Can a dying language be saved?

Judith Thurman writes: It is a singular fate to be the last of one’s kind. That is the fate of the men and women, nearly all of them elderly, who are — like Marie Wilcox, of California; Gyani Maiya Sen, of Nepal; Verdena Parker, of Oregon; and Charlie Mungulda, of Australia — the last known speakers of a language: Wukchumni, Kusunda, Hupa, and Amurdag, respectively. But a few years ago, in Chile, I met Joubert Yanten Gomez, who told me he was “the world’s only speaker of Selk’nam.” He was twenty-one.

Yanten Gomez, who uses the tribal name Keyuk, grew up modestly, in Santiago. His father, Blas Yanten, is a woodworker, and his mother, Ivonne Gomez Castro, practices traditional medicine. As a young girl, she was mocked at school for her mestizo looks, so she hesitated to tell her children — Keyuk and an older sister — about their ancestry. They hadn’t known that their maternal relatives descended from the Selk’nam, a nomadic tribe of unknown origin that settled in Tierra del Fuego. The first Europeans to encounter the Selk’nam, in the sixteenth century, were astonished by their height and their hardiness — they braved the frigid climate by coating their bodies with whale fat. The tribe lived mostly undisturbed until the late eighteen-hundreds, when an influx of sheep ranchers and gold prospectors who coveted their land put bounties on their heads. (One hunter boasted that he had received a pound sterling per corpse, redeemable with a pair of ears.) The survivors of the Selk’nam Genocide, as it is called — a population of about four thousand was reduced to some three hundred — were resettled on reservations run by missionaries. The last known fluent speaker of the language, Angela Loij, a laundress and farmer, died forty years ago.

Many children are natural mimics, but Keyuk could imitate speech like a mynah. His father, who is white, had spent part of his childhood in the Arauco region, which is home to the Mapuche, Chile’s largest native community, and he taught Keyuk their language, Mapudungun. The boy, a bookworm and an A student, easily became fluent. A third-grade research project impassioned him about indigenous peoples, and Ivonne, who descends from a line of shamans, took this as a sign that his ancestors were speaking through him. When she told him of their heritage, Keyuk vowed that he would master Selk’nam and also, eventually, Yagán — the nearly extinct language of a neighboring people in the far south — reckoning that he could pass them down to his children and perhaps reseed the languages among the tribes’ descendants. At fourteen, he travelled with his father to Puerto Williams, a town in Chile’s Antarctic province that calls itself “the world’s southernmost city,” to meet Cristina Calderón, the last native Yagán speaker. She subsequently tutored him by phone. [Continue reading…]

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The great acts of vandalism by ISIS are by no means unique

George Monbiot writes: Journalists are meant to be able to watch and read dispassionately: to face horror with equanimity. I have never acquired this skill, and I know I’m not the only one. It’s true that we seek out bad news, but there is some news that many of us find hard to confront.

This is why I write about extinction less often than I should: most of the time I just don’t want to know. It’s one of the reasons why I have turned my gaze away from the Middle East. I’ve been unable to watch, or even to think very much about the bombing of Gaza, the war in Syria or the slaughter of hostages by Isis. But, reluctantly, I’ve forced myself to read about the destruction of the ancient wonders at Nimrud and Hatra.

The war Isis is waging against difference has many fronts. Just as this rebarbative movement is engaged in the ethnic cleansing of the peoples whose lands it has occupied, it is also involved in the cultural cleansing of the pre-Islamic past. Anything that deviates from its narrow strictures must be destroyed.

The magnificent buildings at Nimrud and Hatra and the precious sculptures and friezes they held were, to Isis, nothing more than deviance. Marvels that have persisted for thousands of years were leveled in hours with explosives and bulldozers. These people have inflicted a great wound upon the world.

But while this destruction, as Isis doubtless intends, is shocking, for me it is also familiar. Almost every day, I find in my inbox similar stories of the razing of priceless treasures. But they tend to involve natural marvels, rather than manmade ones.

The clearing of forests and savannas, the trawling or dredging of coral reefs and seamounts and other such daily acts of vandalism deprive the world of the wonders that enhance our lives. A great global polishing is taking place, eliminating difference, leaving behind grey monotonies of the kind that Isis appears to love. But while the destruction of those ancient citadels in northern Iraq has been widely and rightly denounced as a war crime, the levelling of our natural wonders is treated as if it were a sad but necessary fact of life. [Continue reading…]

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Who can become a head of state?

