equally racist, believe that members of the indigenous communities are like ancient spirits walking hand-in-hand with nature. But from neither perspective are the Nasa considered Colombian, and for this the Colombian army is considered “us,” and the tears of a soldier expelled from his post elicit patriotism. Meanwhile, the murder of an indigenous person is considered collateral damage.
It turns out, however, that the Nasa are “us,” and each one of them that dies, be it at the hands of the armed actors or the neglect of the state, is also a Colombian. Similarly, we often forget that the guerrilla fighters are also ours, Colombians living in this country, and not a nameless mass of pests that must be exterminated.

La Silla Vacía reports that, yesterday, one Nasa man who had had enough of the events in Toribío was murdered in Caldono, at a military checkpoint in Laguna Siberia, Cauca. The soldiers ordered him to stop, and because he didn’t listen, they opened fire. That’s how this racist discourse costs lives and makes us forget that every indigenous person is an individual, and every individual in Colombia is indigenous. The Government only reinforces that problematic imagery by believing it can resolve problems exercising its monopoly on the use of force and not by taking the opportunity to develop a sincere policy that actually makes sense and is in line with the pluralist and multicultural principles of the Colombia Constitution, an approach that listens to local voices and doesn’t confuse civil society with actors in the conflict.

The war in Colombia will never be resolved by thinking in dichotomies. It’s not the army against the guerrilla, the guerrilla against the indigenous, or the indigenous against the army: it’s us Colombians against each other, and yes, we’re a bunch of Indians because the Indians are all of us.

* Trans. Note: To characterize the Nasa’s expulsion of the armed actors without using arms as “aggression,” should not imply comparison to the aggression faced by the communities owing to the daily occurrence of armed combat in their territories between the FARC and the Colombian Army.

Translated from Spanish by Pueblos en Camino (en-camino.org for english, pueblosencamino.org en espanol)