Controversy follows Nobel Prize winner and Peltier supporter
Rigoberta Menchú walks into the Bruce R. Watkins Cultural Heritage Center in Kansas City, grimacing from the blustery winter day. She is a small woman with a round face; dark, unfathomable eyes; and a serious, quiet demeanor that belies the force of her convictions. Ever since she received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992 for her work for human rights in her native Guatemala, Menchú has become one of the most visible international advocates for indigenous people’s rights. However, along with her fame has come controversy. Questions about her accuracy in depicting her past have surfaced, spawning a heated debate in the academic world over her autobiography, I, Rigoberta Menchü.
Menchú was in Kansas City and Lawrence last month to speak on behalf of imprisoned Native American activist Leonard Peltier. She got involved in the Peltier case because, she says, she had a moral debt to help him; although she had worked for indigenous people’s dignity for many years, she hadn’t had the opportunity to help him before and was ashamed.
Jennifer Harbury, a human-rights activist and one of Peltier’s attorneys, doesn’t believe that Menchú’s credibility has been damaged by questions concerning her autobiography.
“There is no one more appropriate than Rigoberta Menchü (to speak out for Leonard Peltier),” Harbury says. “She’s an international heroine, and she’s a symbol of indigenous resistance to repression throughout the world. We couldn’t have a stronger, more intelligent, and more absolute fighter for human rights than her, and we’re very honored to have her here.”
Peltier has been incarcerated at the U.S. Penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kan., since 1977. He was convicted of murdering two FBI agents during a 1975 shootout between the FBI and the American Indian Movement (AIM) on Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota.
Before visiting to Kansas City and Lawrence, Menchú traveled to Washington, D.C., to meet with officials from the Department of Justice and with several congressmen (whom she declined to name) about Peltier and to ask for clemency, an exhaustive investigation of the case, and immediate attention to Peltier’s medical problems.
The story of Menchú’s journey from Mayan Indian peasant to Nobel laureate begins in Guatemala. According to her book, she was born in 1959 as one of nine children and grew up poor and uneducated. In the mid-1960s, Guatemala experienced a brutal civil war, which became the longest conflict in Central America. During the war, Guatemala’s indigenous people were persecuted by the landowning classes and the military. Menchü and her family worked on a coffee plantation under exploitative, slavelike conditions; one of her brothers died from inhaling fumes from the pesticides sprayed on the coffee trees, and another brother died of malnutrition.
Menchú’s father became embroiled in a land battle and then helped start the Committee of Peasant Unity (CUC). As a result of the family’s involvement in revolutionary activities, Menchú’s brother was tortured and burned alive in the town square. In 1980, Menchú’s father was killed when he and other protesters occupied the Spanish embassy, which was burned down by the police. Later the army kidnapped, raped, tortured, and killed her mother. Menchü soon became a CUC organizer. However, because of personal safety reasons, she fled to Mexico, where she lived in exile for 12 years.
In 1982, while on a trip to Paris, the 23-year-old spent a week narrating her story to Elisabeth Burgos-Debray, a Venezuelan anthropologist who recorded the sessions. Burgos-Debray then took the 24 hours of tape and arranged the narrative in chronological order. The result was I, Rigoberta Menchú. Published in 1983, the book became a classic text on American college campuses, and in 1992, on the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ arrival in the New World, Menchú received the Nobel Peace Prize.
However, questions have emerged about Menchú’s literary portrayal of her history. David Stoll, an anthropologist at Middlebury College in Vermont, found that some items in her book could not be substantiated and that I, Rigoberta Menchú was not “the eyewitness account it purports to be.”
After investigating in Guatemala, Stoll discovered that the father’s land dispute was not against the wealthy ladinos but rather against his in-laws; the brother who died of starvation did not exist; the other brother was not burned alive, because there were never any public burnings in the town square; although Menchú claims to never have gone to school, she received a middle-school education at two private boarding schools; and because she was in school during her youth, it was unlikely that she worked on a coffee plantation for an extended period of time.
Stoll published his findings in a book titled Rigoberta Menchú and The Story of All Poor Guatemalans in November 1998. The New York Times investigated his claims and corroborated his story, which was outlined in a front-page article published Dec. 15, 1998.
Since then, Menchú’s credentials have been hotly debated. Some professors have said that they will continue to teach the book because it is representative of the experience of oppressed people in Guatemala. Conservatives who were upset that her book, which they viewed as Marxist, replaced traditional Western-based literature, gleefully declared Menchú’s story a hoax.
Menchú has not responded directly to the specific charges, but she has defended her book. After her appearance at Haskell Indian Nations University (HINU) in Lawrence, on Feb. 19, she would say about the situation only that “I see the controversy surrounding my book as something very normal. That is because for many years, the indigenous people had not been able to write their own history. Much of the time, others had been writing them. And, in the moment that I had this opportunity, I was lucky enough to be able to get into a book the story of my family, the story of the death of my parents, as part and representative of the story of Guatemalan people.
“When I wrote this book, genocide in Guatemala was still beginning so that the book became very powerful…. So I believe that the controversy surrounding my book is more oriented in order to put a shadow of doubt on the history of Guatemala, on the history of my people. And I think that this is part of a movement of a group of very right-wing people that are trying to change history.”
