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Book Review: Peoples of the Earth: Ethnonationalism, Democracy, and the Indigenous Challenge in 'Latin' America
Martin Edwin Andersen , 4/1/2010

Peoples of the Earth: Ethnonationalism, Democracy, and the Indigenous Challenge in ‘Latin’ America (Lexington Books, March 2010) by American University lecturer and indigenous rights expert Martin Edwin Andersen presents a fascinating and comprehensive perspective on Latin American history focusing on the lesser told but nonetheless important story of indigenous rights across the Western Hemisphere.

This comparative study presents a sweeping journey across the Americas, from end to end, with important insights for the fields of indigenous studies, comparative politics, and strategic studies, helping to rebalance the field of “Latin” American studies so that it includes the indigenous “Peoples of the Earth” who survived the arrival of European settlers and conquerors, and who have long been a submerged but potent political force that is now emerging to transform the political dynamics of many Central and South American nations, united in their aspiration to reclaim their often unacknowledged, and at times suppressed, contribution to the history and politics of our hemisphere.
 
Andersen starts off with some profound insights into this largely untold story of the Americas, citing the question that Shawnee Chief Tecumseh asked William Harrison, then governor of the Indiana Territory, “a question revealing of the cultural abyss between Native Americans in what was then United States territory and the white settlers who were then moving onto their lands, dispossessing the original inhabitants: ‘How can we have confidence in the white people? When Jesus Christ came upon the earth, you killed him—the son of your own God—you nailed him up! You thought he was dead, but you were mistaken. And only after you thought you killed him did you worship him, and start killing those who would not worship him. What kind of a people is this for us to trust?’”  
 
The question of trust continues to cast a shadow over relations between indigenous tribes and the more modern states that now assert formal sovereignty over the Americas; but steadily, over time, relations have matured, and indigenous peoples have regained much power that had been lost to the earlier conquests, regaining their political voice as distinct societies within the increasingly diverse states of the Americas, particularly in the years since democracy went on the offensive and the Cold War order surrendered to something more complex, finding increasing sympathy and support from a world community committed to diversity.
 
As Andersen notes, “Throughout the 1990s and the beginning of the twenty-first century, indigenous peoples have been most successful arguing their case for the right to self-determination and autonomy before international forums. In fact, as political scientist Virginia Q. Tilley has chronicled, a transnational indigenous peoples’ movement has emerged, a ‘global network of native peoples’ movements and representatives—and of sympathetic institutions, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and scholars—which, through decades of international conferences, has formulated certain framing norms for indigenous politics now expressed in several international legal instruments.’”
 
And on the ground, Native empowerment continues to gain ground, especially in the states where indigenous peoples form a demographic majority or significant plurality, making them a force to be reckoned with at the ballot box: “As the twenty-first century progresses, other voices demanding the conservation or the reconstruction of pre-Colombian institutions, practices and borders are being increasingly noted, even when these are only partly documented and understood, and major differences exist in their interpretation, though for all intents and purposes such a history has earlier been described in the North American context as ‘nonexistent, an unheard wailing.’ Peruvian and Bolivian Indians dream of uniting the countries of the Andes, from Colombia in the north to Argentina and Chile to the south, in a reprise of Tawantinsuyu, the Inca Empire that brought together the Quechua and Aymara peoples living along the spine of the Andes before the Spanish conquest in 1532.”
 
One of this book’s many strengths is its sheer breadth of study, chock-full of country case studies based on meticulous research, with impressive use of sources. The author is intimately familiar with South America, having covered the region as a journalist and author, with two prior books published on the region’s political and military history. Peoples of the Earth combines his wealth of knowledge and insight spanning numerous countries, primarily in Central and South America but with insights also drawn from the struggles of Native peoples in the United States and Canada. This makes for fascinating comparative observations and analyses, connecting a long series of dots dating back half a millennium and stretching from the high north to the far south, in a rare but much needed retelling of the story of the “New World.”
 
