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Name:Janet Chernela
Location:University Park, Maryland, United States

Monday, January 03, 2005

Murphy Anniversary Volume

Reprinted, with permission from "Forward," Women of the Forest, by Yolanda and Robert Murphy. New York: Columbia University Press. Thirtieth Anniversary Edition. 2004.

"Co-Authoring Culture"

Janet M. Chernela

It was 1952 when Yolanda and Robert (Bob) Murphy set out for a Mundurucú village on the upper Tapajós River, a southern feeder stream of the Amazon in Brazil. In the same year Mamie Eisenhower modeled a peau de soie inaugural gown with pink rhinestones as Republican "Party Girls" worked to bring out the women's vote. Mrs. Eisenhower may never have cooked, as some journalists noted, but her campaign underscored the role of wife as homebody. She once said she was "perfectly satisfied to be known as a housewife" Good Housekeeping magazine published her famous brownie recipe. Buttons with the slogan “I like Mamie” appeared with her picture. The five star general who was to become president of the United States, Dwight, wore one.

In the same year Rosalind Franklin was carrying out X-Ray analyses of DNA that would reveal its double helical structure. Her findings would be later overshadowed by an article interpreting her results by James Watson and Francis Crick. The renowned Brazilian anthropologist Berta Ribeiro was typing her husband's diaries as he mailed them to her from the field; it would be twenty-six years before she would publish her own (Ribeiro 1979). It would be another year before Gertrude Dole would begin her ethnographic fieldwork in an equally remote region of the Amazon basin, an effort that earned her the reputation of “first American woman to carry out anthropological fieldwork along a headwater stream of the Xingú River in the Amazon of Brazil” (Barnes 2003). As yet unpublished Betty Friedan was a full time wife and mother.

In this context of constrained normalcy and cherished domesticity Yolanda and Bob Murphy left for fieldwork in Central Brazil. They were in their mid-twenties. They had married two years before on April Fool's Day.

Access to the region was difficult. The Murphys traveled by international then domestic airplane to a newly opened air strip in the Amazon rainforest located along the Tapajós River. From there they hopped aboard a river boat and, along with local inhabitants far more accustomed than they, created collapsible berths on deck by slinging hammocks to the boat's beams. When the boat reached its upriver limit -- a set of impassable rapids -- the couple portaged on foot carrying their belongings on their backs. Once above the falls they continued by raft-and-pole into the remote Mundurucú territory. This was anthropology as envisioned by Franz Boas, and it was his students who were the mentors of the Murphys.

The Murphys' purpose in living among the Mundurucú was to gather data for advanced degrees in anthropology at Columbia University. Columbia was then the most prestigious anthropology department in the country, having been established by Franz Boas, considered to be the founder of American anthropology. But although many of Boas' students were women, the department, by 1952, had never granted tenure to a woman. Two accomplished female anthropologists, Margaret Mead and Gene Weltfish, were part-time instructors. Weltfish was an important mentor to Yolanda and it was she that suggested that Yolanda write about women. In her 1972 thesis, The Mundurucú Women of the Village of Cabruá, Yolanda writes: "The importance of working with the women was impressed upon me by Gene Weltfish, who … reminded me that most ethnographies have been collected by men and that it would be extremely important to have data on women as seen through the eyes of a woman" (1972:3) When Yolanda completed the manuscript as a Master's Thesis, Weltfish urged her to expand it into a PhD dissertation. Yolanda preferred to write a book.

Although co-authored, it can be convincingly argued that Women of the Forest is an extension of Yolanda's original work. Were he alive, Robert himself would say so. His own contributions and prestigious career not withstanding, on more than one occasion he stressed that many of the insights that bore his name were not possible without her. For example, a 1962 article has the following tnote: "I wish to express my deep appreciation to my wife, Yolanda, not only because of her continuing encouragement and support, but because she collected all the data upon which this article is based" (R Murphy 1974:208 (orig. 1962); ital. from original). Although this may not have been as literally accurate as the statement suggests, it is nowhere closer to truth than in Women of the Forest. It is not coincidental that Yolanda's name, which would have followed Robert's had the criterion been alphabetical, is listed first in the book's joint authorship.

A principal theme for the Murphys, made especially apparent in Women of the Forest, are the tensions resulting from the dialectic between individuals as part of a collectivity. This concern is related to the larger issue of structure and practice at the center of anthropological debate during the 1950s and '60s. Over three decades the work of Robert Murphy addresses the necessary contradictions between that which is collective and normative and that which is practical, quotidian, and individual (1959, 1961, 1971, 1979). A dialogically-produced work on gender where each author contributes fully may be regarded as a logical extension of this project as well as an allegorical critique of itself.

First, there is the ongoing dialogue of marriage, a co-authorship in its own right. Like the marriage project, the converging of differing perspectives in Women of the Forest created a narrative that is internally dialogic insofar as the dialogue is not compositionally marked. The work brings to mind Mikhail Bakhtin's commentary that: "A word is born in a dialogue as a living rejoinder within it " (Bakhtin 1986:672).

