Selling Indigenous at the People’s Summit

by Lara Shirley

I went to the People’s Summit yesterday. It was its first day, and was inaugurated by an impressively large gathering of indigenous people. It was very powerful: they were dressed in their traditional clothes and dancing. I stopped by a few hours later as well and noticed that, while there were still some events going on, many of the indigenous people had set up around the tents and started selling pieces of jewelry and trinkets. There were feathered headbands, peacock earrings, golden straw hats and wooden beaded bracelets.

This really disturbed me. My first thought was concerning how genuine the objects were: some of them looked like souvenirs that I’ve seen in places all over the world. If these products are indeed ‘genuine’ (a strange concept in itself), then how does their value – not economic, but social and cultural – change when they become souvenirs put out for sale instead of being made, earned or given?

This also occurred to me while they were dancing – there was a tremendous media flurry – but I would like to note that I don’t think that is my place to judge. I am not saying that it is bad, necessarily: I am saying that it is interesting, and merits further thought.

In all honesty, I found it fairly depressing that these people who passionately demand change and justice are still participating in the current economic system that is one of the main causes of the injustices and pain they are suffering from. Capitalism and consumerism are wreaking havoc on all parts of the world, and especially on the areas and people that are most vulnerable. But, again, I am not imposing my morals on their choices. I find it disheartening that current conditions are such that this is the choice they want to make, these people who are so strongly affected by this culture of excess and materialism.

Do not misunderstand me: I am not suggesting that everyone stop doing everything that has a bad effect because that would be incredibly naive, and also very hypocritical. At this point in time – and at almost any point in time, really – to live without negative impacts is impossible. But we should always be conscious of the implications of our actions, because they are always there. Every action has good effects and bad effects. Question everything. Just because it seems ‘good’ – because it’s sold by indigenous people, because a big NGO says so, because it has some certification sticker on it – doesn’t mean it is. The only opinion you can trust completely is your own.

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