Universität Bielefeld

Indigenous Movements

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To understand the new visibility of the indigenous, an approach of identity politics is helpful that conceptualizes identity not as an "essence" but as an "positioning". From a historical perspective it has to be pointed out that concepts like 'indio', 'Indígena', 'Indian' or 'Aboriginal' are a colonial invention. The catch-it-all category 'indio' does not say anything about the signified; instead it must be conceived as a mirror, a negative picture puzzle of white, western self-identifications. The 'Indians' were seen as traditional, passive, backwards, or minor, while the Spanish conquistadors and British settlers autoidentified as modern, progressive, active, educated. Indígena / Indian / Native is a multi-ethnic category that allows a broad range of self-ascriptions and ascriptions by others. This is also revealed in statistics. Actually it is estimated that in Latin America 10 per cent of the population is indigenous. Nevertheless, a more detailed view shows the political dimension of demographics. In Ecuador the estimations of the indigenous population in 1991 differ depending on the political standpoint between less than 10 percent and more than 40 percent. In Chile the official data about the relative proportion of indigenous people halved within one decade.

Indigenous Population in the Americas¹

In order to analyze the identity politics of indigenous movements, cultural-politics approaches - as they surged in the 1990s in social movement theory - are useful. (Alvarez et al. 2004: 7-30) First, they emphasize that social movements constitute themselves out of a cultural-political milieu with specific daily life practices and discourses. That is to say, social movements cannot be deduced from external factors, nor are they rooted in pre-given identities. In this sense, collective identity is never fixed, but rather positioned in a field of forces. Second, also the definition of 'political' as a target of the actions of social movements is not fixed. Instead, social movements redefine what can be considered as political, so that further excluded aspects can be politicized.

The strategies and the cultural-political imaginations of social movements are embedded in social contexts that are the results of past social fights. In the theory of social movements this aspect is considered in the approaches of political context or political opportunity structure. They argue that social movements surge and act in a social environment that favors or disfavors agency, and that can only be influenced by their actions to a limited extent.

Indigenous and Peasant Movements at the Beginning of the 20th Century

We have to point out that the American societies are also after independence characterized by the colonial longue durée and the exclusion of the indigenous population. Until the beginning of the 20th century, channels of political mediation did not exist, so that they were damned to a “subaltern voicelessness” (Kaltmeier 2009).

In Latin America the emergence of socialist and communist movements at the beginning of the 20th century offered new possibilities to form interethnic alliances that articulated – indeed ethnic demands were not central – important claims of the rural indigenous population. Especially in the Andes, strong indigenous peasant movements emerged that had the organizational capacity to carry out nationwide agenda-setting and to foster the process of construction of collective identities. Nationwide social movement organizations framed the fragmented local experiences of discrimination and exploitation in a national frame. Due to the high concentration of indigenous population in the Andean highlands and the historical structures of exploitation in a system of internal colonialism based on haciendas and mines, a strong articulation of ethnic and class-based demands and identifications existed. Parallel to the growing influence of socialist and communist wings the indigenismo emerged, initially in an inter-American context at the beginning of the 20th century in Mexico. They placed the indigenous in the center of the imagined national community, aiming for a profound process of assimilation in the name of mestizaje. Instead, in the Andean countries the indigenismo took on a class-based direction under the influence of the Peruvian Marxist José Carlos Mariátegui. In the mid-20th century state-centered cooperativist systems that mediated indigenous interests could be established, often in the context of popular revolutionary mobilizations like in Mexico and Bolivia.

In the United States, where termination politics threatened the existence of Indian tribes as distinct communities from the mid-1940s onwards, inter-tribal consensus-building began with the first National Congress of American Indians in 1944. In the 1960s, ethnic identity politics reached their climax with temporary alliances of indigenous, Afro-American and Chicano civil rights activists. Notwithstanding, indigenous organizations did not give up their claims to special statuses, referring to their condition as "original inhabitants". The rhetoric of red power culminated in the foundation of the American Indian Movement in 1968 and successive protest events that captured worldwide media attention, such as the occupations of Alcatraz (1968) and Wounded Knee (1973).

Simultaneously, in the 1960s and 1970s, the fight for redistribution in Latin America reached its peak in the mobilizations for an agrarian reform. Nevertheless, in the context of the US-led Alliance for Progress, most of the realized agrarian reforms followed the path of capitalist modernization. The Latin-America-wide movement for revolutionary change included indigenous and indigenous-based movements like the peasant movement of Hugo Blanco in Peru or the MCR en Chile, which was stopped by the coup d'etat against Salvador Allende and the following installation of military dictatorships and authoriatarian regimes in nearly the whole subcontinent.

The Politicization of the Ethnic Question in the 1990s

After this forceful rupture of the class-based mobilization cycle in the whole hemisphere we face the emergence of new indigenous movements with a stronger ethnic self-identification. The “politicization of the ethnic question” reached a turning point with the indigenous uprising in Ecuador in 1990 and the hemispheric indigenous protest movement against the 500 years of conquest in 1992. Consequently, in this decade we face several constitutional changes that recognize the specific cultural rights of indigenous peoples, such as in Colombia (1991), Peru (1993), Bolivia (1994), Ecuador (1998), and Venezuela (1999). Furthermore, ILO convention 169, which recognizes cultural rights and limited autonomy for indigenous peoples, was signed by nearly all governments of the Latin America: Colombia (1991), Bolivia (1991), Peru (1994), Guatemala (1996), Ecuador (1998), Brazil (2002) and Venezuela (2002), while it is neither ratified by the United States nor by Canada. Nevertheless, these politics of recognition by the state took place in the heydays of neoliberal politics, which deepened the socio-economic disparities in the region (see table 1). It is remarkable that the indigenous demands for cultural recognition were fulfilled in part while the claims for social justice and the redistribution of wealth were ignored. Furthermore, indigenous peoples are highly affected by the accelerated accumulation process, facing the exploitation of natural resources (wood, minerals, water) and the expropriation of indigenous intellectual property. At the end of the 1990s we can note a further process of institutionalization of the indigenous movements that also finds its expression in the foundation of indigenous or indigenous-based political parties in, for example, Ecuador, Bolivia, Colombia, Peru, Guatemala, and Canada.