In this brief essay I will attempt to identify the voices of Yolanda and Robert from within the collective text and place these within a broader context of South American literature and cultural anthropology. I will then turn to the influence of the book on a new generation of Amazonian scholars.

Residence, Relationship, and Power

In writing about the Mundurucú, the Murphys had entered an existing debate about women and power.

In 1949, several years prior to the Murphys' expedition, Robert Lowie referred to "the antifeminist flavor" in the ritual and belief systems of Mundurucú and other Amerindian groups in Amazonia. Based on reports sent to him by German- born Brazilian ethnographer Curt Nimuendajú, Lowie writes, "Mundurucú … myths depict an early matriarchate, [with] women controlling the mysteries (the Munducuru clubhouse and wind instruments…) and thus lording it over their husbands. The men, however, discovered the secrets and turned the tables on their wives" (Lowie 1949:337).

Yolanda spoke to these conjectures, and, insofar as she could, de-constructed them point by point. The result was a surprising view of women as autonomous in the context of daily life, but excluded from and represented as subordinate in political and ritual life. One of the insights of Yolanda's 1972 monograph is that the spatial separation of the sexes among the Mundurucú is not the root of their subordination. On the contrary, she finds it to be an important source of cohesion and autonomy for women. Yolanda argued that the deprivation of the women in the ritual and symbolic spheres was compensated for in the realm of practical activity: "The Mundurucú woman has less options and a shorter social horizon than the man, but she is able to compensate for this by having a firmer home base and a larger group of nearby, supporting kin. If the males do not dominate the women in a direct and instrumental way, it is because they cannot do so. For a man to intrude on the female domain would threaten the division of labor, and ultimately, the male role. Such intrusion would also pit the man against all the women, and no Mundurucú male would be so imprudent as to do this. Separation of the sexes would seem, on the surface, to be a symptom of male dominance, but it is actually the source of female strength" (1972:67).

In the same essay, Yolanda substantiates her argument with the specifics of Mundurucú daily life: "[T]he relative autonomy of the women derives principally from the separation of the sexes in both work and residence and from ties that bound them into a cohesive group against the men. The women slept in separate dwellings from the men and associated principally with each other. In most of their daily activities, they worked together as a group without any direction from the men and their work was fundamental to village subsistence. The mode of residence, which was matrilocal, also gave the women strong kinship ties within the village and, thus, a more secure position than that of the men, whose patrilineal kinship bonds were fractured by the mode of residence. This group cohesiveness, strong separation of the sexes and strong kinship ties within the village forged the women into a bloc. Insofar as their activities were joint and cooperative, the male who would encroach upon the sphere of one woman had to encroach upon many. The issue was resolved by separation of functions, and the female sector was self-regulating" (1972:4).

In the Mundurucú the Murphys found the coexistence of patrilineal descent -- in which individuals reckon descent through the father's line and matri-uxorilocal residence in which males reside in the homes of their wives. But residence was further complicated by the fact that men, after puberty, spent most of their time in a men's club house in the center of the village. Residential houses were located on the village periphery and consisted of a woman, her daughters, and her daughters' children. Men divided their time between the men's house -- where they slept and ate most meals -- and the residences of their wives or mothers. Public decision-making and ritual took place in the men's house. thereby excluding women from public discussion.

Myth, Ritual, and Gender Hierarchy

One of the most visible displays of male dominance, widely reported for male initiation practices in native South America, was the intimidation of women and uninitiated boys by mystifying objects including masks and musical instruments. Much was made by early male travelers and ethnographers of the dangers involved in witnessing these powerful instruments by non-initiates. These writers impressed upon their readers that women and boys might be put to death if they accidentally caught a glimpse of the powerful supernatural instruments (Koch-Grunberg 1923:219).

But Yolanda was not as easily persuaded. In 1972 she had this to say regarding the ritual and its demonstrations of power and subordination: "The men blow their sacred trumpets and the women are appropriately cowed. This is a ritual statement of one aspect of Mundurucú culture, but a complete picture must include the fact that the women are not really awed or mystified in the least bit." (1972:67).

A Mundurucú charter myth provided a basis for Lowie's allusion to an early matriarchy overturned by men. In this myth, recounted by the Murphys in Women of the Forest, women first controlled the sacred instruments that imbued their possessors with power. On first discovery women "devoted their lives to the instruments and abandoned their husbands and housework" (1974:88). Women occupied the men's house at the center of the village while men were made to carry firewood, fetch water, and bake manioc cakes. When women brought the sacred trumpets into the ceremonial space they shunted men to the periphery and ordered them to hide inside the dwelling houses (just as men do to women today). When the men had enough they rebelled. They occupied the meeting house and secured the instruments for themselves, thereby establishing their own dominance. Once the instruments of power were transferred to the hands of the men, the roles were reversed and men became ascendant. Thus, Lowie's "turning the tables."

