Indigenous people: Diversity & Unity
You might never know it, but there are more than 370 million indigenous people in the world. COLLEEN LONG attends a U.N. forum on their struggles.


Dmitry Berezhkov comes because he wants to show off the traditional dances of his people. Marcella Jaramillo comes to represent the tiny part of Argentina where her family has lived for generations.

But above all, both come to the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues to help the world understand who they are.

There are more than 370 million indigenous people spread across 70 countries. But you'd never know it: Most live in poor, rural areas, they're often uneducated, and they're rarely represented in government.

For younger members of these indigenous groups, it can be especially difficult to maintain their cultures. There's no incentive to follow tradition when there is no respect for the culture, and when assimilation guarantees a better economic status.

Roberto Mucaro Borrero, a member of the Taino tribe in the Caribbean, said he started going to the U.N. because elders asked him to. "They knew that they couldn't keep going themselves, so they had to reach out to other people to get involved," he said.

In Argentina, there are more than 20 indigenous groups but only seven dialects are maintained. The same is true in the Philippines, said Jennifer Corpuz, who comes from the Igorot people.

"Members of my family can't speak the language," she said. "It feels like it's dying away. Fewer and fewer are learning about the history."

Representatives from groups around the world met for the two-week U.N. conference because they share similar struggles: striving for recognition of their identities, their ways of life and their right to traditional lands and natural resources. For younger delegates, the conference is a way to show their ways can be preserved.

asap takes a look at four people from four cultures who came together for the conference.


Roberto Mucaro Borrero

Age: 40
Job: Educational program director at the Museum of Natural History; also works with the U.N. on issues related to the plight of indigenous people.

Background: Taino, a subgroup of the Arawakan Indians, native to the Caribbean islands. Borrero, a native of Puerto Rico who now lives in New York, says the Taino were the first Caribbean natives to meet Christopher Columbus.

Hoping to educate: He hopes by speaking at the U.N. he can help educate others about the Taino people, and also help get proper education to the Taino people. "There's a lot of misrepresentation of our culture, especially in the schoolbooks," he said. "We are perceived as docile, which is why the Spanish were able to conquer the land. There are some stories that we were cannibals."


Dmitry Berezhkov

Age: 26
Job: President of the Kamchatka Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North.

Background:: Berezhkov lives in Kamchatka, a Russian peninsula about the size of Japan, off the Bering Sea west of Alaska. He comes from the Itlemens, a group of people with 15,000 years of history. His family lives in Petropavlovsk, the regional capital.

On fishing: Berezhkov's community revolves around fishing, and he came to the conference to learn more about the system to protect river rights in the area. Currently, he says, quotas are such that residents only fish to feed their families. As a result, many are poor. "All the communities live off fishing," he said. "We need to be able to make a living doing what it is in our nature to do. Otherwise, we'll sink deeper and deeper into poverty."


Marcela Jaramillo

Age: 26
Job: Lawyer, member of the Counsel of Indigenous Women.

Background:: Jaramillo lives in Buenos Aires, but her family is from JuJuy, in the northwest of the country, and is Kolla, one of largest indigenous groups left in the country.

On racism: She says Buenos Aires is a city that is very "white," and where she experiences racism frequently. "They won't open doors for us, they won't treat us like we are people because our skin is darker," she said. "Indigenous groups are invisible right now. We must be seen as people, as people with rights, or this will always continue."


Jennifer Corpuz

Age: 29
Job: Corpuz works for the Tebtebba foundation, an international center for policy research and education for indigenous peoples.

Background: She is from the Kankana-Ey tribe of the Igorot people, native to Cordillera region of the Philippine island of Luzon. She and her family live in Balgio, but she returns to her native area for planting season.

On the economy: Corpuz says part of the reason the economy is struggling in indigenous areas is because adolescents go away to school and can't return to work because there are no jobs. "We have to figure out a system where we help people who want to come back, to settle in and to help the economy grow," she said. "Otherwise there will be nothing left, no one will carry on the traditions."

Colleen Long is an asap reporter in New York.

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