A passion for indigenous people


Local businesswoman and Edgartown resident Kati Johnsen splits her time equally between the Vineyard and an isolated community in Peru where she is involved on a number of levels.

By employing local workers in two small Andean towns to knit sweaters for Mollygoggles, her line of children’s clothing, she has helped sustain the towns economically. She is devoted to maintaining the cultural traditions and lifestyle of the people, who have become an extended family to her. In a fitting reward for someone who has devoted a lifetime to multicultural endeavors, she has been invited by the United Nations to participate in a three-day forum focusing on the indigenous people of the world.

Early this week Ms. Johnsen was in New York City, attending a forum called Indigenous Voices at the U.N., which has brought together 2,000 tribal leaders. She will stay for another week, speaking at small caucuses, helping out as a translator and tour guide for people who have never left their isolated communities, meeting with indigenous people from all around the globe, and offering help as an expert on the international export of handcrafted products.

Ms. Johnsen’s company, which she has operated for 30 years, employs 250 members of a small mountain village in the Andes. She has become a mentor and advocate for these indigenous people, helping them learn English and practical skills, encouraging their sustainability as a community and, in particular, working with young women to improve their quality of life. She pays her employees up to $250 a week, as opposed to the $4 average in the area, and she helps them to pursue dreams of education and careers.

Three years ago, she began a second business, Chaska Hill, which is entirely devoted to sustaining and supporting traditional crafts while offering eco tours to American and European travellers who are interested in immersion in local cultures. The project is based in the tiny village of Chinchero, where she has been helped along the way by village elder, Marleny Callaunaupa, a 46-year-old Quechan indian woman instrumental in establishing Chaska Hill. She has passed her traditional weaving skills along to Ms. Johnsen, and has helped her to set up a training program for a group of 60 young women in the remote mountain village.

Ms. Johnsen and Ms. Callaunaupa have developed a partnership and friendship throughout their eight-year acquaintance, with Ms. Johnsen encouraging the indigenous woman’s efforts to protect her homeland from eco threats. Ms. Callaunaupa had the opportunity last fall to voice her concerns to two visiting representatives from the U.N. who invited her to the current U.N. forum. Ms. Johnsen was recruited to help her with travel arrangements.

From her home on the Vineyard, Ms. Johnsen served as a liaison between the U.N. and Ms. Callaunaupa. Over the course of several conversations with U.N. representatives, Ms. Johnsen had the opportunity to explain her mission in Peru, and was invited to attend the conference, both as a chaperone and as a participant.

Coincidentally, Ms. Johnsen at the time was working on her final project for an ACE MV course called Teaching Language Through the Arts. As her final project, she had the class participate in a role-playing exercise in which she presented her idea for a nonprofit to members of the U.N. and other worldwide organizations. “Two days later, I got a call from the U.N..” she says. “It was something I was not at all expecting. A friend of mine says that I must have put it out there to the universe.”

In New York Ms. Johnsen has been taking a group of South Americans and Cambodians on a tour of the city, with visits to Times Square, the Statue of Liberty, the Metropolitan Museum and the Native American Museum. Dressed in their various traditional costumes, the group has made quite a splash, even in a city accustomed to unique sights. “It takes us hours to get anywhere with people stopping to take pictures and Marleny introducing herself to everyone,” she says.

Ms. Callaunaupa had her first opportunity to voice her concerns publicly on Friday. Her speech was about biodiversity and the threat to her community’s natural resources. “By coming to this forum she feel like she’s not alone.” Ms. Johnsen says.

Ms. Callaunaupa comments, “I always thought that it was just our community that was going through this.”

At the forum people from all over have had the chance to relate to others facing similar problems, and to share ideas and feedback on their various approaches to recruiting help. “This experience has been amazing,” Ms. Johnsen says. “Whether it’s been learning about expressive art therapy or meeting directors of biodiveristy NGOs, it’s all about the indigenous people whom I’ve always loved. I’ve always been the one in the field. That’s where my passion is. That’s the part of the business that I understand the best and that’s where I want to be.”

The networking opportunities have been inspirational and boundless for Ms. Johnsen. She has connected with indigenous people from Asia to Africa to South America, who have elicited her advice on international trade. She is now considering forming a cooperative effort with a group that hopes to advance the struggle to save the rainforest through global music. “It would be with great honor that I would be able to connect with them and keep in touch with them,” she says.

The night before the kick-off of the three day caucus in the general assembly, Ms. Johnsen said, “I feel so honored that I’m able to be part of this and it all came about because of Marleny.”