Conflict at the Inter-American Indian Congress this week highlights the struggle between Indians and their government-designated representatives, illustratinga problem that extends well beyond United States borders. The growing call for self-determination by North, Central and South American Indians reached a crescendo as a caucus of unofficial Indian observers to the meeting at one point brought all other deliberations to a standstill.
Threats of a boycott by the observers on Wednesday forced the official delegates, who were nominated by their governments, to promise to consider caucus proposals.
Even so, it was a small -- and possibly tenuous -- victory for the Indians. They wanted a written guarantee that such unofficial Indian groups as theirs would have access to the Indian Congress now and in the future. That proposal was rejected outright, although the Congress asked for a study on the matter.
The conflict here arises because many governments send delegations that are ``politically safe,'' says Alfonso Ortiz, professor of anthropology at the University of New Mexico, and an observer at the meeting. Some countries do not include a single Indian in their delegations.
Reports by official delegations here frequently clashed with statements by Indian observers.
Guatemala's delegation, headed by an army colonel, spoke of progress in Indian bilingual education, while Guatemalan Indians on the sidelines whispered of government-sponsored massacres of Indian villages. Ecuador's delegation announced that, for the first time, an Indian had been appointed chief of Indian affairs. But Indians from Ecuador charged that their people have been systematically denied fundamental legal and civil rights.
Indeed, Indians in the Western Hemisphere consistently rank at the bottom of the ladder in the economy, in education, and in political power.
``Will the native peoples of the [next Indian] Congress have to fight this battle all over again?'' asked Ken Gogtschalk of the Native American Rights Fund.
That question may go unanswered, at least until the congress meets again in four years. The gathering of about 500 people in the terra-cotta city of Santa Fe is the first congress to be held in the United States in the 45-year history of the Inter-American Indian Institute (IAII).
The congress, which meets under the auspices of the IAII, is a program of the Organization of American States (OAS). The institute's 17-member nations -- from as far south as Argentina and as far north as Canada -- work to identify and address Indian issues in the hemisphere.
Even in the US, where the Indian movement toward self-determination is considered to be strongest, conditions on reservation are often tragic.
American Indians have the lowest per capita income, highest suicide rate, highest rate of illiteracy, and highest unemployment rate of any ethnic group in the nation, Gov. Toney Anaya (D) of New Mexico told the assembly Monday.
The conflict that developed at the congress points to a ``movement of rising expectations among Indians,'' says Dave Warren, former US representative to the IAII and an organizer of the conference. ``In the end, an institution has to react to the wishes of the client it serves.''
The conference first opened its doors to nongovernmental Indian groups at its last meeting in 1980, Dr. Warren explains. Indian groups were allowed to speak, but there is still no rule requiring officials to consider Indian proposals.
``Indian involvement must be given a chance to mature. And that is what we are dealing with here,'' he says.
The conflict over Indian involvement was not the only clash at this week's meeting.
Earlier, Nicaraguan delegates publicly charged the US with waging a ``war of aggression'' in their country.
Lumberto Campbell, head of the Nicaraguan delegation, said fighting between US backed guerrillas and Sandinista forces has taken a heavy toll on the Indian tribes along areas of Nicaragua's Atlantic coast.
The charge prompted an immediate counterattack by the head of the US delegation.
Richard Montoya, an assistant secretary of Interior, denounced Mr. Campbell's speach as a ``political diatribe'' and an attempt ``to politicize this congress.''