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Latina Lista: News from the Latinx perspective > Columns & Features > Global Views > The 21st Century battle fought by Honduras’ indigenous to know their history and retain their identity

The 21st Century battle fought by Honduras’ indigenous to know their history and retain their identity

By Wendy Griffin
Honduras Weekly

During a recent Intercultural Education seminar in San Pedro Sula at the Universidad Pedagógica Nacional (National Teaching University) in July 2013, the Pech teacher Angel Martinez was explaining Pech crafts and he was surprised by the reactions of the university professors who attended when he said he was Pech.

“We did not know the Pech still existed,” said the university teachers. Native Black Bay Islanders also complain no one knows they exist. One Black English speaker commented, “If these are the professors, who don’t know, what can they be teaching the students? That is the question.”

ILO Convention 169 requires that the Honduran government teach about the current situation of Honduran Indians to all Hondurans, not just the ethnic groups, but in fact this is not happening.

Hondurans who studied in elementary schools 50 years ago, 35 years ago, said they learned the names of the Indians who fought against the Spanish, and the names of the Honduran Indian groups, but many Honduran high school students now cannot name the 9 ethnic groups legally recognized by the Honduran government, even though they are listed on Honduran government websites like the Ministry of Education’s bilingual education website.

The Honduran Institute of Anthropology and History closed the Museum which had an exhibit on the ethnic groups of Honduras, and the private Museum of National Identity does not include modern Indian groups in their definition of the National Identity or in its displays.

So the Indians like the Pech and the Maya Chorti feel they need to do more to be more visible like have craft exhibits and sales, books, videos, have an office, and an Internet presence.

The author of the new book on Bay Islanders, Artlie Brooks of NABIPLA said he wrote the book Black Chest for the same reason, so that Hondurans knew the Bay Islanders existed and took them into account, for example when planning development projects in the Bay Islands.

The Indians and Garifunas have been studying the marketing of books, videos, crafts, and other materials between Honduras and the US and between Honduras and the rest of Latin America, partly because foreign researchers who arrive in Honduras complain, “We know nothing about Honduras, we do not hear anything about what is happening with the Mayas or the Garifunas, for example.”

There is a general problem that researchers, both foreign and Honduran, do research in the Indian villages or about Honduras in general and then never send back the results, neither to Honduras’s central libraries like the UNAH’s Honduran Collection, the UPN’s Center of Documentation on Honduran Indians and Afro-Hondurans, or the Honduran Institute of Anthropology and History’s library, nor to the Indians themselves.

This makes many Indians, including Pech leaders like Rene Montes, absolutely furious. Rene felt that the information he gave, his family gave, his tribe gave was their information, and, at a minimum, they should be given a copy for free of the information that was collected. This sentiment has been echoed by the Chorti, the Miskitos, the Garifunas, and other Pech, too, in seminars this year.

International development “aid” projects have been particularly notorious for collecting bookshelves of information, for example about the Mosquitia or Olancho or Copán, and not sharing one sheet of paper of the information with the Indians of the Mosquitia or Olancho or Copán. The same happens in the Bay Islands with people studying reefs.

The reason that Rene Montes was particularly furious was that after the village of Silin had spent a month giving information to a UNDP/IHAH project anthropologist, who was paid with funds that were supposed to Rescue the Culture of the Pech, Garifunas and Tawahkas, he asked to see a copy of it to do his homework at the university and he was denied access to the report, as it was “ private property”.

This practice of aid agencies and foreign and Honduran researchers of not sharing results with the people they study causes a whole series of problems for the Indians and Garifunas, like not having background information for writing proposals, not having information for writing intercultural education materials, not having materials to train tour guides or intercultural education teachers, not having access to the land titles, censuses, and laws that affect them now and have affected them in the past, the students not having materials about their ethnic group to consult to do their homework for high school or the university, and not knowing their own history or basics of their archaeology or the linguistic studies of their languages.

I felt ridiculous and angry after I had spent about four years doing research on the history of the Pech Indians in source documents and on their language in the field, only to find out 15 years later that all that research had been done in the 1920’s, but there were no copies in Honduras, only in France.

The leading Honduran linguist who works with the Pech and Tolupan Indians was unaware of the linguistic studies done of these languages and published by Lincom Europa in Germany. Few people outside of Honduras even know the Tolupan Indians, also called Jicaques, exist, so why not share the information with Hondurans who need the information?

If the foreign researchers do the research, generally they do not make it available in Spanish, either, not even archaeologists who are required by law to turn in reports to IHAH as part of the permission to do archaeological digs in Honduras, a current complaint of the IHAH staff most of whom do not know any English.

