Friday, March 29, 2013

Anti-Slavery Campaign Interview Series. Sarah Augustine

Breaking the Chains of Indigenous Peoples

Sarah Augustine is an assistant professor of Sociology at Heritage University and the co-director of Suriname Indigenous Health Fund, a private international charity.  Sarah led a team of Indigenous and church leaders to draft the World Council of Churches Statement on the doctrine of discovery and its enduring impact on Indigenous Peoples, which was adopted on February 17, 2012. The focus of Sarah’s scholarship is in community directed research and intervention and public engagement in science. A trained mediator, the focus of Sarah’s practice is in group conflict transformation, community engagement, and racial justice. Sarah is a member of Seattle Mennonite Church.

Yago: Sarah, welcome to this blog where we are dealing in a holistic way with the energies of enslavement that keeps perpetuating terrible injustices nowadays, one of them being the historical and current oppression to the Indigenous Peoples. One of the most difficult obstacles is that we are relating to a "force without a face." This inhuman force acts in unexpected ways and in unexpected institutions. 
Laurenti Magesa
Just one month ago, african theologian Laurenti Magesa  gave a conference at Tangaza College (Nairobi) on the occasion of the 125th anniversary of Charles Lavigerie's anti-Slavery Campaign. In his speech Magesa said that "except for rare cases such as Cardinal Lavigerie, much of Christian evangelization within Africa itself was reluctant to pronounce and declare unequivocally that the Slave Trade and slavery were "intrinsically evil." Magesa documents the words of Pope John Paul II recognizing and acknowledging this historical oversight in the history of the Church. In John Paul II's Apostolic Letter of 1994, Tertio Millenio Adveniente (TMA), he openly apologized for what he describes as the "sinfulness" of the Church's children on this matter. The Pope had in mind, in his words, “all those times in history when ... [Christians] departed from the spirit of Christ and his Gospel and, instead of offering to the world the witness of a life inspired by the values of faith, indulged in ways of thinking and acting which were truly forms of counter-witness and scandal” (TMA 33). He emphasized that the Church cannot be true to herself and her vocation today “without encouraging her children to purify themselves, through repentance, of past errors and instances of infidelity, inconsistency, and slowness to act.” The Pope further noted that “acknowledging the weaknesses of the past is an act of honesty and courage which helps us to strengthen our faith, which alerts us to face today's temptations and challenges and prepares us to meet them” (TMA 33). It is with this truthful and courageous spirit that I would like this interview to proceed. The only goal is to strengthen our faith as we openly name the "force without a face" behind the "Doctrine of Discovery."  
Sarah, I was very impressed by your witness at the Center of Justice and Peacebuilding (CJP) where you introduce to us the “Doctrine of Discovery” and your work of advocacy at the United Nations and the World Council of Churches (WCC). I was also touched by your zeal and prophetic voice against the systemic structures of today’s world that undergoes silent genocides like the one in Suriname. You are a Native American and we would like to incorporate your cry for the rights of the Indigenous peoples. I would appreciate if we can begin this interview tackling briefly the situation of Indigenous Peoples in North-America. Afterwards, we shall discuss a very crucial issue to which you are giving your life literally: the "Doctrine of Discovery" and how it fuels the silent genocide happening with the Wayana people in Suriname, Guyana, French Guyana and Brazil. But, first of all, Sarah could you share with us your own background as a Native American? How have you experienced your being a Native-American in the States?

Sarah:  I am glad you asked this question first, because I think it dramatizes the divisive nature of the Doctrine of Discovery – the laws and policies the doctrine gave rise to are meant to divide. 
I am not technically a “Native American”; rather, I refer to myself as a “displaced person.” I come to this conversation not as a leader or a scholar, but as a simple woman, a brown woman, for that is all I can claim to be. Like many people who dwell in North America, I am the product of a diaspora: the history, language, tradition, genetics of my people were wrenched from a place and thrown to the wind, divided for all time.  In the language of the arrow of time, where progress moves in one direction, I am an assimilated person. 