In 1972 Yolanda had argued that in order to understand Mundurucú culture "…A complete picture must include the fact that the women are not really awed or mystified in the least bit." (1972:67). Two years later the Murphys together reworded the argument this way: “The status of the woman is stated clearly, unequivocally, and strongly in the formal canons of Mundurucú culture – her position is inferior to that of the man. This is a matter of official creed – male creed to be sure – reiterated at various points in the culture by elaborate symbolism and firmly held values. The women, on the other hand, do not agree with the men and, in spite of the sanctity given by tradition to their role, they neither like it, nor do they accept it. The relation between the sexes is not, then, one of simple domination and submissiveness, but one of ideological dissonance and real opposition. What follows is a description of male creed, but we enter the caution that like most ideology it bears a loose and sometimes curiously inverted relation to reality” (1974:87).

The Murphys pointed to the contradictions between men's and women's views of the Mundurucú ritual, values, and even the social universe, suggesting that homogenous, consensual notions of culture were oversimplified and misguided (1974). It is this modest finding, elaborated in Women of the Forest, that has the furthest-reaching implications for anthropological theory. Anthropologists had long been presenting culture as a homogenous, consensual body of norms and expectations about how people ought to -- or even do -- live.

The Durkheimian conception of a collective consciousness, influenced as it was by Rousseau's "general will" and Compte's "consensus," relied upon a common ground of beliefs and sentiments, values, norms, and regulations. The assumption at the heart of a theory of culture was that the sharing of common values was requisite to the overall coordination and integration of society as a coherent whole. Women of the Forest set siege to this assumption.

The Murphys were among the first to point out that by neglecting the unauthorized participants of society and presenting only the normative perspective, anthropologists were uncritically representing the deproblemized notions of groupness presented to them by a subset of stakeholders. "Because they are excluded from so much of what is reported by anthropologists as "the culture," we assume that they [women] do not have one of their own….We seem to have forgotten that the very essence of the relationship between the sexes is struggle, opposition, and socially useful, however, unconscious, misunderstanding….[O]ur description of “Mundurucú culture” should be understood as a point to the counterpoint of the female realm, a foil for the play of social life” (1974:52).

The work carried out by the Murphys into the issue of gender perception was the first of its kind. The Murphys were ahead of their time in pointing to the prejudicial way in which social scientists treated women and women's realities. The Murphys describe Women of the Forest this way: “This is a book about women, but as is commonly the case, it concerns women living in a man’s world" (1974:51). The Murphys departed boldly from anthropological dogma when they wrote that much of "traditional Mundurucú culture as it is recognized, conceptualized, and stated … is male ideology and lies within the sphere of masculine activity….[T]he social perspectives of the women are different, and they do not wholly identify with, nor feel bound by, that from which they are systematically excluded" (1974: 51). According to the Murphys, very different cultural realities may coexist, as they do for Mundurucú men and women, without threatening the coherence of society. Instead, they maintain social interaction as an ongoing dialectic characterized by misinterpretation, tension, and intrigue.

Women, Socialization, and Culture

But, if by culture one means a creed that is "masculine" in its origin and design, then women would be its alienated subjects. The Murphys found the source of intracultural dissonance in socialization. They followed Freud in maintaining that socialization was a sloppy process and the internalization of social values was not necessarily complete. Successful socialization -- producing individuals who shared group values and systems of belief and meaning, required the submission of the ego to a collectivity. Only a motivational structure that could generate behaviors that favored group life over self-gratification could achieve this end. It seemed to the Murphys that socialization was particularly sloppy when it came to women. If, as the Murphys maintained, women did not subscribe wholly to or believe completely in the dictates of society, the inescapable explanation was their partial and incomplete socialization. If the processes of socialization, incumbent as they are on motivations that don't reward women, failed when it came to them, then where are women situated vis à vis culture? The Murphys would say that the flaw lies in facile definitions of culture.

The early 1970s was a significant moment in the newly emerging fields of gender studies. The differences attributed to women and men by the Murphys in Women of the Forest were noted in the same year by feminist researchers Sherre Ortner and Nancy Chodorow. In spite of similarities in the descriptive findings, however, the conclusions arrived at by these pairs of authors were profoundly different. All four authors appear to agree with the perspective that women are "less mediated" than men. All describe women as everywhere more practical, pragmatic, particularistic, and this-wordly than men (Chodorow 1974; Murphy & Murphy 1974; Ortner 1974).

Referring to findings by psychologist Chodorow, the anthropologist Ortner writes "Chodorow demonstrates to my satisfaction at least that the feminine personality [is] characterized by personalism and particularism…. [T]he feminine personality… may have contributed further to the view of women as being somehow less cultural than men. That is, women would tend to enter into relationships with the world that culture might see as being more "like nature" -- immanent and embedded in things as given -- than "like culture" -- transcending and transforming things through the superimposition of abstract categories and transpersonal values" (Ortner 1974: 82).

