links about us archives search home
SustainabiliTankSustainabilitank menu graphic

Follow us on Twitter


Posted on on July 26th, 2012
by Pincas Jawetz (


The impulse for the founding of Cultural Survival arose during the 1960s with the “opening up” of the Amazonian regions of South America and other remote regions elsewhere. As governments all over the world sought to extract resources from areas that had never before been developed, the drastic effects this trend had on the regions’ Indigenous Peoples underscored the urgent need to partner with Indigenous communities to defend their human rights. Cultural Survival was founded to help Indigenous Peoples in their struggles for human rights, sovereignty, and autonomy.
Partnering with Indigenous Peoples to Defend their Lands, Languages, and Cultures
July 25, 2012
Rigoberta González Sul.
© Danielle DeLuca

On July 7–8, 2012, members of 15 community radio stations partnering with Cultural Survival’s radio network across Guatemala gathered for a workshop in the Mujb’ab’l Yol training center in San Mateo, Quetzaltenango. The workshop focused on the difficult topic of historical memory of Guatemala’s 36-year armed conflict, which claimed the lives of 200,000 mostly Indigenous people. With the goal of using self-expression as a tool to alleviate trauma, participants wrote and
recorded poems about the armed conflict in Spanish and their native Mayan languages. Leading the workshop was Alberto “Tino” Recinos (Mam), Cultural Survival’s citizen participation coordinator, who ran the guerilla radio station Voz Popular during the armed conflict. Recinos founded a community radio station after the signing of the Peace Accords in 1996.

Below, read one of the poems written by ex-combatant Rigoberta Gonzalez Sul, and member of the radio station Radio Ixchel.  Written in Spanish, the poem is a call to women to be strong in the face of the traumas they experienced in the war.

Romper el Silencio
By Rigoberta González Sul

36 años inolvidables y dolorosas,
sembró lágrimas y tristezas.
Indujo a la mujer en el silencio y traumas.
Impidiendo el desarrollo integral de la mujer
en su identidad y valores.
Mujer, basta. Ya
ya no más lágrimas.
Ya no más violación a nuestros derechos humanos
Rompamos el silencio, alcemos nuestras voces libremente.

Breaking the Silence
By Rigoberta González Sul

36 unforgettable and painful years,
planted tears and sadness.
It led the women into silence and trauma,
Preventing the integral development of women
in their identity and values ?Women, Stop.
No more tears,
No more violations of our human rights.
Let’s break the silence, let us raise our voices freely.


Throughout the 1970s, Cultural Survival’s original founders David Maybury-Lewis (pictured right with Xavante elder Sibupa), Evon Vogt, Jr., Orlando Patterson, and Pia Maybury-Lewis functioned out of a space made available by Harvard’s Peabody Museum. The organization was incorporated in 1972 as a tax-exempt NGO in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Since its inception, Cultural Survival has been at the forefront of the international Indigenous rights movement. Cultural Survival’s work has contributed to a revolution of empowerment for Indigenous Peoples around the world.  In the first years Cultural Survival launched a publication program consisting of the Cultural Survival Newsletter and a series of Special Reports which eventually became the Cultural Survival Quarterly. Cultural Survival also introduced its annual bazaars, which display and sell Indigenous arts and crafts.

In the 1980s and 1990s, Cultural Survival created an economic strategy in order to bargain with governments who were ready to clear cut rainforests. Cultural Survival Enterprises (CSE) became a non-profit trading division that developed and marketed products generating income for Indigenous people who were struggling to protect their lands and traditions within rainforest regions. Cultural Survival Enterprises, spearheading the Fair Trade movement, was launched to help Indigenous groups receive a greater profit from their sold goods,  however, after considerable debate among the board and staff and due to complications with the supply, it was decided to no longer support this program.

Ellen L. Lutz became director of Cultural Survival in 2004 and transformed the organization over the next six years, strongly emphasizing human rights and advocacy areas in which she had an international reputation. For 25 years, Cultural Survival labored with many Indigenous activitst to win United Nations adoption of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Ellen played a key role in helping shepherd this long process and on September 13, 2007, the UN General Assembly adopted a visionary text that set the global standard for how governments must treat Indigenous Peoples.

An offshoot of these efforts, Cultural Survival started partnering with Guatemalan nongovernmental organizations to create a thriving network of over 200 community radio stations across Guatemala, many of which broadcast in one or more of the country’s 23 indigenous languages. The stations offer news, educational programming, human rights and health information, and traditional music, all reinforcing pride in Mayan heritage.

In 2007, Cultural Survival turned its attention on the much-needed revitalization of critically endangered Native American languages. Cultural Survival partnered with tribal governments, foundations, corporations, and businesses to persuade the United States Congress to fund legislation providing federal support for language immersion programs.

In 2009, Ellen oversaw the merger of Cultural Survival and Global Response. Global Response, a nongovernmental organization, directs campaigns to protect Indigenous rights all around the world. Global Response has developed relationships with Indigenous communities in order to help them stop government abuse and exploitation of their lands and natural resources.

Suzanne Benally (Navajo and Santa Clara Tewa from New Mexico) is the current executive director. Benally was the associate provost for institutional planning and assessment and associate vice president for academic affairs at Naropa University. She was a core faculty member in environmental studies and a member of the president’s cabinet.

Under Suzanne’s direction, Cultural Survival is set to reflect a robust and inclusive role. “It is our goal to become a world leader in advocacy for Indigenous Peoples rights to their land, languages and cultures,” Suzanne says. “We fully intend to continue our efforts in creating a world in which Indigenous Peoples speak their languages, live on their lands, control their resources, hold on to their culture, and whose rights are honored in participating in broader society. We believe this entails deliberate collaboration. It is all about building bridges.”

Be Sociable, Share!

Leave a comment for this article