A new Pew Research analysis finds that 30 of the world’s countries (15%) belong to a unique group of nations that call for their heads of state to have a particular religious affiliation. From monarchies to republics, candidates (including descendants of royal monarchies) in these countries must belong to a specific religious group.

This list includes Lebanon, which requires its president to be a member of the Maronite Christian Church. On Wednesday, Lebanon’s parliament will make a ninth attempt since May at filling the office.

More than half of the countries with religion-related restrictions on their heads of state (17) maintain that the office must be held by a Muslim. In Jordan, for example, the heir to the throne must be a Muslim child of Muslim parents. In Tunisia, any Muslim male or female voter born in the country may qualify as a candidate for president. Malaysia, Pakistan and Mauritania also restrict their heads of state to Muslim citizens.

Two countries, Lebanon and Andorra, require their heads of state to have a Christian affiliation. Lebanon also has a religious requirement of its prime minister, who must be a Sunni Muslim.

Two other countries require the heads of their monarchies be Buddhist: Bhutan and Thailand. And one country, Indonesia, requires the official state belief in Pancasila to be upheld by its head of state. Indonesia is a Muslim-majority country; Pancasila is a summation of “common cultural elements” of Indonesia, including belief in God.

A handful of countries do not require a particular religious affiliation for heads of state, but do limit candidates for the office to laypersons. Eight countries, including Bolivia, Mexico and El Salvador, specifically prohibit clergy from running in presidential elections. In Burma (Myanmar), the president is prohibited from being a member of a religious order.

Countries where the head of state is a ceremonial monarch.In addition to the 30 countries in this analysis, another 19 nations have religious requirements for ceremonial monarchs who serve as their heads of state. Sixteen of these, including the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada and New Zealand, are members of the Commonwealth of Nations with Queen Elizabeth II – also known as the Defender of the Faith – as their head of state. The other countries in this category are Denmark, Norway and Sweden.

Before Americans start feeling too smug about the secular traditions of this country, it’s worth being reminded about one of the most irony-laden clauses of the U.S. Constitution: the natural-born-citizen clause.

Only a “natural born” American can become president — a native American, one might say, so long as it was understood this didn’t actually mean a native American.

Only a nation of immigrants invested deeply in an a relentless denial of its own history could fabricate such a contrived definition of what it means to be a real American. “Natural born” is really just another name for xenophobia.

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The invasion of America

Claudio Saunt writes: Between 1776 and the present, the United States seized some 1.5 billion acres from North America’s native peoples, an area 25 times the size of the United Kingdom. Many Americans are only vaguely familiar with the story of how this happened. They perhaps recognise Wounded Knee and the Trail of Tears, but few can recall the details and even fewer think that those events are central to US history.

Their tenuous grasp of the subject is regrettable if unsurprising, given that the conquest of the continent is both essential to understanding the rise of the United States and deplorable. Acre by acre, the dispossession of native peoples made the United States a transcontinental power. To visualise this story, I created ‘The Invasion of America’, an interactive time-lapse map of the nearly 500 cessions that the United States carved out of native lands on its westward march to the shores of the Pacific. [Continue reading…]

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On North Dakota’s tribal lands, oil, corruption, and murder

Deborah Sontag and Brent McDonald report: Tex G. Hall, the three-term tribal chairman on this remote, once impoverished reservation, was the very picture of confidence as he strode to the lectern at his third Annual Bakken Oil and Gas Expo and gazed out over a stuffed, backlit mountain lion.

Tall and imposing beneath his black cowboy hat, he faced an audience of political and industry leaders lured from far and wide to the “Texpo,” as some here called it. It was late April at the 4 Bears Casino, and the outsiders endorsed his strong advocacy for oil development and the way he framed it as mutually beneficial for the industry and the reservation: “sovereignty by the barrel.”

“M.H.A. Nation is No. 1 for tribal oil produced on American soil in the United States right now currently today,” Mr. Hall proudly declared, referring to the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation.

But, in a hall decorated with rigs and tepees, a dice throw from the slot machines, Mr. Hall’s self-assurance belied the fact that his grip on power was slipping. After six years of dizzyingly rapid oil development, anxiety about the environmental and social costs of the boom, as well as about tribal mismanagement and oil-related corruption, had burst to the surface.

