Though their languages and cultures vary, the challenges they face are the same. Indigenous leaders from around North America met with their Costa Rican counterparts this week and last to share experiences with preserving their cultures and standing up for their rights.
Fifteen representatives of First Nations of North America, a privately funded umbrella organization including indigenous groups throughout the United States and Canada, spent more than two weeks in Costa Rica during this fifth annual visit here and traveled to Talamanca, in the southern Caribbean, to meet with Bribrí leaders and to Puriscal, southwest of San José, to meet with the Huetar.
“You walk around these reserves and you see that they’re way behind,” said Lynda Prince, president of First Nations and chief of the Carrier Sekani First Nations group in British Colombia. “It’s an injustice that there is not adequate health care and education in these areas in the 21st century.”
The organization’s name, “First Nations” is used today by many North American indigenous groups rather than “Indians,” a name that stuck when settlers arrived to the Americas and thought they were in India, Prince explained.
Addressing inadequate social services and demanding the right to equal opportunities were topics Prince and other leaders, who flew home this week, discussed with Costa Rica’s indigenous citizens. During their visits, they followed the traditions of asking permission from the chief to enter their land, bringing gifts and sharing songs and dances from their tribes.
“We’ve seen here that people have been so exploited – they’re afraid and skeptical,” Prince told The Tico Times this week. “But there comes a time when they have to rise up and take control. For us, that’s been done through education.”
Promoting this idea of empowerment through education, First Nations is collaborating with a project in the works by the Foundation for the Social and Cultural Development of Costa Rican Indigenous Ethnicities (FUNDEICO) to create an indigenous center on the Quitirrisí reserve in Puriscal. First Nations bought a 3,800-square-meter plot of land last year for the multipurpose center, which will offer vocational training for indigenous people and a place to live near San José for indigenous students attending the capital’s universities. A museum and exhibit hall are also part of the planned $250,000 project.
Spaces like this are important, especially for young people, to promote education and keep culture alive, said Prince, who as a child was taken to a boarding school in British Colombia, far from her tribe’s lands, as part of the Canadian government’s policies to assimilate indigenous people into mainstream culture from the 1960s to the 1980s.
“I had to deal with the powerful force of shame,” she said of her experience, remarking that Costa Rican indigenous youth today share this shame of their cultures as they move away from indigenous territories to urban settings in search of opportunity.
FUNDEICO president Carlos Chaverri said he hopes the center will be “a factory of young indigenous professionals,” and a source of motivation for them to help their communities – something he said is lacking among the indigenous.
“In North America, the indigenous have evolved more in terms of maintaining their culture and standing up for their rights,” he said, adding that during the past five years, visits of representatives from First Nations of North America have helped spark interest in these areas. Some communities have started dance and theater groups, and previously inactive leaders (caciques) have emerged to greet the visitors.
“You go into a community as a Costa Rican and ask for the cacique and no one steps forward,” said Chaverri, of Guaymí ancestry and whose family is from the Coto Brus indigenous area, where he was given the name “White Feather” by a cacique. “But you go in with visitors from other countries and all of a sudden there are caciques all over the place.”
Keeping up this leadership after the foreigners leave is the real challenge, he added