My lineage is similar to Indigenous people throughout the Americas. My Mothers people are originally from southern Colorado, a people twice colonized: first by the Spanish, then by the Northern Europeans. Although not one of her relatives can be traced to a border crossing, her childhood was marked by white locals telling her to “go back to Mexico.” My father was raised in a Catholic boys-home. Segregated orphanages like the Catholic charity where he grew up were common in the 40’s, as was the practice of removing Indians from their homes and relocating them to cities. Both of my parents grew up on the margins of society, neither with parents. When I asked my mother where I came from, she would say, “The planet earth. Your father and I are like Adam and Eve.”
No history. No extended family. No identity.
This process of un-naming, of depatriating, of denying, is ongoing in Suriname where I work, and around the globe. 

Yago: Following the establishment of the United States of America, Native Americans were denied basic civil rights for many years. Could you share with us the current situation as far as civil rights is concern of the indigenous peoples in America?

Sarah: The fundamental rights of human identity, life liberty and even property were denied to Indigenous Peoples in the United States for centuries.  Let me tell you how. 

Right to Tribal Identity / Right to Property: The Allotment Act of 1887 took millions of acres from Indian nations that had been designated as Indian Lands by treaty.  This was done by “selling surpluses,” where tribal lands were divided and allotted to individual tribal citizens.  Acreage that was not allotted was sold as surplus, and monies retained by the Federal Government. The allotment act, the sales of Indian lands, along with voluntary sales and state tax foreclosures, were designed to destroy collective land ownership, to break cohesion and a sense of identity among Indigenous Peoples. Indian Nations are still legally defined as “dependents” of the United States to this day, a status which allows the Federal Government to have “plenary power”, or ultimate decision-making authority over Indian Nations and their assets.

The Protection of children and families: For generations, Indigenous children were forcibly taken from their parents and housed in mass concentration camps far from their homes. Boarding schools were established by the national government in 1819 by the “civilization fund act,” where Christian societies were charged with civilizing children with a program of “total emersion” in mainstream society and its culture. Indian children were six times more likely to die in boarding schools than any other ethnic group, due to poor sanitation, inadequate diet, and overwork.  These institutions disciplined indigenous children with corporal punishment, forbade them to speak their native languages, and forcibly changed their names and appearance.  Indigenous children were often separated from their families for the entirety of childhood.  When many returned to their families, they could not speak to their parents. These boarding schools persisted until the 1980s and early 1990s, although federally mandated investigations as early as 1928 encouraged their abolishment. 

Basic Civil Rights: Defining the status of Indigenous Peoples as inferior to Europeans was an effective strategy in the early stages of land occupancy, while open conflict was still commonplace. The Doctrine of Discovery was very effective in doing this. However, denial of their existence was a policy strategy created with longevity in mind. By Segregating Indigenous Peoples onto “reservations” (portions of land that are often the poorest in natural resources, lacking in infrastructure, and fraught with social problems), the “problem of the Indian” was isolated and swept out of the view of the majority culture. The allotment act in the United States privatized the vast majority of Indigenous land, and broke up indigenous collectives. The tens of thousands forced to assimilate in large cities away from their homelands were stripped of their identity. What is an Indigenous person off of the reservation? 

Those who belonged to tribes that were either denied federal recognition or stripped of federal recognition were defined out of existence – not real Indians. “Real Indians” are each issued a card and assigned a number. To be counted as Indigenous, you must bear the card, recite the number, prove your blood quantum. This is dehumanizing.  Although I am not a “Native American” as defined by law, I and thousands like me live with the legacy of displacement, racial oppression, and generational disenfranchisement from legitimate economic structures. American Indians, the land’s original people, were not even considered citizens of the United States until 1924.