By that point, there were two murder cases — one person dead in Spokane, Wash., the other missing but presumed dead in North Dakota — tied to oil business on the reservation. And Mr. Hall, a once-seemingly untouchable leader, was under investigation by his tribal council because of his connections to an Oregon man who would later be charged with murder for hire in the two deaths.

In 2012, the man, James Henrikson, 35, who had five felony convictions in his past, operated a trucking company called Blackstone out of the tribal chairman’s garage. Blackstone worked primarily for the chairman’s own private oil field company, enjoying privileged access to business on the reservation as his subcontractor.

Blackstone also worked directly for the tribal government, earning $570,000 for a job watering road dust that was never put out to bid. Mr. Hall voted to approve the payment, but because he did not think he had any conflict of interest, he said, he never disclosed his business relationship to the company.

The relationship was personal, too: Mr. Henrikson and his wife vacationed in Hawaii with the tribal chairman and his family. Mr. Henrikson had an extramarital affair with, and impregnated, the now 21-year-old daughter of the chairman’s longtime girlfriend; Mr. Hall considers the baby his grandson.

In an interview last week, Mr. Hall said Mr. Henrikson was a “professional con” who had cemented their business deal when Mr. Hall was ill and distracted, bringing flowers and a contract to his hospital room to be signed. “I got ripped off and taken advantage of,” he said. “The people didn’t really know that when the news first broke.’’

In January, Mr. Hall’s link to Mr. Henrikson, Mr. Henrikson’s link to the murder case in Spokane, and the murder’s link to the reservation were revealed after the alleged hit man was arrested. The revelations jolted Fort Berthold into a tumultuous year of questioning and change.

“That murder was the last straw,” said Marilyn Hudson, 78, a tribal elder and historian. “Now you have a murder, a hit man, and a five-time convicted felon operating as an oil contractor working directly with the chairman. It’s like our reservation got hijacked by the plot of a bad movie.” [Continue reading…]

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The first victims of climate change have caused the least harm to our planet

Lily Cole writes: In September 2014, a report published by the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC) found that 20.6 million people were displaced by extreme weather events in 2013. That’s almost three times as many as those fleeing current conflicts.

The number one cause of global relocation now is climate change – yet there is no international recognition for the status of climate change refugees, and no insurance policies for them. They are in the shadows of international media, and often have little access to support in their home countries.

In a cruel irony, some of the world’s most fragile communities – the ones most closely connected to the natural world, who have lived most sustainably and have had the least impact on our changing climate – are the first to suffer as a result of its changes.

In October, I travelled for three days to visit two Yawanawá indigenous communities deep in the Amazon. We slept in hammocks in wooden houses, enjoyed the company of friendly people, and spent time with the village shaman, who told us of birds freezing in trees the week prior to our arrival owing to excessive cold at night. When I thanked one of the women for hosting us, she said: “We don’t own this land; we are merely its caretakers. So our house is open to visitors, and you are always welcome.” [Continue reading…]

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The rise in killings of Peru’s environmental and land defenders

Anti-logging campaigner, Edwin Chota, was murdered in September.

A new report by Global Witness sheds light on what’s driving the high number of killings of environmental defenders in Peru, less than a month before the country hosts the UN climate talks in Lima. Peru’s Deadly Environment calls into question the commitments of Peru to protect its carbon-rich forests and the people who live in them, in light of unfettered illegal logging, disregard for indigenous land claims, and new laws that favour industrial exploitation over environmental protection.

The report comes on the heels of the killings of four indigenous leaders in Ucayali in September, including prominent anti-logging activist Edwin Chota and three of his fellow Ashéninka leaders from the Peruvian Amazon.

“The murders of Edwin Chota and his colleagues are tragic reminders of a paradox at work in the climate negotiations,” said Patrick Alley, Co-Founder of Global Witness. “While Peru’s government chairs negotiations on how to solve our climate crisis, it is failing to protect the people on the frontline of environmental protection. Environmental defenders embody the resolve we need to halt global warming. The message is clear, if you want to save the environment, then stop people killing environmental defenders.”

