Helping Indigenous People


Jose Guerrero Coronado

Upon the commencement of European colonization in the Americas, Native American populations immediately began to wane. With the reduction of their numbers, came a loss of their traditions, lifestyles, and languages. Today, although the situation varies within each country, Native Americans are often victims of poverty and lack of opportunity.

In the United States, people that live in reservations are mostly poor, and a great number of them are alcoholics and unemployed. In Latin America, the situation is not much different. Indigenous people often live far from cities in mountains or remote towns, and most exist without basic utilities like water and electricity. Although there are some tribes that willingly live this way (like those in Amazonia), other indigenous communities cannot sustain their ancient lifestyles and have to integrate themselves into the modern era. Their chosen livelihoods vary. Some are farmers, others mine, some sell crafts to tourists. All share a common problem: their governments have not found a solution for their widespread poverty. 

One major issue for indigenous Latin Americans is the language barrier. Most live in communities far from cities, and, as a result, cannot learn languages like Spanish and Portuguese. This reality is a major impediment between these communities and progress. Since they cannot speak Spanish or Portuguese, they often have trouble finding jobs in cities, and must often find low-paying work that requires minimal skill. If we want to help the indigenous people in Latin America, we must first educate them and provide modern skill sets. If they do not know the official language of their present nation, they will have very little success in the job market. Although many organizations are concerned with the disappearance of native languages, it is important to teach languages like Spanish to indigenous people so that they can find their places in society.

Conversely, education can also function to preserve native tongues. Loss of these languages is a common phenomenon in Latin America because indigenous people naturally stop teaching their kids native languages once they’ve left native communities. If the school system is reformed to teach classes both in the official language of the country and in the region’s native tongue we would see less language extinction. I remember a TV show in which a Mayan kid who could speak three languages: Spanish, English, and French. He had learned these languages to improve his business selling crafts at the ancient Chichen Itza ruins. When asked if he could speak Mayan, his answer was no. Reforming school systems so that popular languages and native tongues are taught together will provide indigenous populations with more job opportunities, while also preserving native tongues and culture.

It is also important to educate not just indigenous children, but also indigenous adults. Adult illiteracy is a major factor preventing native employment. Teaching indigenous adults these basic skills is important because it eases their integration into society and provides the requisites needed to pursue job opportunities. In Latin America, some indigenous reservations receive food and resources from the government. This insulation perpetuates problems like alcoholism and unemployment, and while some members make the big leap to the city, others stay because they do not know what is outside. Teaching natives about the world outside the reservation and equipping them with the tools to thrive in it will ease their transition into this capitalist world, if they decide to join it.

Another problem affecting indigenous communities is discrimination. In Latin America, many discriminate against indigenous people because of their origins. People consider them a problem and a threat. The word indigenous is synonymous with people who are ignorant in Latin America. To solve this problem we also need to educate society about the importance of indigenous people as the roots of Latin America and the everyday problems they face. Numerous anti-discrimination campaigns have taken place in Latin America, and yet the problem persists.

To help the indigenous populations of Latin America we need to understand them and try to integrate them into society. The worn-out technique of isolating them in reservations has proven faulty. In order to help them, we must offer them a place in society. Through education and a push back against discrimination, we can help indigenous people discover a happy compromise between their isolated native reservation and the foreign, intimidating city.