On the subject of agency, however, the two pairs part company. Ortner and Chodorow conclude that because women are the principal agents in socialization they must subscribe to the same low evaluations of their own positions in society as men. This early feminist viewpoint, then, held that the subordination of women emerged from the construction of personhood with women bearing the greater responsibility for it.

Although in agreement with Chodorow and Ortner in depicting cultural constructions of gender difference, the Murphys diverge in their analysis, with important implications for cultural theory and process. If women were subject to, but not full participants in the "superimposition of abstract categories and transpersonal values," to use Ortner's phrasing, it was because they did not subscribe to what Robert Murphy had earlier referred to as the "collective delusions" of ideology (1971:229). According to Murphy, women did not subscribe to or believe in the dictates of a society that rewards men and is largely created by them. In the writings of the Murphys women are skeptical and less self-delusional than are men; they are more closely situated to an unsocialized or unmediated, (though the latter is not their word) "truth." Rather than being "inferior" and "dominated" the Murphys found in women a freedom from the normative grasp. It is precisely because women are less motivated and less mediated that they may be said to have a degree of freedom from cultural constraint not said to be had by men, who are both creators of, and actors in, their own creations. One can read the Murphys to find in women a greater existential freedom. Since they do not fully succumb to the “illusions” of ideology, women provide a metacommentary on culture. This in itself provides them with a power.

While the signifier in any act of signification is empowered by the act, the signified may be victimized by it. The Murphys' solution to the dilemma of unequal distribution of power in the creation of meaning is to postulate that women do not participate in the system of significations recognized as "culture" when these do not concern them or fly in the face of their own beliefs. In the process of meaning creation women do not necessarily subscribe to the significations of men -- particularly to those sets of meanings in which they themselves are the signified. Although obviously aware that norms are a very real part of the real world (with death or rape consequences for women who would disregard them) women did not regard rules with the peremptory obedience often assumed by cultural actors and ethnographic narrators. According to this view, women should be a source of social non-compliance. This matter in turn explains another postulate of the Murphys: men's fear of women. The Murphys concluded that "The role of the male … must be maintained by vigilance and continual self-assertion" (1974:95)

In retrospect, the Murphys' analysis appears to be the more feminist of the 1974 works insofar as it accords women powers of discernment and agency not recognized in the other analyses. The role of agency in the subordination of women continues to be debated in both scholarly and popular texts.

Gender and Power in Amazonia: Influences

Women of the Forest, with its discussion of sexual hierarchies, a myth of prior matriarchy and an analysis of contemporary male fears of women, inspired a new school of anthropology. One of the closest followers of the approach established by the Murphys is Thomas Gregor, who worked among the Mehinakú on the Xingú, a neighboring river valley in the southern portion of the Amazon basin. In Anxious Pleasures Gregor takes up a Mehinakú myth with similar content of sexual antagonism, competition over power between the genders in the form of ritual instruments, and the narrative of male dominance. The influence of Women of the Forest is evident. Like the Mundurucú village, the Mehinakú village was spacially and politically organized around a men's house with a periphery of female-headed households. Resonating with Women of the Forest, Gregor concludes, "..A myth of Amazons and male rebellion is an explanation of patriarchy for the Mehinakú. Men rule today, not because that is the natural order of things, but because they remain strong….What neither the myth nor the Mehinakú can directly tell us, however, is the dimension of fear that lurks behind the apparent strength" (1985:114). Gregor continues, "There is no other way to interpret the myth if we read it within the larger context of secrecy and intimidation ….[M]en with their dramatic masculine displays would have us believe that the barriers separating the sexes are walls of granite. The legend of matriarchy, however, almost reveals a dangerous truth: the men's house as a symbol of male identity is a citadel of papier-mâché. The secrecy, the intimidation, and the use of force are the shims and gimcracks that shore it up. Even though male identity and men's house culture are not immediately in danger of collapse, the cost of maintaining the façade runs high. The price the men pay is in anxiety: fear of their own sexual impulses and fear of women" (1985:115).

In her work among the Bakairí, also of the upper Xingú, Debra Picchi departs from the analysis of Gregor. Like a Mundurucú or Mehinakú village, the Bakairí village is organized with a men's or flute house at the center and a periphery of residential houses. Women and young boys could not enter the location where the sacred flutes were stored, nor could they witness the rituals in which the flutes were played. In general, Picchi, notes, Bakairí women avoided the ritual/political spaces at the center of the village, limiting their presence to the plaza edges (Picchi 2003:31). Picchi argues, however, that this alone does not indicate a domination by men over women. She stresses, instead, parity in the positions of men and women with regard to ritual and daily life. She points out that each sex is required to pass through important puberty and parenthood rituals during which each is regarded as vulnerable. Picchi pays equal, if not more, attention to female rites of passage, marking puberty, pregnancy, and birth (2003:28). She notes that some ritual masks were owned by women and underscores the importance of female deities and female ancestors referred to by the Bakairí as "mothers" or "aunts." Picchi also points out that Bakairí myths were passed down through the woman's side of the family across generations of women from mothers to daughters. For Picchi, these and other indicators suggest that the Bakairí were matrilineal. She finds support in this from von den Steinen's 19th-century report in which he observed what he called the "matriarchal organization" of the group, "matriarchal because sons belonged to the tribe of their mothers" (Picchi 2003: 29; Von Den Steinen 1966 298-305; orig. 1894).