Yago: American Indians are citizens of their tribal nations as well as the United States, those tribal nations are characterized under U.S. law as “domestic dependent nations.” This particular relationship creates a tension between rights granted via tribal sovereignty and rights that individual Indians retain as U.S. citizens. Could you explain to us, in practical terms, what kind of tensions creates this “dual citizen” status?

Sarah: To understand this, I have to define some legal details:

Due to the legal rules of discovery, specifically the legal doctrine of pre-emption, Indian Nations lost inherent sovereign powers once Europeans touched North American soil. These sovereign powers included free trade and international diplomatic relations, which means tribes could negotiate only with nation of “first discovery”.  This locked Indigenous tribes in an exclusive relationship with the state.

The allotment act described above was explicitly created to do the following[1]:
  • Further the progress of native farmers (or force Indigenous tribes to farm and abandon migratory hunting and gathering practices);
  • Reduce the cost of native administration; and
  • Secure parts of the reservations as Indian land, and therefore open the remainder of the land to white settlers for profit.
The result of this policy is that many reservations are inhabited by many non-natives. Those who live on reservations often live by two separate sets of laws; one for Natives, and the other for non-native people.

For example, until very recently, the tribal police on reservations could not arrest non-tribal people living on the reservation, whatever the offence. This made it practically impossible for Indigenous governments to enforce the law and effectively protect their citizens. On the reservation where I live, the treaty between the United States and the Yakama nation dictates that the reservation is a dry region, where liquor cannot be bought or sold.  However, in towns where the majority are non-native, liquor is sold in direct violation to the treaty. Now imagine a tribal police force that is mandated to preserve law and order, yet unable to arrest or confront non-native people living in their jurisdiction.   
Finally, the allotment act over-ruled tribal governance in favour of individual private property. By federal rule, in the 1950s the United States terminated the existence over 100 tribes in order to undermine collective land ownership.  Although tribes were later granted the right to self-govern again, many tribal government structures were created by the federal government to emulate mainstream US political structures. Keep in mind that all tribal governments are still designated as dependents of the federal government.

Yago: Throughout the 19th century, it was believed that the United States, specifically those of Anglo-Saxon decent, were destined to expand across the continent, in what was referred to as “Manifest Destiny.” What is meant by this term?

Sarah: Manifest destiny is the belief that God divinely ordained Europeans to spread from the east coast of North America to the Pacific Ocean, thereby overtaking the entire continent.  This ideology inspired the Mexican American war and the war with England of 1812. Manifest destiny is made up of a few basic assumptions.

This ideology assumes that the United States has moral virtues that others do not possess, and as a Christian nation, it is spreading democracy (liberty) and the American way of life (capitalism), as a pre-destined fate ordained by God. The fundamental belief implicit in this system of thought is that North Americans of Anglo-Saxon decent are God’s elect, chosen people.

Yago: Currently the Doctrine of Discovery is the legal framework in North-America and around the world and is still the basis of the law for the way the indigenous peoples are allowed to interact with their lands. Please, could you introduce to us the concept of the “Doctrine of Discovery”?

Sarah: The Doctrine of Discovery is a body of international policy that originated from the Church and is the basis of international law governing land-tenure to this day. Since the European and Western legal systems are based on precedent, the land-rights Indigenous peoples face today, reflected in legal decisions made by the US supreme court and high courts around the globe, are based on policy set by the Church before Columbus and reinforced by legal structures for centuries. The doctrine has been primarily used to support decisions invalidating or ignoring indigenous possession of land in favour of colonial or post-colonial governments. However, these policies are threaded through all of our institutions, and unfairly disadvantage indigenous peoples as a matter of policy.

Historically, these policies:
  • Gave land title to Christian/European states who could assume sovereignty over "heathens, pagans, infidels" on the basis that these lands were devoid of human beings (Terra Nullius);
  • Justified the use of force, including genocide, where the church empowered states to use violence or "coercion" as part of the great commission;
  • Justified the absolute power of European States based on "divine mandate."