Peru is the fourth most dangerous country to be an environmental defender, behind Brazil, Honduras and the Philippines. At least 57 environmental and land defenders were killed in Peru between 2002 and the present day, more than 60% of them in the last four years, according to new Global Witness data. Most of these deaths involved disputes over land rights, mining and logging. 72% of Peru’s indigenous communities still have no way of demonstrating their land tenure rights, and over 20 million hectares of land claims have not yet been processed. [Continue reading…]

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The Keystone XL’s Senate failure isn’t the end of the pipeline as an act of war

Vi Waln writes: My Lakota people have a phrase – Mni Wiconi – which means “water of life”. Water is also Pejuta – our primary medicine. It is an extremely sacred element without which we cannot live, yet many people take it for granted. They do not realize: when our drinking-water sources are gone or contaminated, humanity will perish.

Water is also present in every single Lakota ceremony at which I pray – it is essential to our ceremonial way of life. Like our ancestors who sacrificed their very lives for our survival, many of us pray for the descendants who will soon stand in our place, and one of our most important prayers is for our descendants to always have an abundance of clean drinking water.

But TransCanada’s Keystone XL oil pipeline (KXL), which the company has proposed building directly over the Ogallala Aquifer, is still an immediate threat to all of us who drink water from that underground reservoir.

The Ogallala Aquifer is a major water supply for eight states, from here in North Dakota down to Texas and all the way out to New Mexico. Without clean water, these eight states will become uninhabitable. Many people – Indian and non-Indian alike – are prepared to fight the pipeline’s construction to protect the water and land, no matter the result of Tuesday evening’s vote in the US Senate.

Many Lakota people in particular view the construction of this pipeline through our treaty territory as a true act of war. [Continue reading…]

The Guardian reports: The most significant attempt yet to force US government approval of the Keystone XL oil pipeline failed narrowly to clear the Senate on Tuesday night as a coalition of Republicans and moderate Democrats fell one vote short of the 60 votes needed for the legislation to pass.

Fourteen Democrats, led by Louisiana senator Mary Landrieu, joined all 45 Republicans in voting for the bill, which called for the controversial energy project to be given immediate go-ahead after years of delay due to environmental concerns.

A similar bill was passed in the House of Representatives on Friday.

But, as expected, the bipartisan coalition failed to win over sufficient wavering Democrats, such as Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia and independent Maine senator Angus King, who joined the party’s leadership and opposed the bill for a total of 41 votes against.

Landrieu, who is fighting to hold on to her seat in a run-off election next month, had called for the bill in a last-ditch effort to shore up her support in Louisiana. She attempted to heal party rifts afterwards, telling reporters in the Senate: “there is no blame, there is only joy in the fight”.

Nevertheless the size of the Democratic rebellion may put additional pressure on the White House to approve construction of the pipeline in future if, as promised, Republicans make a fresh attempt to pass legislation when the new Senate is sworn in next January. [Continue reading…]

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Portraits from Ukraine: A Crimean Tatar’s story

Jon Lee Anderson writes: “Step by step, we have led Crimeans to realize their dream of returning home to Russia,” Vladimir Konstantinov, the speaker of the breakaway Crimean legislature, told his colleagues recently, as they hastily voted in a new, Russia-friendly constitution. The dream was not universally shared, of course. During the March referendum to rubber-stamp the peninsula’s annexation by Russia, the region’s long-oppressed Tatar minority had launched a boycott. On the eve of the vote, a Tatar man was abducted and tortured to death, presumably by pro-Russian thugs. It was a warning—perhaps an intentional one — of the violence and provocation now occurring in eastern Ukraine, where pro-Russian paramilitaries are increasingly active, with the apparent connivance of the Kremlin. Last week, the Tatars’ historic leader, Mustafa Dzhemilev, who spent years in Soviet prisons for agitating on behalf of his people, went to Ukraine in an attempt to meet with Joe Biden; on the way home, he received papers informing him that he was barred from reëntering Crimea until 2019. The Kremlin and the regional government have denied the ban, and he was eventually let through. But it was a clear sign that the Russian-backed authorities have little sympathy for the Tatars. The acting Prime Minister, Sergei Aksyonov, a former gangster, noted on Twitter that any Tatars who were unhappy with the new order in Crimea should “leave if they don’t like it.”

For the second time in seventy years, the Crimean Tatars are forced to confront a complete upending of their lives. The Tatars, Muslim descendants of Genghis Khan’s Golden Horde, saw virtually their entire community — some two hundred thousand people — uprooted in May, 1944, after Stalin’s forces took Crimea from the occupying Nazis. Stalin justified the occupation by pointing out that some Tatars had fought alongside the Nazis in the war — even though others had fought in the Red Army. Nearly half of the Tatars are thought to have died in the harsh conditions of their deportation and the early years of their exile.