The influence of the Murphys is apparent in my own work as well. Robert Murphy was my PhD advisor at the time of my fieldwork in the northwestern portion of the Amazon basin. There, among the Wanano, where women are also prohibited from viewing the potent initiation flutes that were once their own, I found reciprocal myths involving monopoly and appropriation of instruments of power told by narrators of each gender (Chernela 1997). A comparison of the two texts -- one performed by a Wanano woman and one performed by a Wanano man -- suggested the Murphy-esque finding that the differing perspectives of women and men in Wanano culture produce different narrative constructions and configurations of power. The male version calls attention to the hidden dangers of woman, while the female's version to the treachery of men. In the female version, a man disguised as a woman steals ornaments imbued with the power of "knowledge." In the male version a woman intercedes between a man and his claim to paternity. Each sex's relation to object (women to intelligence, father to offspring) is portrayed as indirect and precarious. The simplest and most powerful reading of these myths reduces each to an essential theft-and-loss. These may be taken, in turn, to stand for, in each case, a deep and basic psycho-social dilemma. For males, the loss is reproductive rights; for females, the loss is the right to speak and to know. The differences between them suggest strongly that the most fundamental dilemmas of existence are not the same for Wanano men and women yet they may be mutually determined.


Too often, anthropologists uncritically re-represent the ideologies presented to them by a subset of stakeholders. In so doing, they reinforce the privileged positioning of a sector of society in the creation of meaning. By neglecting the unauthorized participants of society and presenting only the normative perspective, these analyses obscure the complex relationships and social realities that are the objects of anthropological analysis. By considering the roles of women, these works, following as they do the tradition established by Yolanda and Robert Murphy, reproblematize gender identity and group belonging through the cultural processes of symbolization.

Research among women in native Amerindian societies has yielded important information regarding the way distinct cultural sub-groups construct social reality. These discussions raise important questions regarding ideology, cultural consensus, and common ground. First, it has been assumed that small-scale societies are static rather than dynamic; second, that they are homogeneous rather than diversified; and finally, that they are consensual societies where recognition of certain speech as "official" is not pertinent, as it is in complex societies.

The viewpoints of women are important here, not just because they have been generally neglected, but because they provide insights not available through the authorized views of either male informants or outside analysts. They draw critical attention to persisting assumptions that underlie anthropological convention. When the perspectives of women are considered a previously unseen picture of native Amazonian society -- and perhaps all societies -- emerges.


Bakhtin, Mikhail

1986 [orig. 1929] From Discourse in the Novel: Modern Stylistics and the Novel." In Critical Theory Since 1965, ed. Hazard Adams and Leroy Searle. Tallhassee: University Presses of Florida. Pp 664-678.

Barnes, Monica

2003 "Gertrude Evelyn Dole 1915-2001." American Anthropologist 105(2)484-486.

Chernela, Janet

1997. "Ideal Speech Moments: A Woman's Narrative Performance in the Northwest Amazon," Feminist Studies 23(1)73-96

Chodorow, Nancy

1974 "Family Structure and Feminine Personality." In Woman, Culture, and Society, eds. Michelle Zimbalist Rosaldo and Louise Lamphere. Stanford: Stanford University Press. Pp. 43-66.

Gregor, Thomas

1985 Anxious Pleasures: The Sexual Lives of an Amazonian People. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Koch-Grunberg, Theodor

1923 Von Roroima zum Orinoco. Reise durch Nordbrasilien zum Orinoco in den Jahren 1911-1913. Vol. 3. Stuttgart.

Lowie, Robert

1949 "Social and political organizations of the Tropical Forest and Marginal tribes." In Handbook of South American Indians V: The Comparative Ethnology of South American Indians, ed. Julian H. Steward. Smithsonian Institution Bureau of American Ethnology Bulletin 143. Pp. 313-369.

Murphy, Robert.

1959 "Social Structure and Sex Antagonism." Southwestern Journal of Anthropology 15:89-98.

1961 "Deviance and Social Control I: What Makes Waru Run?" Kroeber Anthropological Society Papers 24:55-61.

1971 The Dialectics of Social Life: Alarms and Excursions in Anthropological Theory. New York: Basic Books.

1974 "Deviance and Social Control II: Borai." In Native South Americans: Ethnology of the Least Known Continent, ed. Patricia J. Lyon. Pp 202-208.

1979 Cultural and Social Anthropology: An Overture. Englewood Cliffs. N.J.: Prentice Hall.

Murphy, Yolanda,

1972 "The Mundurucú Women of the Village of Cabruá" Thesis. Master of Arts. Columbia Univesity.