To his credit, Andersen writes in an engaging, lively, non-ideological, and terminologically-uncluttered language that will make this work appeal far beyond the Latin American studies subfield. This work deserves a broad readership both within and beyond academia. It will help to offset the dearth of literature addressing the issue of native rights from a broad, and comprehensive, perspective. The narrative flows naturally and smoothly, and with a rapid pace and energetic style making the manuscript a delight to read, blending the best of academic analysis with a refreshing journalistic pacing. For those with an interest in the indigenous chapters of inter-American history, this will be a true page-turner. Andersen’s scholarship is sound, and the research that went into this book is meticulous and comprehensive, showing a unique depth and breadth of knowledge. The author brings in a wide range of sources including numerous classic works from the fields of Latin American and indigenous studies, as well as blending additional contemporary observations from journalists, columnists, native rights activists, tribal law practitioners, and indigenous leaders – augmenting secondary sources with fresh current affairs insights and primary perspectives. The breadth of sources enriches the depth of storytelling, with numerous examples and anecdotes provided throughout.
 
In addition to providing a breadth of historical detail, he asks important questions – hard questions that the indigenous peoples of the Americas are increasingly demanding answers to as their mobilization and empowerment continues: “The emergence of Indian nationalism within the context of increased activism by some of the Western hemisphere’s poorest and historically marginalized peoples, and the ethnonationalist reaction from some of the descendants of those who arrived in the hemisphere after Christopher Columbus, raise fundamental questions about democratic governance in Latin America. From international relations theory, the question of security dilemmas—occurring when two parties end up going to war, even when neither wishes to harm the other—looms in the background, as ethnic communities extending even beyond those of pre-1492 indigenous peoples, such as the Maroons, Garifuna and others, vie to wrest enough power and autonomy to enjoy ‘the attributes of sovereignty.’”
 
The work’s historical depth is impressive, incorporating not just current texts but reaching back to numerous classics and earlier events in the history that have informed the historical development of the Americas, including the emergence of the modern state system as well as the influences of other international dynamics including the worldwide struggle against fascism and the abhorrent racial policies that drove aggression during World War II as well as the long and painful legacy of colonial history and the perpetuation of colonial-era social divisions into the contemporary period in the New World that pitted indigenous interests against those of the newcomers.
 
The author’s historical expertise, intimate regional awareness, and comprehensive knowledge of the literature are evident throughout. The documentation of the sources used is also impressive, with fully thirty pages of bibliographic references chock-full of important sources, including a rich and comprehensive collection of books, journal articles, news articles, and author interviews in addition to government reports, providing researchers with a tremendous resource. Over thirty-five pages of highly detailed endnotes are a further reflection of the depth of scholarship and the meticulousness of the author’s research.
 
Peoples of the Earth will be of interest to scholars, researchers, policy analysts, policy makers, governmental decision-makers, and indigenous rights activists in the Americas as well as in other regions such as Asia, Africa and Oceania where similar issues and challenges exist. It will also be of interest to cultural anthropologists and human terrain mapping specialists thrust into the world’s hot spots and endeavoring to navigate their complex ethnocultural undercurrents and forge sub-state coalitions with tribal and local communities, often discovering much untold, and untaught, history along the way. Peoples of the Earth offers insights of pertinence to the ongoing GWOT struggle and the many ethnic and civil conflicts around the world where indigenous people continue to struggle to assert their rights, and to protect their proud cultural traditions, from more populous, modern state.
 
As Andersen asks, “Will the just empowerment of Native peoples and real respect for not just their ‘symbolic’ rights within the nation-state, the respect for their customs, traditions, and forms of political organization, but also effective recognition of their claims to lands and access to natural resources, be fairly balanced against the equally immutable rights and dignity of the sons and daughters, or great grandsons and great granddaughters, of those who once repressed them?” 
 
This comprehensive and original work reframes indigenous history, culture and tradition so that they're at the very center of the story of the Americas, where they belong. It deserves to be widely read, from the classroom to the forward operating base, filling a need in the field for such a holistic and comprehensive approach to state-tribe relations - in the Americas, and beyond.
 
About the Book
 
Hardcover: 296 pages
Publisher: Lexington Books
Publication Date: February 15, 2010
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0739143913
ISBN-13: 978-0739143919
 
About the Author
 
Martin Edwin “Mick” Andersen’s professional activities have taken him to every Spanish-speaking country in the Western Hemisphere except Cuba. He has worked as a foreign correspondent, historian and democratic development expert in Latin America; as an investigative reporter focusing on U.S. homeland security, crime and corruption, as well as an educator and a good government activist. He is currently Chief of Strategic Communications at the Center for Hemispheric Defense Studies at the National Defense University (NDU).
 
Reviewed by Barry S. Zellen.
 


 
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