In the late nineteen-eighties, as the Soviet Union opened up a bit, Tatars were allowed to return, and a trickle began coming back from Central Asia. Those who could afford it returned to their villages, but few provisions were made for their reintegration into Ukrainian society, and there was no compensation for the properties they had lost. Many ended up squatting on public lands, where they remain. Known as the “original inhabitants” of the peninsula, Crimea’s Tatars now constitute twelve per cent of the region’s population. They are the poorest and least educated section of society, and the least represented in local government. For all the rhetoric emanating from the Kremlin—and from Kiev—they are effectively the Ukraine’s Lakota Sioux. [Continue reading…]

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Killing of environmental activists rises globally

The Associated Press reports: As head of his village, Prajob Naowa-opas battled to save his community in central Thailand from the illegal dumping of toxic waste by filing petitions and leading villagers to block trucks carrying the stuff — until a gunman in broad daylight fired four shots into him.

A year later, his three alleged killers, including a senior government official, are on trial for murder. The dumping has been halted and villagers are erecting a statue to their slain hero.

But the prosecution of Prajob’s murder is a rare exception. A survey released Tuesday — the first comprehensive one of its kind – says that only 10 killers of 908 environmental activists slain around the world over the past decade have been convicted.

The report by the London-based Global Witness, a group that seeks to shed light on the links between environmental exploitation and human rights abuses, says murders of those protecting land rights and the environment have soared dramatically. It noted that its toll of victims in 35 countries is probably far higher since field investigations in a number of African and Asian nations are difficult or impossible. [Continue reading…]

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Watch: The deportation, exile and return of the Crimean Tartars

f13-iconAurélie Campana writes: In April 1944, after two and half years of German occupation, the Soviet forces regained control of Crimea. The reconquest was hardly completed when the Crimean Tatars were deported en masse on the false accusation of having collectively collaborated with the Nazis. This Muslim Turkic-speaking minority then represented 19.4% of the population of the peninsula, where Russians represented over 50%.

On May 18, 1944, in the early morning, soldiers of the People’s Commissariat of Internal Affairs (NKVD, the former KGB) entered Tatars’ houses by force and announced to their astonished and incredulous occupants their immediate deportation because of acts of “massive collaboration”. They were given only twenty to thirty minutes to gather some personal belongings. Without further delay, they were then conveyed to several stations, where they were loaded into cattle trains. In the matter of three days, nearly 180,014 Crimean Tatars were deported from the peninsula. At the same moment, most of the Crimean Tatar men who were fighting in the ranks of the Red Army were demobilized and sent into labor camps in Siberia and in the Ural mountain region. The demobilized soldiers were released after Stalin’s death in 1953 and allowed to return to their families in their place of exile.

Over 151,000 Crimean Tatar deportees were sent to Uzbekistan; the rest of the population was conveyed to regions of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), mostly in Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, the Ural region, the Mari Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic, and for some, to the region of Moscow (Broŝevan and Tygliânc, 1994: 85). The conditions of the transfer by train were particularly difficult; they were fatal for many of them, especially as the majority of the deportees were women, children and old people. The weakest ones were carried off by malnutrition, thirst, cold, overcrowding and diseases that spread rapidly in packed train carriages. [Continue reading…]

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We must give the land back: America’s brutality toward Native Americans continues today

o13-iconSteven Salaita: I write often about liberating Palestine from Israeli occupation, a habit that evokes passionate response. I have yet to encounter a response that persuades me to abandon the commitment to Palestinian liberation.

I have, however, encountered responses that I consider worthy of close assessment, particularly those that transport questions of colonization to the North American continent. You see, there is a particular defense of Zionism that precedes the existence of Israel by hundreds of years.

Here is a rough sketch of that defense: Allowing a Palestinian right of return or redressing the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians in 1947-49 is ludicrous. Look what happened to the Native Americans. Is the United States supposed to return the country to them?

Israeli historian Benny Morris puts it this way: “Even the great American democracy couldn’t come to be without the forced extinction of Native Americans. There are times the overall, final good justifies terrible, cruel deeds.”

This reasoning suggests a finality to the past, an affirmation of tragedy trapped in the immutability of linear time. Its logic is terribly cliché, a peculiar form of common sense always taken up, everywhere, by the beneficiaries of colonial power.

