After centuries of policies that focused on integrating indigenous people into society and stripping them of their customs, Mexico is in the middle of what several experts consider a new historical period based on respect for Indians' way of life that has problems of its own.

"Those of us who have Western training do not have a right to change their concept of happiness because they are more happy than us. What we do have to do is help them to live better, to have good lives," National Commission for the Development of Indian Peoples, or CDI, director general Xabier Abreu told Efe.

Although some 15.7 million people, or 14 percent of Mexico's population, identify themselves as indigenous, the relationship of Indians with the larger society has changed markedly, Abreu said at the inauguration on Wednesday of the Museo Indigena.

The museum was opened ahead of Thursday's celebration of International Day of the World's Indigenous People.

"Mexico's indigenous cultures in 2012 are very different from those of 500 years ago. There has been an intercultural dialogue, with learning by one side and the other," Abreu said, adding that society needed to embrace ancestral Indian teachings about the value of time and respect for the Earth.

In addition to narrowing social and economic gaps between native people and the rest of the population, Mexico's main challenge is preventing the enactment of laws that lead to the imposition of policies that Indians do not want, Abreu said.

"Let them be the ones who dictate the direction of" legislation affecting Indians, Abreu said.

Distinguished sociologist Rodolfo Stavenhagen discussed the situation of Mexico's Indians during a conference Wednesday at the museum, telling Efe that relations with indigenous people were marked for centuries by the idea that there was "unilineal progress" that went from the primitive to the modern.

"Since the 20th century, the vision was adopted in the urban milieu that there is progress from a primitive stage to modernity, progress and high civilization, and those who get left on the road are left behind on the train of history," Stavenhagen said.

This idea was behind the "integration" policies developed by Mexico in the 20th century, the kinds of policies that today would be considered "ethnocide" and crimes against humanity, the sociologist said.

These policies "were geared toward making the original peoples adopt the customs of the dominant culture," Stavenhagen said.

The change has come about in the past two decades and been deeply influenced by indigenous people themselves, who not just in Mexico but all over the world have gained a "conscience" of their culture and vision of the world, becoming increasingly more active participants in the process, Stavenhagen said.

The 2007 U.N. declaration on the rights of indigenous people bolstered a process that has allowed the existence of a legislative "apparatus" that is increasingly more powerful both domestically and internationally, the expert said.

Mexico has been officially recognized as culturally diverse since 1992, when changes to Article IV of the constitution took effect, while Article II was amended in 2001 to recognize the co-existence of multiple indigenous peoples with characteristics of their own, Stavenhagen said.

There is still, however, a "gap in implementation" despite the fact that there are many laws that defend the interests of the first nations and, in many cases, "are not known, are not applied and are not enforced," including by government agencies and officials, the sociologist said.

"Today, unlike 50 years ago, they have their own voice, their own way of relating to the state, but it is still not easy because sometimes that is not recognized. Let us look at the scarce number of proposals about this in the last elections," Stavenhagen said.

"There is a real lack of participation, economic inequality, the poverty in which the vast majority of Indian peoples live and a lack of investment that could become productive, sustainable and respectful," the sociologist said, referring to problems that must still be addressed.

"We have to be aware of the fact that multiculturalism enriches all of us. The indigenous people have taught us that via their struggle for the recognition and respect that the rest of national societies have generally denied them," Stavenhagen said.

Follow us on twitter.com/foxnewslatino
Like us at facebook.com/foxnewslatino