From Law student to Indian expert
Even the Mohawk Indians were talking about Serv Wiemers’ thesis. This Law alumnus, who has been intrigued by the world of American Indians since he was a boy, recently wrote a book about that world.
Where does your fascination with American Indians come from?
‘In 1973, when I was just six years old, I read all the news I could find about the conflict with the Indians in South Dakota. They were strongly resisting the suppression of their traditional culture. President Nixon even sent armed troops to their village of Wounded Knee. I kept every news clipping from the papers, and only then did I really understand that Indians weren’t just people from stories: they really exist! A similar moment came in 1980, when the Fourth Russell Tribunal, which was actually held in my city of Rotterdam, was discussing the rights of Indians. A lot of Indian leaders came to Rotterdam from North America. I hung around there all day with my notebook and camera, because I wanted to remember everything.’
Why did you decide to study Law?
‘To find out how to make the world a more just place. I wanted to study international law as soon as possible after I arrived in Leiden, and learn more about it. I also studied the political and economic interests that were most often at the centre of the issues.’
How did you express your interest in Indians while you were studying?
‘One thing I did was to attend lectures by the famous International Law lecturer Pieter Kooijmans (who died in 2013, Ed.). Those lectures were amazing. He had been the Minister of Foreign Affairs, was actively working for the United Nations and was a judge at the International Criminal Court in The Hague. He always ended the session on a great cliff hanger, so I hated having to go for the coffee break! He personally didn’t know a lot about the situation of Indians, but he was happy for me to write my thesis about that topic under his supervision. My thesis topic included the question of why, after decolonisation, some native groups such as Indians and Aboriginals did not gain the right to self-determination. On the basis of my thesis, I wrote an article for the Leiden Journal of International Law, and I found out later that Indians had discussed the article.
'Professor Kooijmans always put great cliff hangers into his lectures, so I hated having to go for the coffee break!’
‘After graduting, I spent a year in the United States and attended lectures at a university in Connecticut. I also went on a long tour to more than 20 Indian reservations, where I spoke to various people including tribal leaders and medicine men. Some of them weren’t very trusting at first, because they had been oppressed for so long, but if you showed genuine interest you would often get a very warm welcome. From Connecticut I also visited the Mohawk Indians, and that was where something extraordinary happened. I knocked on the door of the tribal council building where a small group of men were gathered. I told them my name and they reacted with astonishment: “You’re the Serv Wiemers?!” They had just received my article about self-determination and were discussing it.’
You’ve returned to the reservations in recent years, and you wrote your book ‘Veerkracht, Indianen van nu over de wereld van morgen’ (‘Resilience: The Indians of today on the world of tomorrow’) that was published at the end of 2018. What was that like, and what is the message of the book?
‘It was truly extraordinary to go back again. I recognised some people from last time. Of course a lot had changed; the situation is a lot more diverse. Many of the people now live in ordinary American cities. That said, they often come to visit their families on the reservations in the summer, and then they live temporarily in tipis. The thing that inspires me is their spiritual richness. In material terms they are often very poor, but in this time of climate change we have so much to learn from the way they feel connected with the earth. Here in the West we tend to see ourselves as the peak of creation, but Indians often feel more connected with an earth in which all the different elements need to be in balance. For example, they don’t make a clear distinction between people and animals the way we do. They have names for a few specific animals, such as horses, but many Indian languages have no word for “animal”. My book is about the Indian identity, their fight for self-determination and the environment, and their message to the world.’
How has your career panned out since then?
‘I worked for the Ministry of Economic Affairs after I graduated. Part of my work dealt with the economic and democratic structure in Central and Eastern Europe. After that I worked for five years as a diplomat at the Dutch embassy in China. That was an extraordinary time, because the Chinese economy was just opening up to Western companies, and we at the embassy played a key role in building contacts between China and the Dutch business community. In those days I guided Prime Minister Balkenende around Beijing, but I also showed Youp van ’t Hek around when he explored China.
‘Over the last three years I’ve held various positions, including as the Director of Fair Production, which aims to make the garment industry in developing countries fairer and more sustainable. I also regularly work as an election observer, and I’ll be travelling to Moldova soon to check the fairness of the elections there. My law degree is very relevant for that. When I was studying, what was important to me was the tension between law, politics and economic interests, and that’s still the common thread for me.’
Text: Linda van Putten
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Who: Serv Wiemers (1967)
Study programme: Law
Student Association: Augustinus. ‘I was an active member and sat on several committees, including the association newsletter. I enjoyed my time at university in Leiden. My eldest son is doing the same now: he’s started studying History in Leiden.
Favourite place in Leiden: De Burcht and Grand Café De Burcht.