Throughout their history of contact with the white man, North and South American Indians have been butchered, plundered and oppressed. Most people think that such tragedies are now part of history. But these crimes are continuing in South America at a genocidal level for several hundred thousand tribal Indians.
What has been going on, with little outside world attention, in Brazil’s Amazon area and the remote back country of Columbia and Ecuador and other neighboring countries can be described as open season on Indians. In the past four years, a Brazilian government investigation and independent reports have documented massacres by white men after the Indians’ land and property. These attacks were carried on with the complicity of the Indian Protection Service (SPI) of the Brazilian government. The official record of inquiry — several thousand pages in length — affords good reasons why the government report called SPI a “sinkhold of corruption and indiscriminate killing.”
For example, with the connivance or knowledge of the SPI, small Indian tribes were bombed, given smallpox on the pretext that they were being treated with anti-smallpox vaccinations and poisoned. The Indian population in Brazil, estimated at 3 million, declined to about 250,000 ten years ago and now is estimated at 100,000. Disease, starvation and other conditions which the Brazilian authorities treated with indifference or contrived neglect have taken their toll as well.
In Columbia, with its epidemic of violence between political factions in rural areas, the slaughter of Indians on the prairies by “cowboys” is treated like game hunting. A recent trial of a half dozen “cowboys” accused of massacring 16 Indians by luring them to a ranch for a feast, disclosed open admissions of this attitude. Said one defendant, “Indians are animals like deer or iguanas.”
In Australia, the Indians or Aborigines have suffered similar fates, though in recent years, their decimated population has been recovering. The Aborigines on the Australian island state of Tasmania were completely wiped out years ago. On the main Australian continent, the condition of the various tribes is worse than that of the American Indians — our poorest Americans. In Australia, tribes do not have ownership of minerals on their reservations, live in desperate poverty and disease with a rate of 300 babies out of every 1000 born dying, in some areas, by their first year. The half-bloods live in city slums and are exposed to discrimination and ridicule. With some 150,000 Aborigines left, less than half a dozen have graduated from college. The government’s open policy of assimilation is viewed by a growing number of Aborigines as in indiscriminate destruction of their culture.
What can be done about the plight of the original inhabitants of the Western Hemisphere and the Australian subcontinent? In South America nothing short of an unremitting, silent genocide is in process. First, there must be world focus on this human devastation. The United Nations should launch an official investigation under its Charter.
But most urgent is the need for a pan-Indian consciousness. There is a special need for a fact-finding commission composed of American Indians to travel to South America and Australia and observe the situations first hand. This mission could form the basis for communication and common effort among Indian people in all these countries. The world should listen to the cries and pleas of these victims of genocide. But the world, as it is, will only listen and act when these cries become roars and action replaces pleas.