“I am aware of (the controversy), and there really is no controversy,” says Harbury. “I am also familiar with Mr. David Stoll himself. The accusations were ridiculous. Anyone that knows Guatemala and knows the friends, family, and realities of Rigoberta Menchú could easily have answered all of those issues, so all of us were very upset that The New York Times would print such materials without properly investigating them.”
Harbury is also familiar with the situation in Guatemala. Her husband was a Mayan citizen of Guatemala who was a resistance leader and a top-ranked officer in the rebel army. In 1992, he was captured alive by the Guatemalan army, tortured for two years, placed in a full-body cast, drugged repeatedly, and then thrown from a helicopter. She later found out that the people who had ordered and participated in his torture and execution were on the CIA payroll.
Harbury admits that she hasn’t read Stoll’s book but says that Stoll discussed the matter with her. She remains unmoved by his claims.
“By way of example, it would have been very easy to find out that she was not a boarding-school student, as Mr. Stoll claimed, but rather, when she was running for her life, she was taken in by a Catholic boarding school, where she was a maid, and the nuns taught her to read and write on the weekends,” says Harbury. “Those facts were fully available to anyone that chose to look into them, so we’re left wondering not what Mr. Stoll’s agenda is — that’s rather self-evident — but we’re wondering what happened to The New York Times. So I don’t think there really is any controversy; I just think The New York Times has egg on its face.”
Harbury states that Stoll is not sympathetic to Menchú, despite his claims to the contrary. “He’s just trying to put a good face on a really bad piece of nonacademic writing,” she says. “He really has no excuses whatsoever.”
Stoll expected such a reaction to his book. “I wasn’t expecting to win any popularity contests with Latin Americanists over this book, but the expressions of pain and shock at questioning Rigoberta’s story were louder than I had expected. There are a number of particular individuals who took it more personally than I had expected.” He says he wrote the book because he wanted to critique simplistic ways of understanding Guatemala that undermine human-rights work and support for the Mayan movement.
Stoll believes that activists have relied upon that simplistic reasoning to explain the situation and increase interest in a country that is easily ignored.
“It’s very easy for North Americans to not care about what’s happening in Guatemala, or Haiti, or Somalia…. I think probably there’s a tendency to not be able to attract an audience unless the way you attract (them) is to make (them) feel better about themselves, and if the situation is too complicated, you’re confusing your audience,” he says.
Despite the controversy, Menchú remains a valid symbol of indigenous people’s rights. Dan Wildcat, a professor of American Indian studies at HINU, has taught I, Rigoberta Menchú for about 10 years and sees a lot of parallels between her struggle and that of Native Americans in North America.
` “I look at that book as a testimony to what has allowed native people to survive,” he says. “I think what amazes students here is they see that war is still going on, but it’s just in another place — governments waging war against native people who want to stand up for their dignity, their traditions, and, as Rigoberta said, their history.”
Although he hasn’t read Stoll’s book — and stresses that his information about it was secondhand — Wildcat says he has read all the commentary and defends Menchú’s story. “I take her at her word that she’s telling a history that shouldn’t be understood in kind of a documentarian — well, I’ll use the term, a Western — kind of history of facts and documents and evidence. She’s speaking to an experience of a people, of her people, and speaking to that in a very general sense.”
“I have no objection to (her being a symbol),” Stoll says. “I only have objections to what I think are significant details. I think I, Rigoberta Menchú can be a good book to assign to students. I think people should go listen to her. I’m pleased that she has gone to Spain to ask the Spanish judicial system to indict several ex-Guatemalan dictators; I think that’s great.
“I think that’s proof that simply questioning significant details of her story is not tantamount to destroying her and is not tantamount to ruining her as a symbol.”
Although Menchú’s background has been the subject of an intense debate, the larger issues ring true for people who have been touched by her story and continue to view her as the foremost symbol of the centuries-old repression of indigenous people.
Peltier, also considered to be a symbol of indigenous repression, was visited by Menchú. Sylvain Duez, a coordinator with the Leonard Peltier Defense Committee (LPDC) in Lawrence, reports that the visit was positive and that it “brought (Peltier) a lot of hope that he will be released soon.”
Peltier has exhausted all of his appeals, and he filed for executive clemency on Nov. 21, 1993. Since then, the LPDC has received only form letters from President Clinton, stating that the case is still under review by the Department of Justice.
Menchú is adding Peltier’s case to her new program for universal justice, which her foundation runs. The office for the new program is based in Mexico and will fully investigate cases that are considered to be crimes against humanity. Peltier’s case will be the first one unrelated to Guatemala. Also, it will be the first case in which the program strives not to take someone to court but to free a man from jail. The imprisonment, program participants believe, was the result of an unfair process.
Menchü is optimistic that Peltier will be freed from prison. “I have a very good energy and vibes coming into me about this,” she says with a determined look and in a resolute voice.
“In the past, we have tried several options in order to get Leonard Peltier free. I am sure we have not found the correct key, or the correct door, or the correct path to do so, and I’m well prepared to touch and knock on every door possible, and I will beat these doors, asking and trying to make the truth available.”