To reach out for supranational political institutions, indigenous movements began to organize beyond the nation states. Already in the 1970s, the World Council of Indigenous Peoples and the International Indian Treaty Council were accredited as international representatives of indigenous peoples by the United Nations and were included in the NGO roster. Furthermore, COICA or CISA were founded in the 1980s to coordinate the international activities of indigenous organizations in South America. The internationalization of indigenous demands has been spurred on by new alliances with the rising ecological and human rights movements in the Western Hemisphere, some of them specialized in - or at least with an emphasis on - campaigning for indigenous peoples (IWGIA, Cultural Survival, Survival International, Society for threatened peoples). The global demands of the ecological movement, such as sustainable development, were articulated with the local actions of indigenous peoples, portrayed as “keepers of our earth”. This process culminated in the UN Conference for Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. Facing the political pressure of the indigenous movements and their allies, especially NGOs, an international conjuncture began, finding its expression in the United Nations Year for Indigenous Peoples in 1993, the UN Decade for Indigenous Peoples (1995-2004 and 2005-2015), in international norms and conventions (ILO Convention 169 in 1989, United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in 2007) as well as in supranational fora like the UN-Working Group on Indigenous Populations (1982-2006) or The Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (since 2002). These global networks have given shape to a new transnational identification of a "Pan-Indigenismo" (Bengoa 200: 138). On the other hand, the Zapatista movement with the unorthodox “media-guerilla” pushed a transnational, multi-ethnic alliance against global neoliberalism, which became one of the keystones of an emergent anti-globalization movement.


At the end of the 1990s, the political legitimity of the neoliberal regimes in Latin America eroded dramatically. Indigenous movements have been crucial to articulating not only indigenous, but also popular protest. This is certainly the case with the indigenous uprising in Chiapas, Mexico, led by the EZLN in 1994. In Andean countries such as Ecuador and Bolivia, the indigenous movements were inclusively decisive forces in pushing the alternative, left-wing governments of Evo Morales and Rafael Correa into power.

¹ The demographic data of the years from 2000-2003 in Latin American countries is based on different censuses and estimations. (Sabine Speiser & Christoph Kohl: Appendix 1: Überblick: Indigene Bevölkerung in den Staaten Lateinamerikas und der Karibik, in: GTZ (Eds.): Indigene Völker in Lateinamerika und Entwicklungszusammenarbeit. Eschborn 2004. The data on poverty is based on George Psacharopoulos / Harry Patrinos (Eds.): Indigenous People and Poverty in Latin America, World Bank, Washington 1994 and Valenzuela, Rodrigo: Situación de los Pueblos Indígenas en Chile. Análisis de la Encuesta CASEN 1996, Santiago 1998. The data on Canada is based on the official census of 2006, the data on the U.S. on the offical census of 2000.

Olaf Kaltmeier and Jochen Kemner

Please cite as:
Kaltmeier, Olaf and Jochen Kemner. 2012. “Indigenous Movements.” InterAmerican Wiki: Terms - Concepts - Critical Perspectives. www.uni-bielefeld.de/cias/wiki/i_Indigenous_Movements.html.


Alvarez, Sonia; Evelina Dagnino; Arturo Escobar. 2004. "Kultur und Politik in Sozialen Bewegungen Lateinamerikas", in: Olaf Kaltmeier, Jens Kastner, Elisabeth Tuider (Eds.): Neoliberalismus − Autonomie − Widerstand. Analysen Sozialer Bewegungen in Lateinamerika. Münster: Westfälisches Dampfboot , pp. 31-59.

Bengoa, José. 2007. La emergencia indígena en América Latina, México: Fondo de Cultura Económica.

Brysk, Alison. 2001. From tribal village to global village: Indian rights and international relations in Latin America, Stanford: Stanford University Press.

GTZ (Ed.). 2004. Indigene Völker in Latinamerika und Entwicklungszusammenarbeit. Eschborn.

Kaltmeier, Olaf. 2009. "Das Land neu gründen: Gesellschaftliche Kontexte, politische Kulturen und indigene Bewegungen in Südamerika". In: Mittag, Jürgen & Ismar Georg (Eds.): El pueblo unido? Soziale Bewegungen und politischer Protest in der Geschichte Lateinamerikas. Münster: Westf. Dampfboot; pp. 339-364.

Wilmer, Franke. 1993. The indigenous voice in world politics. Since time immemorial, Newbury Park: Sage Publications.

Van Cott, Donna Lee. 2005. From movements to parties in Latin America. The evolution of ethnic politics, New York: Cambridge University Press.

Yashar, Deborah J. 2007. Contesting citizenship in Latin America : the rise of indigenous movements and the postliberal challenge, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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