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‘Very special, a huge honor’

Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal

Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador started his presidency with a limpia – an indigenous spiritual cleansing.

Mexico’s new president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, center, participates in a traditional indigenous ceremony at the Zócalo in Mexico City on Dec. 1. (Moises Castillo/Associated Press)

That act ushered in a new era for native people on both sides of the border, said Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye, who was among world leaders at the inauguration Dec. 1 in Mexico City.

He was the only American invited on stage during the ceremony at the Zócalo, Latin America’s largest public square.

“To be put on the national stage with the president of Mexico was very, very unique for me, very special, a huge honor,” Begaye told the Journal of his experience.

In his comments there, he told the massive audience, including representatives of 68 indigenous groups in Mexico, “We here in this country, the United States, we’re your northern family, your northern brothers and sisters.”

Earlier on inauguration day, Begaye said, he had a few minutes to speak directly to López Obrador, emphasizing the historic ties of native people in the Americas, “that we pre-existed the United States of America, like indigenous people from Mexico and other countries in Central America.”

Mexico’s new president takes office during a difficult time in a U.S.-Mexico relationship dominated by President Donald Trump’s ongoing complaints about its citizens living illegally in the United States, his promise to build a border wall, the deployment of active duty troops along the border and heated rhetoric about a migrant caravan from Central America moving through Mexico. The U.S. president has referred to the caravan as “an invasion.”

A crowd of more than 130,000 attended the inauguration ceremony for President Andrés Manuel López Obrador.

“The Americas have always been one nation for us,” Begaye said, during a phone interview with the Journal. “Boundaries don’t define us and should not define us. These are our ancestral lands.”

The sprawling Navajo Nation, the largest North American tribe, includes parts of New Mexico, Arizona and Utah. The Kikapoos of Oklahoma have tribal members in Mexico, and Tohono O’odham nation of Arizona has lands that span the border.

Begaye said he sees an opportunity to build a new relationship with Mexico under López Obrador, who was an indigenous community activist in his youth, and has made indigenous rights and economic development for struggling native communities a priority for his administration.

“I think there is this very deep connection between the Native American people and the indigenous people,” said Melissa Stevens, director of philanthropic partnerships for Cultural Survival, a non-profit organization that works to advance indigenous people’s rights and cultures worldwide.

“There’s so many ways indigenous people can come together to make their voice more amplified,” Stevens said. Cultural Survival, working with native peoples on both sides of the border, convened a conference on climate change in Mexico in August. “We brought people from New Mexico all the way down to Oaxaca, and they spent two days talking about their unified voice on climate change,” Stevens said.

Native peoples on both sides of the border are hopeful as Mexico’s new president takes office. The inauguration included a passing of the baton, or staff, indicating authority.

“The passing of the baton by the first nations to a new incoming Mexican president is totally unprecedented in Mexico’s history,” said Juan Massey, a senior adviser who accompanied Begaye to the inauguration. “This has a meaning beyond Mexico’s border.”

The Navajo Nation president is hopeful mutual respect will be the foundation for future binational partnerships with Mexico.

“I’d like to see some trade develop between Mexico and indigenous tribes of America, the Navajo Nation, in that we have natural resources, we have arts, we have sports, things like that,” Begaye said.

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