A Review of Managing Multiculturalism: Indigeneity and the Struggle for Rights in Colombia

Indigenous Peoples, Active Agents


by | May 3, 2021

Managing Multiculturalism : Indigeneity and the Struggle for Rights in Colombia by Jean E. Jackson ( Stanford University Press 2019) Gestionando el multiculturalismo: indigenidad y lucha por los derechos en Colombia 2020: Universidad del Rosario https://doi.org/10.12804/urosario9789587844917

Recently, the Amazon and its indigenous residents have become hot issues, metaphorically as well as climatically. News stories around the world have documented raging and relatively unattended forest fires. A recent DRCLAS conference on the Amazon focused on climate change and deforestation, including Colombia, and highlighted the participation of Yanomami indigenous leader, Davi Kopenawa. The New Yorker featured a story in the November 2019 issue on mining and indigenous communities in the Brazilian Amazon, especially Kayapo indigenous lands and changing tribal life.    In each case, and deservedly, the feathered or painted leaders drew much sympathy and attention. Perhaps more important, although indigenous Amazonians fitted clearly into huge environmental concerns, rather than painting themselves as cultural images dotting the landscape, they spoke about the difficulties of changing indigenous political and cultural life.  

Likewise, Jean Jackson’s highly personalized and detailed study, Managing Multiculturalism: Indigeneity and the Struggle for Rights in Colombia moves the readers upriver into the Colombian Amazon and then across the Andean landscape. Largely following her professional anthropological life, Jackson leads the readers away from simply viewing indigenous peoples as passive images in endangered environments to seeing them as active agents in changing political landscapes. The book details a rising tide of demands and responses regarding multiculturalism which Jackson has accompanied and observed for decades. 

Colombia has recently undertaken and often pioneered numerous multicultural advances… legally, politically, culturally. Compared to the large percentages of indigenous peoples in the similar highland and lowland landscapes of neighboring Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador, Colombia’s indigenous population (less than 4% ) would seem to suggest little political or cultural importance. But, on the one hand, there is extraordinary cultural variety. From the diverse Amazon to the culturally mixed and colonially affected highlands to the more isolated Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, Colombia’s indigenous population is clearly multicultural. But, as the book details, multiculturalism is not simply a geographical or cultural term, but rather, it now reflects highly varied indigenous political efforts to secure a degree of respect, dignity and self-determination.  

Such agency is, in large part, the book’s focus. Earlier, despite varied dress and languages, indigenous groups were often glossed simply as victims of disease and external pressure from the early colonial period to the present. This singular image shadowed by colonization and national development politics clearly disappears in the book. Instead, the study focuses on indigenous demands and government response to new national and international laws and norms, and emphasizes the varied responses to them. Changes in Colombia since the late 1970s emerged a bit earlier and sometimes more successfully than in its southern neighbors. Unlike earlier state efforts to blend the country…either by acculturating “savages” or assimilating neighboring indigenous into a growing national society… cultural differences are now accepted and can be retained.  

Rather than simply dichotomize white and indigenous interests, which is often done, the book presents a variety of opinions and demands on both sides, and emphasizes the historic “management” of multicultural efforts— a process that is neither easily defined nor nationally accepted.  On the one hand, as Jackson notes, white or government perspectives and support can be explained by the need to draw indigenous peoples toward the state, rather than marginalize or push them towards guerrilla groups, paramilitaries or drug cartels active in Colombia. But interests frequently, and sometimes violently, conflict. On the other hand, while indigenous perspectives can be seen narrowly as a desire to retain their traditional “self,” there are often strong interethnic and intercommunal differences regarding “indigeneity”…i.e., self-defined identity, history and culture in the face of change. In neither case are there clear distinctions and uniform desires.  Jackson’s study shows that Colombia has  been managing multiculturalism in a variety of ways and for a number of reasons. Democratic government agencies, universities, anthropologists  and NGOs play various, sometimes opposing roles. And indigenous people are not homogenous, across the nation or even within their own particular groups. In all cases interests vary, for a variety of cultural, political or moral reasons. Jackson, in brief, argues that there is no single or simple view.  This reviewer, working similarly in Ecuador, agrees.