The problems with invoking Native American genocide to rationalize Palestinian dispossession are legion. The most noteworthy problem speaks to the unresolved detritus of American history: Natives aren’t objects of the past; they are living communities whose numbers are growing.

It’s rarely a good idea to ask rhetorical questions that have literal answers. Yes, the United States absolutely should return stolen land to the Indians. That’s precisely what its treaty obligations require it to do. [Continue reading…]

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Americans’ views of other countries

PolicyMic: A new Pew Poll conducted near the end of 2013 asked Americans which countries they liked and which ones they didn’t. While the results are colored by ongoing events across the world, they also reflect Americans’ long-standing attitudes towards some of our neighbors.

At the top of America’s favorite-country list is Canada, at 81% approval, presumably because Canada is about as inoffensive and friendly a country as you can imagine. Americans also remained steadfast friends with Great Britain at 79% approval, and were big fans of Japan at 70% approval despite the two nations’ economic competition.

Other countries didn’t fare so well on the favorability index. Israel remains largely liked by Americans at 61%, but if a Gallup poll from 2012 is to be believed, that’s down from 68% in 2011 and 71% in 2012 (Gallup’s numbers seem higher than Pew’s, so the spread may be less significant). But it’s now more widely disliked than France at 26% and 24% respectively. The ratings have a partisan spin, with 74% of Republicans and just 55% of Democrats approving of Israel this year. [Continue reading…]

None of these numbers are particularly surprising, but for me the most striking one is a 52% unfavorable view of Mexico.

I’m inclined to assume that American views of Mexico and of Mexicans are firmly intertwined and thus that this unfavorable view of America’s southern neighbor is mirrored in views about Mexicans who live this side of the border.

I used to live in California and was at that time a legal alien but like the many illegal aliens in that state, I was more struck by the fact that we were being branded as aliens rather than which might be deemed legal or illegal.

Moreover, since I was not visibly alien (so long as I kept my mouth shut), the greatest insult in being branded this way was clearly being imposed on the people who were visibly indigenous to this continent.

Whether it’s in North America or the Middle East, the settlers have no right to pass judgement on who belongs on these lands.

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SEED: The Untold Story

Go to Kickstarter to support this film.

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Israel’s plan to forcibly resettle Negev Bedouins prompts global protests

The Guardian reports: Several thousand people worldwide have taken part in protests at the Israeli government’s plans to forcibly remove Bedouin Arabs from their villages in the Negev desert.

In Israeli towns and cities mounted police used teargas, stun grenades and water cannon against demonstrators, in what the Association of Civil Rights in Israel described as a “disproportionate” response to stone-throwing. More than 40 people were arrested at protests across the country, and 15 police officers were injured.

In what was billed as an international “day of rage”, demonstrations were also held in London, Berlin, Rome, Istanbul, Cairo and in the United States.

Binyamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, criticised the protests. “We will not tolerate such disturbances,” he said in a statement. “Attempts by a loud and violent minority to deny a better future to a large and broad population are grave. We will continue to advance the law for a better future for all residents of the Negev,” he said. [Continue reading…]

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Bedouin rise up against Israel eviction plan

Al Jazeera reports: Those passing by Al Araqib may call it a shanty town, but to Sheikh Siah Altori it is a home he says he is prepared to die for. After a reported 62 separate demolitions by state authorities, the remains of the Bedouin community, off the road from Rahat to Be’er Sheva, consists of several portable buildings, and a clutch of shacks and animal pens clinging to a hillside in the north of Israel’s Negev Desert.

Portions of the village’s lands have been designated to be planted with a state-sponsored forest. Al Araqib is one of the Bedouin communities known as an “unrecognised village”, which receive no state services such as electricity, water or sanitation. As many as 200,000 Bedouin live in the Negev, an area comprising 60 percent of Israel’s territory. Under a government proposal known as the Prawer-Begin Plan, $340m has been allocated for land and monetary compensation to move up to 40,000 of the Bedouin into state-sponsored townships.

On Saturday, thousands of demonstrators gathered in more than 30 cilties – in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories as well as in other countries – to protest the Prawer-Begin Plan.

At Hura, a town in the northern Negev, more than 500 protesters gathered peacefully until youth began throwing stones and police used water cannon, horses and stun grenades to disperse the demonstration. Clashes continued throughout the night as the highway from Be’er Sheva to the Dead Sea was blocked with burning barricades and scores of young people throwing stones and Molotov cocktails.

