Anita Gurung, from Nepal
The third day of the Second World Conference of Indigenous Women was dedicated to looking inside the movement itself through intergenerational dialogue. Bibi Guaranarú, member of the Confederación Unida de Pueblos Taínos and an elder from the Taína Guainía tribe (“Iukaieke”), opened the morning with a powerful spiritual invocation drawing on the knowledge of her ancestors.
The initial panel was an intergenerational dialogue with Sunná Káddjá Valkeapāā, a non-binary 27-year-old mother from the Sami people, in Finland; nurse Minta Jacinta Silakan, activist for Indigenous Women and children with disabilities among pastoral communities in Africa; and Noeli Pocaterra, an 84-year-old Wayuu parliamentarian from Venezuela. It was a day for connecting and sharing stories about inspiration, heritage, intersectionality and leadership.
Jacinta Silakan, a Masai nurse who leads the Sang’ida Foundation—an organisation that cares for neglected disabled children in Kenya—spoke about the transfer of traditional knowledge and people with disabilities.
Masai communities are well known for preserving their culture and inter-generational knowledge transfer. Learning for children begins from birth as they speak their native language and perform their native music, giving them ample opportunity to learn. As the children grow older, they continue with folk songs, tales and games, which together help them to grasp the opportunities and challenges in their community. Daughters go everywhere with their mothers to fetch water or firewood, milk cows or engage in other activities, teaching them essential life skills. Children also take part in ceremonies, helping them to understand more about community activities.
Indigenous Women with Disabilities
Masai women with disabilities remain in their homes and understand their cultural norms: many times, women and children with disabilities take the role of caretakers and caregivers of children in the community. Moreover, as the women with disabilities mostly remain at home, they become vessels of traditional knowledge, which they impart to future generations. Nonetheless, one of the key challenges is their lack of recognition in the community and being treated as outsiders as they fail to conform to traditional gender roles.
Accordingly, women and children with disabilities often have low self-esteem and, unfortunately, due to harsh conditions, women with disabilities often suffer neglect, meaning many die at a young age (under 50). In this sense, it is a missed opportunity to have these women serve as a reservoir of traditional knowledge to be passed on to future generations. One challenge going forward will be to increase support for these individuals as, at present, few organizations address their needs. In this vein, Silakan from the Sang’ida Foundation expresses the following sentiment: ‘We are all women with or without disabilities. We are wonderfully created. Let us embrace each other in all activities. Let us have inclusion of women and girls with disabilities, let us have them together, so that we do not leave anyone behind.
They have so much to give to the world, only we need to embrace them. As an example, in my community, other women go to learn from the women with disabilities.’
The greatest influence on Jacinta Silakan was her grandmother, who was a traditional healer specializing in care for pregnant women and children. She sat by her grandmother’s side on many occasions and saw many women coming for treatment for their children. Her grandmother inspired her to choose nursing as a career and, after working with women and children with disabilities, she became a better listener. She learnt the importance of disabled women for the intergenerational transfer of traditional knowledge on issues including reproductive health and menstrual hygiene.
Indigenous and Non-Binary People
The youngest person on the panel, Sunná Káddjá Valkeapāā, explained that one of her most transformative positions as an Indigenous person is that she identifies as a non-binary person, and that this was at odds with speaking at the Indigenous Women’s conference. Valkeapāā explained her vision as an Indigenous non-binary person through the following analogy: ‘We should be able to say exactly what and who we are. We call Sun or Sky as Father and Earth as Mother, so the Moon is non-binary in my own world view. We need to acknowledge that we fought for LGBTQI+ people. It is like we do not exist if we do not understand the value of the Moon. It is our job to make the circle full by acknowledging the Moon.’
Sunná’s experience is one of many diverse perspectives within the Indigenous Women’s movement. The parable serves to show that non-binary people are not at odds with the Indigenous Cosmovision but rather have a unique identity that strengthens ancestral knowledge by including new perspectives. For Sunná, her community’s inclusion of non-binary Indigenous individuals challenges past Western paradigms regarding gender identity.
The Elder Experience
Noeli Pocaterra began her activism for the rights of the world’s Indigenous Peoples in the 1950s. In 1956, she was the first Venezuelan Indigenous Woman to graduate as a social worker. During her studies, she faced many obstacles, including from within her own community. Noeli has stated: ‘I needed training and education, then that meant rejecting our Indigenous identity. But in this struggle as activists, we needed to work together, we had to create alliances, organizations and act as spokespersons to stand before others. I started to take part in movements such as the Continental Network of Indigenous Women and others, and I have learned so much from them; and I am still learning from many women, exchanging experiences and knowledge. So, my advice is to keep on learning about our ancestral identity and interculturality because I am convinced that we need to work with youth, girls, boys and women for our communities to endure. Let us keep going to all these workshops and conferences. Let us keep knocking on the doors of the UN, UNPFII and all other spaces as we need visibility for our Indigenous identity, principles and values.’
She encouraged Indigenous Women to be proud, as this is necessary to fight against discrimination, build alliances and train children to learn about what their grandparents’ or ancestors’ roles were. She underlined the importance of imparting and transferring knowledge about the justice system, interculturality and the educational model of Indigenous Peoples, even outside the communities. Additionally, she explained that in Venezuela they organized mixed women’s groups in the city, which finally led to an international movement to pressure for an amendment to the Constitution.
In the context of COVID-19 and now at almost 85 years old, Pocaterra advocated for a role for elders in the community. ‘Elders are guides and mentors, and we need to seize the challenge of how we can transfer their knowledge as it is essential. We need to provide continuity in respecting elders as they are the conveyors of traditional Indigenous knowledge. Many Indigenous leaders have already left us, but their dreams remain and will keep guiding our struggles. The COVID-19 pandemic has been hard on us, but it has given us the opportunity to promote the social role of youth. We have reflected and understood that the body is temporary; nonetheless, our soul or spirit can be spread around the world through this virtual platform, which is a great thing to keep on learning from each other,’ she stated.
Pocaterra’s words closed the circle that Bibi Guaranarú’s ceremony had drawn at the beginning, where she delivered her words of wisdom by invoking our Ancestors as they ‘show us how to obtain and keep honour, compassion and love to heal our precious earth and each other’.