Yago: But it wasn’t until 1823, with Johnson V. Mclntosh, that the United States defined the Doctrine of Discovery, as “discovery” and “conquest,” limiting tribal land and sovereignty rights. Isn’t it?

Sarah: All land tenure from European Invasion up until 1823 was defined by the Doctrine, which had been in operation since 1452. Land tenure was first established by England, and then by the US following the revolutionary war. In 1823, the term “Doctrine of Discovery” was explicitly used by the United States Supreme Court as the basis for the official Indian policy of the removal era, where national policy focused on removing Indigenous Peoples from their traditional lands and onto reservations. Loss of land rights and sovereignty were justified by the court this way: “The superior genius of Europe [is of] ample compensation to the Indians by bestowing on them civilization and Christianity, in exchange for unlimited independence.”

Yago: What do we mean by the “empty land” within the Doctrine of Discovery?

Sarah: Terra Nullius, or “empty land,” would become the cornerstone of the Doctrine of Discovery on the basis that “discovered” lands were devoid of human beings if the original people who had lived there, defined as "heathens, pagans and infidels,” were not ruled by a “Christian Prince.” Based on the 1452 Papal Bull Dum Diversas, Christian Sovereigns were empowered by the Church to “invade, capture, vanquish, and subdue… all Saracens and Pagans and all enemies of Christ… to reduce their persons to perpetual slavery... and to take away all of their possessions and property.”

Yago: The Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace of the Catholic Church issued in 1997 a Document entitled “Towards a Better Distribution of Land. The challenge of Agrarian Reform. The intent of this document is to increase and quicken awareness of the dramatic human, social and ethical problems caused by the phenomenon of the concentration and misappropriation of land. These problems affect the dignity of millions of persons and deprive the world of the possibility of peace. A specific section is dedicated to the expropriation of the land of Indigenous Peoples. Also it talks about the respect for the community property of Indigenous Populations. To my surprise there is not a single comment about the “doctrine of discovery” or an acknowledgment of the Church’s historical error. How much conscious are we of our painful contribution to the unjust happenings in history?

Sarah: I think both institutionally and even as individuals we are absolutely aware. Before Europeans came to North America, there were as many as 18 million Indigenous people living on the continent[2].  By the end of the 19th century, there were fewer than 250,000.  

Yago: Wolfgan Schonecke in another interview of this blog points out that the churches are afraid to admit their grave historical failures for fear of losing their credibility. What is your contribution in this regard?

Sarah: Yes, I agree that this is true, on a human level and on an institutional level. Institutions are particularly reluctant to take responsibility for wrongdoing because such admissions are felt to threaten their legitimacy.  The lust for legitimacy is similar to lust for land or any other kind of security; there is never enough.
I also think admission of wrongdoing threatens the privilege that was gained by injustice. If the Church admits to wrongdoing, it must begin the uncomfortable process of righting historical wrongs. This implies giving up both ill-gotten wealth and power. It is simply easier to justify inequality. As I travel speaking about the death caused by resource extraction, friends from more than one denomination have confided in me that they can’t consider divesting financially from mining because their churches have money invested in the mining industry. Uncomfortable truths about historical wrongdoing threaten financial interests as well as legitimacy.

Yago: Why is it so difficult to lament and to ask for forgiveness?

Sarah: This is my question, too, because Jesus fundamentally calls us to repentance. It may be a sense of entitlement that makes institutions and individuals feel justified in taking land and resources from so many people.  Manifest destiny is the tangible expression of this entitlement, where the past, however unfortunate, was necessary for progress to take place.  This logic insists that we find justifications for the past, justifications that keep us from having to take responsibility for the genocide of entire Peoples. To lament and ask for forgiveness would mean an admission of guilt not just for the past, but for the inequity that is imbedded in post-colonial societies around the world.  Three progressive democracies, Canada, Brazil, and India, have all passed legislation since July 2012 that endanger Indigenous Peoples in favour of resource extraction.  This is an extension of the doctrine.  To admit to historical wrongdoing would imply current policies are similarly unjust.