One book in German, Walter Lehman’s book from the 1920’s on Central America Indian Languages which collected all that was up to that time described as essential reading for anyone serious about studying Central American Indians, cannot even be read by most Central Americans or even American researchers because it is in German and has never been translated into any other language.

There are a lot of conversations for example about Indian languages or the history of Central American Indians in the Post Classic (900-1500 AD) or the colonial period, that educated Spanish speakers and English speakers are having, but they are not even aware of what the other group is saying, and neither group is making much effort to incorporate the Central American Indians in the discussions to get their points of view.

When academics say things like “The Mayas disappeared” or “There were no Mayas in Copán in the Postclassic (900-1500 AD)”, this actually affects the current struggles of living Maya Chortis to lands in Honduras. More modern research has shown that these statements were not even true, that in fact there were Indians living in the mountains in the Copán area (and Ocotepeque in Honduras and the Camotan and Jocotan areas of Guatemala) in the Post Classic and the time of the Spanish conquest, so the Indians need to know what academics are saying about them, and have access to documentation to counter it.

Also sometimes basic documents like the 1889 census which says where Indians lived and where Ladinos lived in Honduras at that time, village by village, are only found outside of Honduras, and the Indians need that documentation to show where they lived in different periods to support their land rights claims.

The Director of the Historic Archives of San Pedro Sula, Eliseo Fajardo, told the Chorti Indians of Copán Ruinas, “If you are not documenting your history, your traditional land use, and your culture, you are not doing anything.”

Some Honduran authorities also claim some groups like the Chortis, the Nahuas, the Pech of Silin and sometimes the Lencas are not Indians and so do not have rights guaranteed by the ILO Convention 169, including land rights and bilingual intercultural education. These Indians need to be able to know what was their pre-Columbian archaeology, culture and language and history, and document their current culture so that they can support their claims to be Indians and of being Hondurans.

With the controversial new classification of Afro-Descent peoples in the Honduran census of 2013, which is currently going on, for the Garifunas and Bay Islanders and sometimes Miskito Indians, there is also concern among Garifuna organizations like OFRANEH and Gemelos de Honduras and Garifuna authors that people are arguing that they are not Hondurans, either, and in the case of the Garifunas that they are not mixed with Indians.

All Honduran Indian and Afro-Indigenous groups are being analysed to see if they still have an Indian culture as part of the census reports OFRANEH on their blog. If they do not meet these criteria, they could be in danger of losing the protection of ILO Convention 169 for their valuable beachfront lands or for areas proposed for mines or hydroelectric plants in the interior.

Garifuna and other Indian groups are also affected by other recent government proposals including the Model cities, also called ZEDE and RED, which would create areas where Honduran laws would not apply and so protected areas and Indian and Garifuna collective land titles could disappear. Another is a new law authorizing concessions to “Unused assets of the State” which is the one being used for giving over 250 mining concessions and leasing over 50 rivers for hydroelectric plants.

The three areas originally proposed for Model cities according to Honduran law included the Department of Cortés between Cortés Cortes and the Santa Cruz de Yojoa area, the Trujillo area from Betulia in Santa Fe to Brus Laguna in the Mosquitia which affects at least 40 percent of the Rio Platano Biosphere and as far inland as the Agalta Valley in Olancho were the Pech live, and in the South according to a Honduran newspaper map.

However, under the ZEDE (Zones of Economic Development and Employment) law, the model cities could be anywhere in Honduras and one funder Michael Strong, a Liberatarian with funding from Silicon Valley in the US, proposes to use his money to develop a Model City in San Pedro Sula itself according to the blog Honduras Culture and Politics quoting an Internet interview he did.

The law establishing ZEDE’s approved in June 2013 specifically mentioned the Caribbean Coast and the Pacific Coast, and many previous articles about Model Cities recommend founding them near ports which on the North coast are only Puerto Cortés and the Trujillo/Puerto Castilla area. Wikipedia in Spanish has an article on ZEDE’s and the law is on the Internet.

Honduran Indian groups including Bertha Cáceres of COPIN, and Miriam Miranda of the Garifuna organization OFRANEH, Honduran Catholic priests like Padre Fausto Milla and Ismael Moreno, artists, jounalists, women groups, have filed either challenges to the law as unconstitutional or filed suits personally against the Honduran president Pepe Lobo and 126 congressmen who approved the law for treason. There have existed at least 77 legal challenges to the ZEDE law or the RED law (both related to Model cities) or the Law selling Unused Property of the State.