Murphy, Yolanda, and Robert Murphy

1974 Women of the Forest. New York: Columbia University Press.

Ortner, Sherre

1974 "Is Female to Male as Nature Is to Culture?" In Woman, Culture, and Society, eds. Michelle Zimbalist Rosaldo and Louise Lamphere. Stanford: Stanford University Press. Pp. 67-88.

Picchi, Debra

2003 Brazilian Indigenous Gender constructs in a Modern Context. History and Anthropology 14(1)23-39

Ribeiro, Berta,

1979 Diário do Xingú. Rio de Janeiro: Paz e Terra.

Von den Steinen, K.

1966 [orig. 1894] Among the Primitive Peoples of Central Brazil: A Travel Acount and the Results of the Second Xingu Expedition 1887-1889. Translated by F. Shutz . New Haven: Yale University Human Relations Area File.

Friday, December 03, 2004



Approximately 300 million indigenous peoples, representing 5,000 distinct cultures, live in over 70 countries on five continents. The UN defines the designation Indigenous peoples as "first peoples, tribal peoples, aboriginals and autochthons. They have a historical continuity with pre-invasion and pre-colonial societies that developed on their territories. They consider themselves distinct from other sectors of society now prevailing in those territories."
Indigenous peoples have been expulsed from their lands, prohibited from using their languages and practicing their life styles. Today they are among the most vulnerable and poorest populations in the world (OIT/ILO 2003; AIUSA 2003). In recent years Indigenous peoples have become increasingly involved in the shaping of international procedures involving their human rights. The following is a brief summary of some of the concrete actions taken, including international conventions, treaties, and declarations, whose goals are to recognize and protect the rights of indigenous peoples. The earlier part of the chronology establishes a context for the more recent events; the chronology is followed by abridged texts of the most relevant documents.