Yago: Eagle Heart says that the hurt left by the Doctrine of Discovery on North America’s native people can be seen in the form of high suicide rates, alcohol and drug abuse, and the prevalence of violence and rape. It is not easy to enter into the work of reconciliation; and it’s easier for non-naïve people to walk away and ignore the acts of their ancestors. What do you say about this comment?

Sarah: Yes, I agree with her. Historical and current policies have dismantled Indigenous communities intentionally, and many face serious social problems as a tangible outcome. 
But this is not about simply about our ancestors … people in the mainstream continue to benefit from historical injustice and policies that disadvantage Indigenous people as a matter of policy.

Yago: Why is so difficult to sit together and face the pain?

Sarah: In my own country, we want to believe that we have earned everything we have in our own lifetime.  We want to dismiss the benefits we inherit from systemic inequality that is structural. I don’t think this is necessarily conscious, but it urges many people focus on the here and now – feeling “I didn’t hurt those people myself, so I shouldn’t have to be sorry for what they suffer.” 

On another level, I think that guilt is toxic and erodes authentic relationship – it is a subtle form of violence that has an effect that is counter-intuitive.  If something makes us feel guilty, we tend to avoid conversations and encounters associated with the guilty feelings.  I ask people everywhere I go to quit focusing on “guilt”, and to instead focus on dismantling the structures that manufacture inequality.  Indigenous Peoples around the world are under attack, specifically by policies that favour resource extraction over human rights and human health. We need allies in dismantling the laws and policies that lead to oppression and death.  Those who live in developed nations must not let the fear of guilt stall and prevent us from accessing our mutual potential in genuine relationship.

Yago: A great part of humanity have done a great deal of violence through the ages in order to occupy and posses the land. Why do we hunger for land?

Sarah: This is a profound question.
On one level, land simply allows human beings to gain power through controlling resources. 
On another level, I believe hunger for land has the same basis as all greed, which is a need for certainty that is based in fear.  Most human beings long for financial security, but no amount of accumulated wealth is ever enough. 

Yago: The Doctrine of Discovery is a painful example of where the church has been in error, and amiss, and of how these errors contribute to contemporary social and economic issues. There has been a common statement of repudiation of that doctrine by the WCC?

Sarah: Yes.  In 2012 the World Council of Churches issued a statement rejecting the Doctrine of Discovery, the “Statement on the doctrine of discovery and its enduring impact on Indigenous Peoples.” Many denominations have also issued statements repudiating the doctrine, including the Episcopal church, the Methodist church, and the Unitarian Universalist church.

Yago: Can we say that the repudiation of the doctrine has given the church direction, and the church is now seeking reform in response to colonialism and its aftermath?

Sarah: Yes, there is a growing movement in many denominations, and within the ecumenical movement, to seek reform both within the church structures and also in the broader society.

Yago: Now, in practical terms, how is the global church standing in solidarity with Indigenous peoples on the verge of extinction? How can we dismantle laws and policies that are based in the Doctrine of Discovery?

Sarah: There is a movement now within multiple international church bodies to stand with Indigenous Peoples as a primary priority and focus of work.  This must take two foci.  The first is to supply material support to grass-roots, indigenous led initiatives in their efforts to dismantle the laws and policies that discriminate against them and threaten their right to exist.  We as Christians must move beyond symbolic support to programmatic and financial support.
Second, we must stand in solidarity by divesting from the financial interests that threaten the health, communities, and lives of Indigenous Peoples. The developed nations of the world financially benefit from extracting resources from Indigenous lands and territories. As people of faith, we must reject the death that is dealt them by refusing to participate in it. Many of our personal retirement funds, mutual funds, and private investment accounts as well as our church endowments and trusts are invested in resource extraction because these are very profitable and stable investments.  We must divest as people of conscience.