Paul Romer the Liberatarian who developed the idea of Charter cities, which Hondurans generally call Model Cities, and who has a Charter City website, quit as an adviser to the Honduran government partly because Honduras was implementing it completely differently from what he suggested and because they cut a deal with someone else for a different plan for Model cities while not even telling him when he was advising them.

If he was talking about developing cities in “uninhabited areas” and having 10 million inhabitants, and the areas where deals have been signed or referendums are being proposed include San Pedro Sula (population 1 million), Suyapa, Francisco Morazán (a part of the city of Tegucigalpa connected by a major boulevard to downtown and across the street from the major public university the UNAH), the Trujillo area from Betulia to Puerto Castilla with a population of over 50,000 people and five major Garifuna communities, and part of Santa Cruz de Yojoa by Lake Yojoa, obviously there is some major disconnect between what people were proposing and what the Hondurans are enacting into law.

The people leading the charge to get these laws through include Juan Orlando Hernández who is currently the President of the National Congress and head of the Nationalist Party and is running for President of Honduras in November, the Congressman for Colón Oscar Najera of Tocoa, Rudolfo Irias Congressman for Atlántida which is where La Ceiba and Tela are, Osvaldo Ramos Soto who when he was head of the Supreme Court voted against the Garifunas of Trujillo in a case they had previously won at the Supreme Court level, and Romeo Silvestri whose family is associated with Southwinds realty in the Bay Islands. Most of these people have been Nationalist Congressmen for decades. If these are the people writing the proposal for law, something is planned for the North Coast, and the chance that it is going to be in favor of Garifunas or Black Bay Islanders who have numerous complaints about land sales in their communities, is slim.

The Indians and the Garifunas are definitely going to need their communication skills and have very good documentation to fight what is coming if Juan Orlando Hernández wins the presidency. The situation of the environment is going to be very bad, and the economic leaders of San Pedro are already buying the rights to magazines that talk about the environment so that they can have the privilege of shutting them down and silencing their voices. Radio Progreso, which is associated with the Jesuits who are responsible for the Catholic churches in Yoro, and has radio reporters out in the community like in Trujillo and among the Tolupanes who have had 50 leaders assassinated in the last 25 years, has had problems with their reporters being abused, reported an experienced Central American reporter.

So the Pech, as well as other Indians and the Garifunas, are trying to start Documentation Centers in their area, sometimes in conjunction with craft exhibits and an office for administering their projects. If they have a Documentation Center, then they have more leverage to request that the research done on them be sent to their Documentation Center/Library, even if it is just a scanned copy sent over the Internet, just so that it is accessible to the ethnic group in their area.

In Guatemala, volunteers work with the libraries founded by the Reicken Foundation which also has libraries in Honduras like Copán Ruinas and Atima, Santa Bárbara to help them download documents about the Maya Indians through the Internet, and then the files are available to be researched offline by the library users, reported Isreal Quic from Solola who spoke at the SALALM conference in May 2013. This might be a good technique for the Honduran Indians, Bay Islanders, and Garifunas.

The Garifunas and the Pech have been learning how to use Dropbox, a popular Internet site for sending documents as large as whole scanned books in preparation for this project. Some courses like e-mail, how to do blogs, basic computer and Internet use introduction, and an introductory course to Wikipedia have already been given to Pech and Garifuna teachers in the Trujillo region.

Linguists who are members of ACALING, the Association of Central American Linguists have approved working on a database to identify which linguists have worked on Central American Indian languages, what they have published and where they work as a preliminary step to contact the linguists about making available their published and unpublished work about the Indians available to them and to the Central American Linguists who help them.

Wendy Griffin is the co-author of the book “Los Garifunas de Honduras” (1995) and was previously a reporter for Honduras This Week about Honduran ethnic groups including the Garifunas and an anthropology professor for the UPN in La Ceiba. Since 1996, she has split her time between living in the US and volunteering and living in Trujillo… in or near the Garifuna neighborhoods there.

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Comment(2)

  • Avatar
    Wess
    November 11, 2013 at 9:05 am

    I wrote my M.A. thesis on the ways that different discourses from within and without Honduras affect the perception of the Chorti of Copan and work to define their culture. My argument helps to dispel many of the false beliefs mentioned in this article. I would like to to find a way to offer a copy (it is only in English as of right now) to any organization in Honduras that may find it helpful. Perhaps someone may be able to connect me with those who may be interested? Many thanks…

  • Avatar
    Wendy Griffin
    December 16, 2013 at 7:38 pm

    I amwilling to make available the offered M. A. thesis to the Chorti . Wendy Griffin

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