Earlier, Bedouin were joined by busloads of supporters to voice opposition to the Begin-Prawer Plan. While the Israeli government maintains that the policy will ensure its Bedouin population receive access to basic services and economic opportunities, critics see the plan as an attempt to displace and threaten an indigenous way of life. [Continue reading…]

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The Western European roots of Native Americans

The New York Times reports: The genome of a young boy buried at Mal’ta near Lake Baikal in eastern Siberia some 24,000 years ago has turned out to hold two surprises for anthropologists.

The first is that the boy’s DNA matches that of Western Europeans, showing that during the last Ice Age people from Europe had reached farther east across Eurasia than previously supposed. Though none of the Mal’ta boy’s skin or hair survives, his genes suggest he would have had brown hair, brown eyes and freckled skin.

The second surprise is that his DNA also matches a large proportion — about 25 percent — of the DNA of living Native Americans. The first people to arrive in the Americas have long been assumed to have descended from Siberian populations related to East Asians. It now seems that they may be a mixture between the Western Europeans who had reached Siberia and an East Asian population.

The Mal’ta boy was 3 to 4 years old and was buried under a stone slab wearing an ivory diadem, a bead necklace and a bird-shaped pendant. Elsewhere at the same site about 30 Venus figurines were found of the kind produced by the Upper Paleolithic cultures of Europe. The remains were excavated by Russian archaeologists over a 20-year period ending in 1958 and stored in museums in St. Petersburg.

There they lay for some 50 years until they were examined by a team led by Eske Willerslev of the University of Copenhagen. Dr. Willerslev, an expert in analyzing ancient DNA, was seeking to understand the peopling of the Americas by searching for possible source populations in Siberia. He extracted DNA from bone taken from the child’s upper arm, hoping to find ancestry in the East Asian peoples from whom Native Americans are known to be descended.

But the first results were disappointing. The boy’s mitochondrial DNA belonged to the lineage known as U, which is commonly found among the modern humans who first entered Europe about 44,000 years ago. The lineages found among Native Americans are those designated A, B, C, D and X, so the U lineage pointed to contamination of the bone by the archaeologists or museum curators who had handled it, a common problem with ancient DNA projects. “The study was put on low speed for about a year because I thought it was all contamination,” Dr. Willerslev said.

His team proceeded anyway to analyze the nuclear genome, which contains the major part of human inheritance. They were amazed when the nuclear genome also turned out to have partly European ancestry. Examining the genome from a second Siberian grave site, that of an adult who died 17,000 years ago, they found the same markers of European origin. Together, the two genomes indicate that descendants of the modern humans who entered Europe had spread much farther east across Eurasia than had previously been assumed and occupied Siberia during an extremely cold period starting 20,000 years ago that is known as the Last Glacial Maximum.

The other surprise from the Mal’ta boy’s genome was that it matched to both Europeans and Native Americans but not to East Asians. Dr. Willerslev’s interpretation was that the ancestors of Native Americans had already separated from the East Asian population when they interbred with the people of the Mal’ta culture, and that this admixed population then crossed over the Beringian land bridge that then lay between Siberia and Alaska to become a founding population of Native Americans. [Continue reading…]

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Vanishing tribal cultures

Before They Pass Away,” by British photographer Jimmy Nelson, is described by an Amazon reviewer as “an essential item on everyone’s coffee table.”

It’s ironically fitting that this description comes from a “place” whose name — at least in the U.S. — now more frequently refers to the online mega-store rather than to the South American region. An indication perhaps that we care more about what we buy that what we breath.

Leaving aside the question as to whether anything can be said to be essential on a coffee table, the fact that a record of vanishing peoples would be trivialized by being ascribed this value says a lot about why they are vanishing.

Are we to superficially mourn the loss of cultures yet simultaneously be glad that something was preserved in the form of exquisite photographs? Content, perhaps, that before their demise we were able to snatch images of their exotic dress and thereby from the comfort of a couch somehow enhance our own appreciation of a world gradually being lost?

One could view cultural loss as a representation of cultural failure — that those under threat are those who proved least capable of adaptation. Or, one can see the failure as ours — that this represents yet another frontier in the destructive impact of those who have claimed global cultural domination and in so doing are busy destroying the atmosphere, the biosphere, and the ethnosphere.

Maori

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