Experts on Indigenous migration gather in Seattle

By Manuel Valdes
Seattle, Washington (AP) 11-09

In the remote town of Forks on the Olympic Peninsula, a police investigation of a fatal stabbing earlier this year sputtered when an Indigenous interpreter wasn’t readily available. On the eastern side of the state, in Moses Lake, a nonprofit law firm launched radio commercials seeking an indigenous speaker to do outreach to a growing community there. South in Vancouver, farm workers who speak various indigenous dialects have begun arriving to work the fields.

As the migration of Indigenous peoples from Latin American spreads throughout Washington, they are slowly changing the state’s demographical landscape. But information about indigenous people is scarce, and their distinct culture, customs and various languages and dialects often perplex their new neighbors.

“We attempted to use (a national) language line, and unfortunately Mam was not one of the dialects they have,” said Forks Police Chief Mike Powell. “It’s not a well-known language and I’m told it’s from a rather remote area in Guatemala ... Obviously, we’re not the only ones having this problem.”

A conference hosted by the University of Washington during October featured American, Mexican and Guatemalan experts aims at bringing some information on the reasons and history behind the movement of Indigenous people to the United States.

“There’s lack of knowledge, at least here in Washington state, of the presence of indigenous communities, of their cultures, and their problems,” said Jorge Madrazo, executive director of UNAM’s Seattle office.

The conference featured professors from the National Autonomous University of Mexico, that country’s largest university. It’s also the debut of relations between the Mexican university, known as UNAM by its Spanish initials, and the UW.

The first topic they wanted to tackle was the Indigenous migration, Madrazo said, because it’s a migration that needs to be examined.

Nationwide, the U.S. Department of Labor estimates Indigenous migrants now make up 17 percent of the country’s total farm workers. In California, that percentage is estimated to be as high as 30 percent.

First migrating to California and Florida, Indigenous peoples are now working in Kentucky, Alabama, Oregon, New York, and New Jersey as they expand their presence around the country.

In Washington, a farm worker survey in 2008 estimated that a quarter of farm workers in the western half of the state were Indigenous. They are present on the Olympic Peninsula, in southwest Washington, Skagit and Whatcom counties, and have began arriving in the rural towns of Mattawa, Wenatchee and Moses Lake.

These Indigenous peoples are the Native Americans of Mexico and Central America. They’re descendants of the inhabitants that populated the region before Europeans colonized the region in the 1500’s. Many speak limited Spanish – some not at all. Most Indigenous workers have come from southern Mexico, although groups from Guatemala are also present.

A large number of them migrate to the U.S. illegally.

There are at least seven Indigenous language groups now present in Washington state, highlighting the different tribes moving north, according to a tally by the AP.

That variety, though, has its pitfalls. Unlike other immigrant groups that share one language or traditions, Indigenous peoples are fragmented, leaving groups to fend for themselves in isolated rural areas.

There also are legal clashes. There have been many cases around the country, including in Skagit County, of Indigenous men being arrested for marrying underage women, as is their custom.

Mexico has encountered similar issues, including lack of interpreters in the legal system, the professors said.

Guatemalan professor Emilio Rolando Ordonez Cifuentes, who teaches juridical studies, said indigenous people often do not operate or understand Western laws.

They live “in another social norm, and these norms construct a different reality and come from a different time,” he said.

But the professors said there are limits to the argument that customs justify behavior, citing the practice of giving away young women in marriage.

“There are differences between rights and norms,” Ordonez Cifuentes said.

Within Mexico, people as south as Chiapas and the Yucatan peninsula have begun migrating north, said Cristina Oehmichen Bazan, a professor at UNAM’s anthropology department.