Historical Review

The book progresses from relatively simple rural Amazonian and Andean settings to complex urban situations near Bogota, illustrating the variety of multicultural management issues. The most detailed case begins in the Vaupes River region of the Amazon where the author first arrived for her thesis research in the late 1960’s. The initial attraction was clear and relatively simple compared to the later periods which are the book’s focus. Though deep in the northwest Amazon, the region was famously studied by such scholars as anthropologist Gerardo Reichel-Dolmatoff ( Desana) and ethnobotanist Richard Evans Schultes,(Plants of the Gods). 

Jackson initially studied the linguistic differences in the political organization of Tukanoan population. Though the various groups were similar culturally, she writes that “Each Tukanoan settlement traditionally belongs to one of sixteen patrilineal groups…these units each take a distinct language as the primary emblem of unity identity. Individuals must marry exogamously, taking as a spouse someone from a different language group as well as different settlement.”  Jackson showed that this did not confuse the Tucanoan population. They were simply different. Such localized ethnography reflected the anthropological work at the time…description and explanation of cultural differences. Just to the south, among Kichwa indigenous in Upper Napo region of Ecuador, this reviewer was doing likewise at the time. It was what anthropologists did. Such a professional focus has expanded widely in ways Jackson’s book details. 

A few examples illustrate the shift from single culture to multicultural study.  To illustrate, the mixed linguistic areas of Highland Burma have recently been untangled historically by James C. Scott’s The Art of Not Being Governed.  He argues that the groups from wide lowland areas of SE Asia were attracted to the isolated hilly forests by their desire to escape political control and military recruitment of the expanding small “paddy states.” As Jackson concludes the book, she likewise suggests that, rather than assume some unique or exotic culture, Tukanoan linguistic exogamy may be the residential product of the infamous Rubber Boom and its related violence in the late 19th and early 20th century.  Maybe Tukanoans were forcibly relocated as laborers, or maybe they fled and resettled themselves to avoid it. In any event, both areas have lost the isolated “island” imagery. Both regions have become large and sometimes violent drug producing and trafficking areas. Local indigenous populations are rarely beneficiaries and many are frequent victims. 


Rights Review

But in Colombia, unlike Burma, indigenous minority status has changed considerably. This is the main focus of Jackson’s book. The country, like many others in Latin America, differs from parts of the world currently torn by ethnic conflicts based on imagined or politically generated ethnic boundaries, of the sort defined by Fredrick Barth’s classic study Ethnic Groups and Boundaries. Despite Colombia’s degree of indigeneity and a long and persistent history of violence, it does not resemble torn areas like Rwanda or Bosnia. Like many other parts of Latin America, the country is working to shake off a past characterized by a clear and unmistakably discriminatory ethnic and racial history.  Colombia, of course, would like to see indigenous groups distant from guerillas and drug traffickers, but that would blur the legal support that has emerged. The entire region has been aided by a series of international events and legal changes, many of those that I list below are also noted by Jackson.


  • 1971—-Declaration of Barbados 
  • 1982 —Working Group on Indigenous Affairs
  • 1985 —UN Voluntary Fund for Indigenous Peoples
  • 1989 —International Labor Organization (ILO #169) 
  • 1992—Nobel Peace Prize –Rigoberta Menchu  –
  • 1992—Year of Indigenous Peoples 
  • 1993—World Conference on Human Rights 
  • 1993—High Commissioner for Human Rights
  • 1995—UN Decade of Indigenous Peoples –1995-2004
  • 2001—UN Special Rapporteur 
  • 2002—UN Permanent Forum
  • 2007—Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples 


As Jackson notes, Colombia’s 1991 Constitution was one of the first in the region to formally incorporate into national law agreements such as International Labor Organization’s Convention #169.  Unlike previous rights agreements that simply sought to treat minorities nicely and acculturate them, the new laws and norms recognize separate  “group rights.” Indigenous groups are broadly defined by political philosopher Will Kymlicka’s classic Multicultural Citizenship as “national minorities,” those who have been colonized, generally against their will and without their consent. As such indigenous peoples of the Americas are regarded as legitimate claimants to  the “special rights” included in many of the declarations listed above. But, as the various Colombia cases illustrate, such guarantees are largely openings, not finalities.

