Indigenous people in the Americas have struggled against centuries of racism, attempts at genocide, and cultural discrimination. Indigenous women today and in the past have worked for the recognition and respect for native legitimate rights, such as the right to self-determination and territory, to cultural heritage, to control over their own resources. Some have felt an obligation to tell people about what has happened to their people. Learning the language of the dominant group, they have used it to testify about their peoples fate. In the process they have become cultural mediators - bridges - between the oppressors and their people. They also have become influential leaders working to improve the condition and status of their communities. Two such women from different eras are Sarah Winnemucca, a 19th century North American Paiute woman, and Rigoberta Menchú.
Rigoberta Menchú: In 1992, Rigoberta Menchú, a 33 year old Maya Quiché Indian, won the Nobel Peace Prize for her work on behalf of Guatemalas Indian peoples. Although she had been living in exile, because of the threats on her life, the prize put a spotlight on human rights abuses directed at Indians in Guatemala. During the years of Guatemalas thirty-six year long internal conflict in the 1970s and 80s, the longest in Latin America, the military turned on the Indians, accusing them of anti-government leftist leanings. A truth commission set up after the war ended said that more than 200,000 civilians were killed during the conflict and some 400 Mayan villages were razed. 38,000 people were taken by military death squads and never seen again. Thousands of children were orphaned, and one million people uprooted to become refugees. Rigoberta Menchú, a witness to these horrors including the torture and killing of her mother and father, became an active organizer who worked to help her people to defend themselves. Often she taught women how to defend themselves not only against government repression, but against traditional male injustice as well. She noted that her mother thought that daughters should be raised to become women who were useful to the community, that their participation in the struggle should be equal to that of her brothers.
Because the military targeted political leaders, in 1981 Menchú had to flee the country. In exile Rigoberta became internationally famous through interviews, speeches, and a book called I, Rigoberta Menchú, An Indian Woman in Guatemala. It told the tragic story of her life, opening with these words: This is my testimony...Id like to stress that its not only my life, its also the testimony of my people...My personal experience is the reality of a whole people. While some of the facts in the book were later questioned, the story remains an indictment of the exploitation of Guatemalas Indians and has been widely distributed throughout the world. At a later press conference Menchú stated that her book was not an "autobiography" but a "testimony." "For common people such as myself, there is no difference between testimony, biography, and autobiography ... What we do is tell what we have lived." Later she wrote a second book, Crossing Borders, which begins with her being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and her return to Guatemala in 1994.
In accepting the Nobel Prize Rigoberta Menchú said that the honor she received recognized the struggle of many who have dared to speak the truth. We have broken the silence around Guatemala. Now I would like to see Guatemala at peace, with indigenous and nonindigenous people living side-by-side......We indigenous people, not just the Guatemalan people, deserve this prize. It is a gift of life, a gift for history and a gift of our time. Her goal is permanent recognition and respect for the rights of indigenous communities, and for peace and justice.
Menchú spent years lobbying the U.N. urging the world body to give nongovernmental organizations representing the dispossessed greater voice. As a result of her efforts, The United Nations declared 1993 the International Year for Indigenous Populations. In 1996 she was appointed Goodwill Ambassador of UNESCO. With her prize she helped found the Rigoberta Menchú Tum Foundation which has aided the return of exiled Indigenous Guatemalans, initiated in 1993. In Guatemala, the Foundation is contributing to the expression of human rights through its campaign for civil participation and education for democracy and peace. It is monitoring the advances and shortcomings of the government with regard to indigenous communities. On the international level, the Foundation has played a major role in the Summits of Indigenous Leaders.
Menchú moved back to Guatemala, but on receiving death threats moved to Mexico City. In 2004 the new president of Guatemala, Oscar Berger, invited Menchú, to join his administration as "goodwill ambassador to the peace accords." In 2005, Rigoberta requested Spain to probe the abuses in Guatemala in the 1970s and 80s. Spains highest court has ruled that cases of genocide committed abroad could be judged in Spain even if no Spanish citizens had been involved. In Rigobertas eyes, any attempt to erase the evidence, and memory, of the past is like the second genocide against the people of Guatemala. The genocide case resulted in international arrest warrants for a number of perpetrators. "It is going to be very tortuous road, and it's a test of the Guatemalan justice system," Menchú said of the likelihood that the case will ever be heard in her country. She has also acknowledged that for her the struggle for human rights is permanent and ongoing.
To learn about Sarah Winnemucca, a 19th century North American Pauite woman who testified about the treatment of her people click here
For information about a unit on pre-Columbian Mayan women with excerpts from Rigoberta Menchús speeches click here