Yago: The Doctrine of Discovery affects not only people but also our mind-set. What can you say about this? How does the legacy of the Doctrine of Discovery define land rights around the world today?

Sarah: I think our association of progress with domination, and the inherent superiority of one people over another is a result of the doctrine.  I think the process of fragmentation that is imbedded in individualism is also a result.  Instead of seeing themselves as members of a collective, or as creatures embedded in an eco-system of mutual-dependence, Individualists see themselves as separate from and superior to creation. This belief extends to human relationship, where each individual is only responsible for himself and his own well being.
Since the European and Western legal systems are based on precedent, the land-rights issues that Indigenous peoples face today, reflected in legal decisions made by the US supreme court and high courts around the globe, are based on policy set by the Church before Columbus and reinforced by legal structures for five centuries. The doctrine has been primarily used to support decisions invalidating or ignoring indigenous possession of land in favour of colonial or post-colonial governments. However, these policies are threaded through all of our institutions, and unfairly disadvantage Indigenous Peoples as a matter of policy.

Yago: I believe that we must be prepared to share with indigenous communities that we truly seek to acknowledge and lament the pain of our history. While we cannot change our history and cannot right every wrong, we can lament together and built a future that endeavours to work together. How do you envision this tasks of reconciliation and acknowledgment of the pains we carry in our collective subconscious?

Sarah: First, all peoples must honour the humanity of Indigenous Peoples by following their leadership in reconciliation processes. I believe that part of reconciliation must be to join with us in the profound struggle for survival.  As non-Indigenous Peoples join with Indigenous Peoples, they will see that the struggle is to preserve life for us all.  In the past 12 months, policies in North and South America have threatened the largest sources of fresh water in the hemisphere.  This will impact Indigenous Peoples first, but will ultimately threaten life for all of us.
I am impressed by truth and reconciliation processes.  The truth and reconciliation processes ongoing in Canada now are inspiring.  But these processes arise out of trust and relationship that grows over time. The trust required to engage in such processes may grow out of sincere participation in the struggle for survival in practical, material ways described above.  We must all acknowledge that our survival is mutually dependent, and engage in resisting laws and policies that threaten life itself. 

Yago: Can we say that in today’s world there is an effective apartheid against the indigenous peoples where they have unequal access to structures? Do they really exist for today’s international system?

Sarah: The structural oppression created by the Doctrine of Discovery is similar to apartheid practiced in South Africa in that it is racially motivated, advantages historically colonial power structures, and is enforced through legislation and affirmed through judicial rule. The laws that disenfranchise and dispossess indigenous peoples are embedded in structures identical to the structures that codified and legitimized apartheid.

Suriname (South America)
Yago: Can we say that even today the indigenous peoples are being “colonized”? What is going on for example with the indigenous people of Suriname? Can we say that in Suriname are we witnessing a genocide?

Sarah: Indigenous Peoples in Suriname, and throughout the Guyana Shield region, are under attack. Resource extraction poisons food and water, brings disease, militarization, and results in forced removal or displacement. 

In the 1980’s, Christian missionaries began the process of consolidating the distinct tribes of Indigenous Peoples into village clusters. Originally, these tribes planted gardens and hunted in large areas of forest with low-population density on a cycle that could span decades.  This ensured that the poor rainforest soil would replenish itself from light cultivation.   
Once mission villages were established, the national government declared the interior “empty”, and therefore, open for resource exploration and extraction. However, Indigenous peoples persist in traditional cultivation, hunting and gathering cycles to provide the food, building materials, and medicines to support their population. The Suriname government does not take a census of the forest people population.  The numbers, estimated to be 10% of the national population, are based on village population estimates only. Meanwhile, according to government policy, the interior lands are uninhabited by humans. As the rainforest is eradicated by deforestation, hydropower generation and mineral extraction, thousands of indigenous people are poisoned, threatened or displaced.

