At OrigiNations, we collaborate with youth from indigenous communities who struggle to navigate between their traditional value systems and way of life, on the one hand, and the dramatic changes brought about by the fast-moving process of globalization, on the other. These young men and women often have great difficulties reconciling these two conflicting worlds and finding orientation amid the upheaval.
Certainly, they are not the first to be facing uncertain and unsettling times. Historically, their peoples have had to withstand immense pressures. Indigenous societies everywhere have faced untold abuse and exploitation. Marginalized and politically alienated, they have been deprived from the same rights, access, and opportunities accorded to the majority populations. When not forcibly removed from their ancestral territories, they have seen their traditional living environments diminished and degraded through the encroachment of settlers, or as a result of reckless extractive activities and large infrastructure projects. A great level of disruption and instability is caused by the loss of the land that is not only the source of the communities’ sustenance, but also the very basis of their identity, knowledge system, and social organization.
Yet they have endured. It is a testament to the resilience and resourcefulness of their forebears that many indigenous youth today are still able to identify themselves as belonging to a distinct people, as being part of a society bonded by a common culture, language, and a shared history. Under extremely adverse circumstances, their elders managed in some way or another – through courage, cunning, flexibility, or sheer determination – to adjust to a radical new reality, negotiate their way through shifting political and social landscapes, and in some cases successfully advance their interests against nearly insurmountable odds.
The challenge for the present generation is no less formidable, and perhaps even more defining for the continuous viability of their communities. With the unrelenting advance of economic and cultural globalization, the pace of transformation accelerates and pressures intensify. Coping capacities are stretched and as they near the breaking point, the binding elements that ensure the cohesion of these societies begin to unravel fast. Increasingly, elders die without transmitting valuable knowledge, historical memory fades, traditional skills lose their relevance, languages erode, extended families become fragmented, social mechanisms for cooperation and reciprocity weaken, and more and more, essential decisions are determined by external considerations and demands. If this trend is not reversed, it is likely that many of these young people will see their cultures vanish and their societies break apart during their lifetimes.
At the same time, closer contact with the outside world also brings this generation new opportunities. New means of communication allow them to access information, get their message out, and establish alliances with distant partners; recently established national and international legal frameworks can help them assert their rights and interests; innovative technologies enable them to document their cultural heritage and map their territories and resources. These are potentially valuable tools which, used wisely, can make a positive contribution to their quest of protecting their cultural and natural heritage and furthering the interests of their communities.
At a crossroads
So, one could say this is both an especially precarious moment for these societies, but also one that is rife with unique possibilities. At this critical juncture in the history of their peoples, indigenous youth are called to make sense of a fast-changing world and to make consequential choices that will, to a great extent, determine the future development of their communities. The questions before them are complex and far-reaching: How do you integrate the knowledge, values, and cultural practices rooted in your community, with the influences and innovations entering your lives today? How do you advantageously incorporate what modernity has to offer without overwhelming the integrity of your own culture? How can you become a dynamic participant in global developments without having to sacrifice your own specificity?
Finding the right answers to these questions and choosing the best path forward for themselves and for their peoples is a tall order and a huge responsibility for the young of today. But one thing should embolden them: in light of the accomplishments of the generations that came before them, they have every reason to believe that they too have what it takes to successfully rise to the occasion. And they should also find reassurance in the fact that their communities still possess a rich reservoir of cultural and social capital and experience which they can draw upon when tackling their present challenges.
Obstacles and Opportunities
So, one might ask: with these positive things going for them – the example and inspiration of their ancestors, the valuable assets existing locally in their communities, and an array of new opportunities provided by modernity and current global developments – what are the obstacles that hinder indigenous youth from taking matters into their own hands and start turning things around?
An important impediment is that, in today’s tumultuous environment, these young people are having difficulties finding enough breathing room to pause and reflect on the significance and the consequences of the profound transformations taking place at this time. This situation is aggravated by the fact that the social spaces which in the past supported the exercise of joint deliberation and concerted experimentation, processes that would be indispensable today in solving the present contradictions and challenges, do not exist anymore. Unlike their grandparents, they don’t have the opportunity to experience the regular village gatherings or the grand regional assemblies and multi-day ceremonies where important issues affecting the community were discussed. These occasions, that kept everybody on the same page and allowed them to develop common strategies in dealing with new threats and opportunities, have become rare or died out. In many cases, even the physical places were these events took place have disappeared.
If this generation of indigenous youth is to succeed in revitalizing their cultures, in protecting their territories, in defending their rights, and in leading their communities to thrive and prosper, they will need to create the social spaces where these processes can originate. Spaces where they can come together and exchange views, examine the issues concerning their lives, gain a shared understanding of the nature of the challenges affecting their communities, and evaluate how best to respond to them. They need to be empowering spaces in which they have the opportunity to discover their own creativity and competences, acquire new skills, reconnect with their history, learn about the world, and explore all the options before them. And they need to be affirmative spaces, where the young have the freedom to reinvent themselves on their own terms, where they find their own voice, and autonomously determine how to interact with the larger world: what to take from it and what to reject, while at the same time advancing their own unique contributions to it. No longer casualties of change, but the drivers of self-determined change.
To support these young men and women in the creation of this kind of empowering social spaces is the core objective of OrigiNations.