1919 International Labour Organization (ILO) created by the Versailles Treaty and affiliated with the League of Nations. In 1946 the ILO became a special agency of the United Nations with headquarters in Geneva.
1923 Representatives of Six Nations of the Iroquois appealed to speak before the League of Nations in Geneva and were denied. Chief Deskaheh addressed the Swiss public.
1924 Delegation of Maori representatives in London denied access to King George. The same delegation denied approval to speak before the League of Nations in 1925.
1945 The United Nations is established. According to its Charter: "The purposes of the United Nations are . . . to achieve international co-operation . . . in promoting and encouraging respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language and religion . . .. " (Preamble, Charter of the United Nations)
1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations. A portion of Article 1 states that: "All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights…" (See Appendix I). Article 2 includes the wording: "Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status. Furthermore, no distinction shall be made on the basis of the political, jurisdictional or international status of the country or territory to which a person belongs, whether it be independent, trust, non-self-governing or under any other limitation of sovereignty" (UDHR). (See Appendix I.)
1952 ILO initiates Andean Indian Program.
1953 ILO publishes the first international report on indigenous peoples, "Indigenous Peoples: Living and Working Conditions of Aboriginal Populations in Independent Countries."
1957 ILO adopts Indigenous and Tribal Populations Convention no. 107. This Convention is the first international juridical instrument to address indigenous peoples and their rights. Twenty-seven countries ratified this Convention.
1962 The Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) was created by the United Nations to monitor the compliance of signatories to international human rights treaties. It requires state parties to submit periodic reports on implementation of treaty norms to UN Secretary-General and publishes these reports annually. CERD is empowered to receive and consider complaints.
1965 The International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination is the first legal instrument adopted by the UN General Assembly that holds signatory states binding to its principles of commitment toward the elimination of all forms of racial discrimination. Today 128 states are parties to this Convention.
1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICPPR). Like the CERD Convention, ICPPR is empowered to monitor and review actions by states to fulfill their obligations as stipulated in human rights agreements. As a treaty-based instrument, it maintains complaint procedures to enforce the norms articulated in the treaties to which the body is attached. It publishes reports on state compliance. There are at least 148 ratifications of the ICCPR
1966 [off. 1976] International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). This Covenant details the economic, social and cultural rights enumerated earlier in the Universal Declaration on Human Rights and is legally binding on those countries that have ratified it. Together, the UDHR, ICCPR, and the ICESCR are known as the International Bill of Rights. The ICESCR includes the right to work, to just and favorable conditions of work, to form and join trade unions; to attain adequate standards of living; to enjoy the highest standards of health and education; and to participate fully in cultural and civic life. It prohibits all forms of discrimination in the access to and enjoyment of these rights.
1977 NGO rally on behalf of indigenous peoples. Approximately 200 indigenous delegates attended a conference of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) against the discrimination of indigenous people.
1980 ILO Convention 107 criticized as encouraging assimilation and integration. These criticisms led to the formation in 1982 of the United Nations Working Group on Indigenous Populations. ILO Convention 107 was substituted in 1989 by ILO 169.
1982 UN Working Group on Indigenous Populations
Part of the UN Sub-Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights (established according to Economic and Social Council Resolution 1982/34), the Working Group on Indigenous Populations was established to promote and protect indigenous peoples' human rights and fundamental freedoms by developing international standards, measures, and review mechanisms related to indigenous rights. The Working Group has played an important role in increasing the participation of indigenous people in the formation of international policies. Meeting annually in Geneva since 1982, it has become one of the largest UN forums on human rights, with hundreds of indigenous representatives in attendance.
1985 United Nations Voluntary Fund for Indigenous Populations
The United Nations Voluntary Fund for Indigenous Populations was established in 1985 with the purpose of assisting representatives of indigenous communities and organizations to participate in the deliberations of the Working Group.
1987 The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights was established to monitor the progress of countries towards fully implementing the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). The Committee also formulates General Comments that clarify what countries must do to comply with the ICESCR.
1989 ILO Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention No. 169
This convention is the first international instrument to recognize self-identification of indigenous and tribal peoples as a fundamental criterion. It specifies the rights of indigenous peoples to their lands, traditions, languages, and to all human rights without discrimination. It specifies the requirement that indigenous peoples be consulted in matters concerning them and that no form of coercion may be used in violation of their rights. It calls for "special measures" to be adopted, if necessary, in order to safeguard the persons, institutions, property, labour, cultures and environment of the peoples concerned. (See Appendix II.)
1993 Draft Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples
In 1985, following its mandate, the Working Group on Indigenous Populations initiated discussions toward a United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. In July 1993 the Working Group agreed upon and presented a final text for the draft declaration, based on reports to the Working Group in eight years of documentation. The draft declaration is currently under review by a Working Group within the Commission on Human Rights. According to the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), the draft Declaration is, in UN terms, "quite young," and it is expected that final deliberations on the text will be difficult. Significant disagreements remain between indigenous representatives and governments. The process of debate should contribute to raising awareness about indigenous rights and the processes necessary to secure them.
1993 The United Nations proclaimed 1993 the Year of Indigenous Populations
1993 World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna. The Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action recommended that a permanent forum on indigenous issues be established within the framework of the United Nations International Decade of the World's Indigenous Peoples (1995-2004).
1994 The General Assembly of the United Nations proclaimed 1995-2004 the International Decade of the World's Indigenous Peoples. The stated goals were to strengthen international cooperation to resolve problems faced by indigenous peoples in areas including human rights, environment, development, education and health. Numerous international indigenous rights training programs grew out of the "decade," including the annual indigenous fellowship program of the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.
2000 The Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues
In 2000 the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) adopted a resolution to establish a Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. The first two sessions of the Permanent Forum, the highest-level international body ever empowered to deal with the rights and needs of indigenous populations, were held in May of 2002 and 2003. The Forum is comprised of sixteen members, eight to be nominated by governments and elected by the council and eight to be appointed by the President of the Council following formal consultation The Forum's mandates are to 1) provide advice and recommendations on indigenous issues to ECOSOC, as well as to programs, funds, and agencies of the UN, through the Council; 2) raise awareness and promote integration and coordination of activities relating to indigenous issues within the UN system; and 3) prepare and disseminate information on indigenous issues.
2001 Special Rapporteur of Human Rights and Indigenous Issues
The role of the Special Rapporteur, as specified by the Commission on Human Rights Economic and Social Council, includes furthering the purposes set out by the United Nations' Charter to promote and encourage respect for human rights and for all, as well as to specifically recognize, promote, and protect more effectively the human rights and fundamental freedoms of indigenous peoples. Functions of the Rapporteur include compiling information on human rights, health care, resource access, public participation, development, and education of indigenous peoples in order to formulate proposals to prevent, monitor, and remedy violations of the rights and freedoms of indigenous people. It is expected that the Special Rapporteur will work with other UN bodies in strengthening international cooperation toward the achievement of these goals. The Rapporteur appointment is three years. The first report of the Special Rapporteur on the impacts of large development projects on indigenous peoples is available.

The Americas
1948 Organization of American States (OAS). Originally established in 1890 as the International Union of American Republics, it became in 1910 the Pan American Union, and finally, adopted with charter in Bogota, Colombia, 1948, as the Organization of American States. The stated purposes of the Organization are to strengthen peace and security in the hemisphere; promote representative democracy; ensure the peaceful settlement of disputes among members; to provide for common action in the event of aggression; and to promote economic, social, and cultural development. Human rights in the inter-American system are based upon the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man, dating to the 1948 formation of the OAS.