Yago: You consider yourself as a human rights worker.  How is called your organization?

Yago: What does your organization do? What are you working on at the moment?

Arial view of a river contaminated
by small scale mining
Sarah: Our organization follows the leadership of Indigenous communities who struggle with the impacts of mining on their environment and on their health. Because we follow community leadership, we engage in many types of projects related to public health. In exploring root causes of disease, we engage international institutions in defining public health as a fundamental human right. Right now, we are working to engage the global church in standing with Indigenous Peoples. I believe people of conscience have the power to significantly impact global financial and development policy. The laws now favour extractive industry. It is going to take many dedicated people and communities of faith around the world to shift the discourse so that laws and policies favour life.
At the same time, we continue to measure health and environmental impacts of toxins produced by mining, and advise communities responding to these impacts.

Dr. Tim Takaro on the 2012 health assessment trip --  testing children
for nervous system damage from mercury in the fish, a toxin from gold mining.

Editor's Note: In April 2012, a crew from Dan Rather Reports traveled with a Suriname Indigenous Health Fund health assessment team to Suriname’s interior region. The reporters went there to document a decade-long effort by the Wayana people who are struggling to combat the effects of mercury on their health and the environment. Producer Kelly Buzby talks about the film from her perspective in the following 5 minute clip. Link video report

Yago: Is it a work of desperation and survival of this people? Are you working for the self-determination of this people?

Sarah: We do not see ourselves as saviours or as a source of charity. We support our partners’ efforts for their self-determination, and with them we work for our own as well. We stand with them resisting forces that are dehumanizing to all of us. We are all objectified by structural policies that favour production, expansion and growth over human life. For us, this work is a desperate attempt to retain our humanity, and to lead a life that is meaningful and fully engaged in relationship. Together with Displaced Peoples, we are struggling for all of our survival. 

A child in Apetina (Suriname) with unsafe levels of mercury in her body

Yago: Do the indigenous people have a say in the developing process that is happening, a say in their future?

Sarah: International Financial Interests have the most power in determining the fate of many Peoples.  The G8 and G20 act according to a non-transparent, non-democratic process, and they determine large-scale development schemes that impact us all.  Many national governments are at the mercy of these large international financial interests. Indigenous Peoples who work to change environmental laws in their own countries learn that in order to abide by regional trade agreements and receive international aid, their national governments must create conditions that are favourable to extractive industry. In the face of national and international complexities, it is difficult for Indigenous Peoples to have any say in their future. 
In Suriname, Indigenous Peoples do not even have legitimate legal standing, which means they are not entitled to negotiate with the National government on their own behalf. They have no land rights. They are in a situation where if they stay in their contaminated lands, they will die. If they migrate to the city, they have no economic power, or even a path to assimilation.

Yago: How much have you been able to get that situation in Suriname linked to the global network fighting for the rights of Indigenous peoples?

Sarah: Many links have been made by the communities whose leadership we follow.  I want to state clearly that it is not up to us to give our partners self-determination – they have that already as a fundamental aspect of human dignity. They don’t have to ask for it, and no entity on earth has the innate power to “grant” it.  We affirm our partners’ efforts to engage with others who demand acknowledgement by legal and economic structures.

Yago: What is the role of the governments to pass appropriate regulations towards safe environment? At what levels are you involved? What is your current strategy?

Meeting with the Local Community of the Wayana People
Sarah: Our mandate from the communities we represent is to work to amend the constitution of Suriname to include the United Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.  If this resolution is incorporated into the national constitution, the rights of Indigenous Peoples will be guaranteed. This will further impact national environmental policy, and all national policies that impact Indigenous Peoples. 

Yago: What can be done in our churches to get people more aware of all what is going on against indigenous peoples?

