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What I Learned from the Miskito People of Nicaragua

“Some of our elders died of broken hearts, far from their homes,” said Dionysio Brown, Miskito leader and cultural expert. He was speaking of the forced relocation of his people from their homes along the Rio Coco to inland communities by the Nicaraguan government in the 70s, during Nicaragua’s conflict between the ruling sandinistas and the US-backed contras . We were standing in his dimly lit, one-room museum on his Indigenous Miskito culture, among the dictionaries, Bible translation, postcards, and Miskito clothing that represent his life’s work. Behind him on the wall was a professionally printed, 12 foot long banner commemorating a series of lectures he gave on Miskito culture at a local university. I felt that I was in the presence of greatness.

I couldn’t help but think of my friend and colleague Shannon, whose mother’s Sayisi Dene community was forcibly relocated by the Canadian government to Churchill, Manitoba, in the 50s. For both populations, the pain of forced relocation is still so fresh and the effects continue to reverberate through their communities.

Hendir beamed as he led us to a row of perfect pepper plants growing in holes cut in a bamboo stalk. Held a couple feet above the ground by wooden supports, his hydroponic bamboo system protected the plants from bugs and allowed for careful soil control. He had trained 10 women in this Miskito community to use the system, and it had caught on.

I thought of the creativity and ingenuity I have witnessed among Indigenous communities in Canada—A Tribe Called Red combining pow-wow music with modern DJ beats to create energizing music and create new expressions of their cultures; or Shannen Koostachin founding a movement to get a proper school building for her community of Attawapiskat so that her younger siblings wouldn’t have to study in frigid, rat-ridden portables on gas-contaminated land as she had.

Though these Indigenous communities are separated by thousands of kilometres and are living very different stories, the similarities between their experiences were not hard to find. Disruption of culture and family structures. Amazing resilience and capacity. Marginalization. Passionate commitment to the preservation of their languages and ancestral lands.

Ryan Geleynse of world renew and I spent the last week on a long canoe-like boat, motoring through the rainforest of north-east Nicaragua to visit remote communities of the Miskito people, the largest Indigenous group in Nicaragua. World Renew has been working in these communities for many years with their local partner, Accion Medica, to help these communities re-adapt their farming practices to their environment after the massive upheaval and trauma of the civil war. I was sent there by the Centre for Public Dialogue and the Canadian Aboriginal Ministry Committee to learn about the experiences of Indigenous communities in Nicaragua and to dream about ways that we could work together to stand together for Indigenous rights in both countries.

Though the similarities are not hard to draw, in some ways Nicaragua is so far beyond Canada and the United States on Indigenous rights. Indigenous communities are able to make some of their own choices about their governance, educational systems, and land use in the two eastern regions of the country where they make up the majority of the population. Teachers in Indigenous schools must speak both Spanish and the dominant Indigenous language of the area in which they teach. Efforts are underway to reform the educational curricula to more adequately reflect Indigenous priorities and perspectives. Laws are in place to allow traditional doctors to pratice their craft and to protect the forests that are the source of their medicines.

There are yet many problems—untrained teachers, lax supervision of schools, malnutrition, weak health systems, falsified government statistics. But some of the building blocks for the empowerment and flourishing of Indigenous cultures and peoples are there—and that’s something to celebrate!

In some ways, the government of Nicaragua was forced into this progress. The voices of local Indigenous advocates were buoyed by support from international bodies like the International Monetary Fund, who threatened to withhold funds if Indigenous rights were not respected.

So how can Canada make this progress? It often seems that lower-income countries like Nicaragua have to play by the rules, but wealthier countries like Canada can flout the rules with no consequences at all. As citizens, we have the power to change that.

The latest report on the rights of Indigenous peoples in Canada was far from glowing. In fact, in terms of Indigenous rights, Canada doesn’t exactly have a good reputation on the world stage. Along with the United States and Australia, countries that are also based on heavy immigration and forced displacement of Indigenous peoples, we were one of the last countries to sign on the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, a powerful Indigenous-written declaration about respecting the human rights of Indigenous peoples. “What? Us? The peacekeepers? The polite unassuming younger sibling of the USA?” Unfortunately, yes. We need to own that. It’s time to update our understanding of ourselves as a nation, to see the ways in which we are not just a middle power, quietly peacekeeping and minding our own business, but we are the stronger and often oppressive partner in nation-to-nation relationships with Indigenous peoples. Quiet, unassuming Canada can be and has been quite the bully.

We can change this. We can educate ourselves on the rights of Indigenous peoples. We can support Indigenous movements for Indigenous-led education reform and protection of their territories and languages. We can learn about racism and about the history that has brought us to where we are today. (The Blanket Exercise is a good place to start.) We can unlearn our stereotypes and pay attention to examples of Indigenous courage, resilence, ingenuity, and strength. We can get to know our Indigenous neighbours at a local Indigenous friendship centre.

Nobody’s going to make that happen but us, citizens of this country that we love. The example of Nicaragua shows us that together as Indigenous and non-Indigenous people, we can take steps in the right direction.

As Christians, we have the best motivation for this advocacy and relationship-building: we know that every person is made in the image of God and that one day we will gather from all tongues and nations at the foot of God’s throne to offer Him the best that we have (Revelation 21:22-26). We will live in joyful unity and diversity with our Creator. How can we work together so that signs of that future Kingdom become a reality in our world today?

[Image: Anne Sharpe]

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