Like all human rights, indigenous rights are not “God-given” but are agreed upon, nationally or internationally. Acceptance by nations such as Colombia is no guarantee; broad rights (such as land, education, participation) are generally stated but rarely specified (e.g., How much land? What kind of education? What sort of participation?). Specifics must often be negotiated through dialogue and court decisions, not simply broad norms.  That will never be easy because decisions must often be contextualized.

Jackson’s study is an excellent historical example of how broad norms have been debated, challenged, varied, accepted, unaccepted or pending. Given the democratic underpinning of such work, it is quite likely that the norms could never be completely cast in stone. While this sometimes frustrates observers, angers governments and even divides communities, the need to contextualize often explains why indigenous people seek and demand public dialogue. Regular democratic dialogue is one of their goals. 

The difficulties are well illustrated as Jackson moves across the landscape  The Tucanoans were some of the first to break into the political movement with their organization CRIVA. Like the earlier Shuar Federation in Ecuador , the Tucanoans were aided by progressive church officials. Yet, as individuals assume leadership disputes arose at various levels…with the Catholic and Protestant churches, with anthropologist advisors, with the later emerging Colombian National Indian Organization (ONIC), and even between the various member groups.  In turn, as ONIC grew, there were serious disagreements with the older left-leaning/ left-advised organization CRIC, the regional organization in Cauca.  Likewise, ONIC fought with the government Agency of Indigenous Affairs (DAI), as Wayuu groups from the northern  Guajira Peninsula occupied DAI offices, and drew national attention, over requests for local development funds.  While the occupation was publicized as a simple protest against government failures, Jackson notes how the action drew in a wide range of vocal indigenous leaders and newly established senators. Meanwhile, in some private conversations with this reviewer, ONIC’s president Abadio Green abandoned some of his metaphorical culturalist indigenous speech and simply explained that it was time to eliminate dominant government agencies and let the national and local indigenous organizations strongly influence, perhaps decide, their economic development and territorial rights. 

Other debates and actions in the book illustrate equally broad, undefined,  and often unclear rights that require contextualization and dialogue. For example, should a recently indigenized Yanacona community in Cauca have the right to build a much-needed access road across the lands of the San Agustín Archeological Park?  Can local indigenous groups produce and sell healthy coca leaf beverages nationally, in partial competition with Coca-Cola?  Or even more difficult, could a recently reformed group like the Muisca, who had lost their recognition as an indigenous group by the 18th century, reclaim land and political rights on urban lands near Bogotá?  Even more broadly, to what extent does the newly recognized right to “dual legal systems” (community law, of sorts)  allow indigenous local groups to determine guilt, innocence and punishments for community members?  

As diverse indigeneity merges with indigenous rights law, there will probably be no clear and simple answers. Cultures change. Concerns will, most likely, have be negotiated and consultation must be undertaken. Such democratic processes underlie much of the rights debate. The cases and debates reviewed by Jackson provide excellent examples.        

However, and adding a bit of mild criticism, although the cases detailed are interesting examples, readers should be aware that, in parts of the writing and citations, discussion sections and the conclusion, Managing Multiculturalism appears to be aimed largely toward many current-day anthropologists, who, some have noted, speak and write largely to each other in newly created, often exotic and cabalistic, language and isolated academic meetings. Sadly, anthropologists these days do not often address wide policy-making groups such as the United Nations, the World Bank, USAID, the Inter-American Development Bank and other such institutions whose policies and agencies have, despite disagreements, led to support for the sort of multiculturalism now underway in Colombia, yet challenged by Brazil and United States. Nonetheless, readers of Jackson’s study can skim over, or seek definitions for some of the terms, and easily see her experiences and clear understanding of how broad the realization of strongly-desired indigenous multiculturalism has currently advanced in Colombia.

Ted Macdonald is a Lecturer in Social Studies and Faculty Affiliate at DRCLAS, Harvard University. He has worked directly on Latin American indigenous rights issues and cases since 1980. Currently and in collaboration with Kichwa Indian community leaders, he is preparing an ethnographic history of territorial rights and self-determination in the Ecuadorian Amazon.

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