1959 The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR). One of the organs of the OAS, the Commission is made up of seven members, elected in their individual capacity by the General Assembly. The Commission's principal function is to promote the observance and protection of human rights among all member States and to serve as a consultative organ of the Organization in these matters. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) is distinguished from other multilateral human rights entities by its political autonomy. Its seven commission members are elected in their own right, not as representatives of governments. IACHR autonomy is further enhanced by its prerogative to initiate human rights investigations without the approval of the Secretary General or the Permanent Council.
1969 American Convention on Human Rights. This Convention is based on the non-discrimination and equal protection provisions of the OAS Charter, the American Declaration, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the American Convention on Human Rights and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The United States signed the American Convention on Human Rights in 1977, but has not yet ratified it.
1992 The Inter-American Court of Human Rights, based in San José, Costa Rica, was established by the American Convention on Human Rights. It is an autonomous juridical institution of the OAS whose purpose is to interpret and apply the American Convention on Human Rights. The Inter-American Court of Human Rights has jurisdiction to adjudicate claims alleging violations of the American Convention on Human Rights, the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man, and other international conventions on human rights in the American States. Provisions of the court hold that its decision be binding on all members of the Organization of American States, whether or not they have ratified certain of the Conventions that formed the basis of the opinion.
2001 Mayagna (Sumo) Awas Tingni Community v. Nicaragua is a landmark case decided by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. The Court interpreted the principle of the human right to enjoy the benefit of property, as affirmed in the American Convention on Human Rights, to include the right of indigenous peoples to the protection of their customary land and resources. The court held that the state of Nicaragua violated the traditional property rights of the Awas Tingni community. The case is important because 1) it is the first case involving indigenous peoples to come before the Court; 2) it recognizes unwritten, communal, traditional rights over codified colonial laws; and 3) the decisions of the Court are binding upon the State.

Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations 1948. In one international declaration, covenant and convention after another since the United Nations was founded, States have accepted that all members of the human family have equal and inalienable rights, and have made commitments to assure and defend these rights.
Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world,
Whereas disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind, and the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people,
Whereas it is essential, if man is not to be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, that human rights should be protected by the rule of law,
Whereas it is essential to promote the development of friendly relations between nations,
Whereas the peoples of the United Nations have in the Charter reaffirmed their faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person and in the equal rights of men and women and have determined to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom,
Whereas Member States have pledged themselves to achieve, in co-operation with the United Nations, the promotion of universal respect for and observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms,
Whereas a common understanding of these rights and freedoms is of the greatest importance for the full realization of this pledge,
Now, Therefore, THE GENERAL ASSEMBLY proclaims THIS UNIVERSAL DECLARATION OF HUMAN RIGHTS as a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations, to the end that every individual and every organ of society, keeping this Declaration constantly in mind, shall strive by teaching and education to promote respect for these rights and freedoms and by progressive measures, national and international, to secure their universal and effective recognition and observance, both among the peoples of Member States themselves and among the peoples of territories under their jurisdiction.
Article 1. All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.
Article 2. Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status. Furthermore, no distinction shall be made on the basis of the political, jurisdictional or international status of the country or territory to which a person belongs, whether it be independent, trust, non-self-governing or under any other limitation of sovereignty.
Article 3. Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.
Article 4. No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms.
Article 5. No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.
Article 6. Everyone has the right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law.
Article 7. All are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law. All are entitled to equal protection against any discrimination in violation of this Declaration and against any incitement to such discrimination.
Article 8. Everyone has the right to an effective remedy by the competent national tribunals for acts violating the fundamental rights granted him by the constitution or by law.

Excerpts from the International Labour Organization
Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention, ILO # 169

Art. 3.1. "Indigenous and tribal peoples shall enjoy the full measure of human rights and fundamental freedoms without hindrance or discrimination. ..
Art. 3. 2. No form of force or coercion shall be used in violation of the human rights and fundamental freedoms of the people concerned.
Art. 4.1 Special measures shall be adopted as appropriate for safeguarding the persons, institutions, property, labour, cultures and environment of the peoples concerned.
Art. 4.2 Such special measures shall not be contrary to the freely-expressed wishes of the peoples concerned.
Art. 6.1 In applying the provisions of this Convention, governments shall a) consult the peoples concerned…
Art. 12 The peoples concerned shall be safeguarded against the abuse of their rights and shall be able t take legal proceedings, either individually or through their representative bodies, for the effective protection of these rights. Measures shall be taken to ensure that members of these peoples can understand and be understood in legal proceedings…
Art 13.2 The use of the term "lands" …shall include the concept of territories, which covers the environment of the areas which the peoples concerned occupy and otherwise use.
Art 14.1 The rights of ownership and possession of the peoples concerned over the lands which they traditionally occupy shall be recognised. In addition, measures shall be taken in appropriate cases to safeguard the right of the peoples concerned to use lands not exclusively occupied by them, but to which they have traditionally had access for their subsistence and traditional activities. Particular attention shall be paid to the situation of nomadic peoples and shifting cultivators in this respect.
Art. 18 Adequate penalties shall be established by law for unauthorised intrusion upon, or use of, the lands of the peoples concerned, and governments shall take measures to prevent such offences.
Art 16 "…The peoples concerned shall not be removed from the lands which they occupy..(and see other paragraphs).