Sarah: I believe we must join together as people of faith in a global movement to educate our membership, and motivate them to action. We are working with many Indigenous people and church institutions to define strategies and materials to do this.
Right now, I think church institutions and congregations in the developed world can reach out to their brothers and sisters who live in impacted areas to hear their experiences and realities.  They can also review their financial holdings, individually and as collectives, to learn what their holdings are in resource extraction.  

Yago: Could you tell us about the session in United Nations about the doctrine of discovery and its enduring impact on indigenous peoples and the right to redress for past conquests?

United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues
Sarah: In 2012, the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII) chose the Doctrine of Discovery as the theme of its 11th session.  The UNPFII is a permanent advisory body to the United Nations Economic and Social Council.
In their summary recommendations to the Economic and Social Council, the forum stated “that all doctrines, policies and practices based on or advocating superiority of peoples or individuals on the basis of national origin or racial, religious, ethnic or cultural differences are racist, scientifically false, legally invalid, morally condemnable and socially unjust.”  Furthermore, they outlined action national governments must make to ensure the protection of Indigenous Peoples’ rights, including the inclusion of constitutional amendments.

 This is at the 2012 UN permanent forum on Indigenous Issues.  With Sarah Augustine are
from left to right: Oren Lyons,  John Diffenbacher-Krall, Bob Miller and Steve Newcomb.
This is the team that wrote the WCC statement repudiating the Doctrine of Discovery.

The UNPFII 11th session was significant in that church bodies were able to publicly participate in standing with Indigenous Peoples in opposition to the Doctrine of Discovery.  They were also able to listen to Indigenous Peoples describe the enduring impacts of the laws and policies that threaten and oppress them.  I believe this created a genuine opening of dialogue between non-Christian Indigenous Peoples and Christians.

Yago: You look not to be hopeful at all with the structures and now you are appealing to the churches. You belief in something larger than the power of this world. You are relaying in people of faith. Could expand on this?

Sarah: Displaced Peoples and all of us are engaged in a struggle that will not be solved by an easily identified solution.  Each of us must lay down our desires to do what is rational, what is measurable, what is predictable, and dive into the ambiguity of discipleship – to live in and for and with the Divine, the way of Life.  This is not a strategy that we are taught to pursue in school, it is not a strategy that will guarantee a decent income, or a comfortable home.  To choose Life is to decide with one’s whole being to work on the side of Life, promoting human dignity over financial gain, standing in the way of a juggernaut of endless growth at any cost that Western society defines as mundane, conventional, necessary.  To choose life is to stand on the side of the oppressed day after day, even if it means becoming oppressed, because this is what will enable us to retain our humanity, or perhaps experience it for the first time, since all of us are dehumanized by the machines of death.

Who will do this – who will risk choosing life?  To whom do I turn as a displaced person?  Kind, practical people of all stripes encourage me to do what is safe, to just take care of my own financial cares – the rest will take care of itself.  This lie is the evil that persuades decent people to stand by and do nothing while others are ground under by the juggernaut.
I turn to people of faith.  I turn to those who can hear the Divine call us to Life, those who can put aside self-interest and resist the machines of death.

Yago: Finally, what do you have in mind for the next meeting of the World Council of Churches?

Sarah: The World Council of Churches meets every seven years to identify a major programme of work for the next term. This November, the general assembly will meet in Bussan, South Korea.  I with allies will present there, in the hopes that the World Council of Churches will join with us in supporting Indigenous Peoples around the globe as we work to dismantle the laws and policies that live on as the legacy of the Doctrine of Discovery.  

Yago: Sarah, thanks for sharing with us your deep humanity and for your prophetic contribution to this blog. Indeed, honesty and courage are guiding your path in breaking the chains of the Indigenous Peoples.

Sarah: Thanks to you, Yago!

[1] Miller, Robert. 2006. Native America, Discovered and Conquered.
[2] National museum of the Native American