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What Native Peoples Deserve

Commentary, May 2005

“No society in history has ever stood still, and however beautiful, and ancient, and intricate ancient cultures may be, it is wrong to lock people up inside them and throw away the key.”

The Roosevelt Indian Reservation in the Amazon rain forest is not a happy place. Last year the Cinta Larga Indians slaughtered 29 miners there, and in October the Brazilian who was trying to mediate the conflict was murdered at a cash machine. Neither of these events represented anything new. The reserve, located 2,100 miles northwest of Rio de Janeiro, and named for Theodore Roosevelt when he visited Brazil in 1913, is also where a notorious massacre of Cinta Larga by rubber tappers took place in 1963; only one child in the village survived.

The immediate cause of the recent violence is not rubber but diamonds. The Roosevelt Indian Reservation may be sitting on one of the world’s largest deposits, and no one wants to leave it in the ground—neither the Indians, nor the itinerant diggers (garimpeiros), nor the government. But under present Brazilian law no one is free to begin digging. And this brings us to the deeper cause of murder and mayhem in the region.

Under Brazil’s constitution the country’s Indians are not full citizens. Instead they are legal minors, with the status of a protected species. This has one singular benefit for the Indians: the twelve Cinta Larga responsible for last year’s killing of 29 wildcat prospectors may enjoy immunity from prosecution and never face jail. But there is also a down side. As wards of the state, the Indians are denied the right to mine their own land.

As for outsiders, they must apply for permits to dig, and face endless bureaucratic delays that more often than not lead nowhere. The outcome is predictable. Frustrated in their own wishes, and hard-pressed by the impatient diggers, Indians make private deals, which then go sour—and the shooting starts.

At issue here is not just the law; the law is itself the product of an idea, or a set of ideas, that form its underlying assumptions. What should be done about endangered enclave societies situated in the midst of a modern nation? Can they, or their land, or their minerals be cut off and preserved, frozen in time, pristine and inviolate, forever? Or should they be?

The Figueiredo report

The massacre of the Cinta Larga in 1963 gave rise to a Brazilian state inquiry that became known as the Figueiredo Report (after the official in charge of the investigation). The inquiry was meant to find out about the shockingly grave deficiencies and abuses that were then being tolerated by the Indian Protection Service, including the use of individual Indians as slaves. Once it was completed, the old agency was closed down, and a new one created to replace it.

There the matter might have rested had not the London Sunday Times caught a whiff of scandal. The paper dispatched the travel writer Norman Lewis to Brazil; though he did not meet any Indians, he found all he needed in the Figueiredo Report. “By the descriptions of all who had seen them,” Lewis reported, “there were no more inoffensive and charming human beings on the planet than the forest Indians of Brazil.”

Having established a scene of primal innocence, Lewis proceeded to tell of the atrocities against the Cinta Larga, warning that they were being pushed to the brink of extinction and that there might not be a single Indian left by 1980. He concluded: “What a tragedy, what a reproach it will be for the human race if this is allowed to happen!” Reprinted all over the globe, his sensational article had profound and lasting effects.

The first of these effects was to enshrine a form of extreme protectionism, not only as a temporary means to an end–the human and cultural survival of the indigenous peoples of Brazil–but as an end in itself. Soon, all those working for Indian interests were of a single opinion: the only way to protect these tribal peoples was to create inviolable sanctuaries where they would “live their own lives preserving their own culture on their own land.”

The second effect was to galvanize a number of English explorers, writers, and anthropologists into setting up a permanent international lobby. The name of this flourishing body is Survival, self-described as “the world’s leading organization supporting tribal peoples.” Two men who have been associated with it from the outset are John Hemming and Robin Hanbury-Tenison.

Hemming, who served for two decades as the director of the Royal Geographical Society, has written a number of books about South America, among them an indispensable three-volume history of the impact of civilization on Brazil’s indigenous peoples–Red Gold, Amazon Frontier, and Die If You Must, the last installment of which appeared in 2003. Hanbury-Tenison, Hemming’s long-time friend, was also a founder of Survival and is today its president. Less well-known but also important is the documentary filmmaker Adrian Cowell, who has spoken up on behalf of the Amazonian Indians for nearly 50 years.

According to a recent article by Hemming in the British monthly Prospect, the campaign to ensure the survival of the Amazonian peoples appears to have succeeded. This is also the gist of the final chapter of Die If You Must, where he wrote:

The Indians will survive physically. Their populations have grown steadily since a nadir of near-extinction in the mid-20th century. Having fallen to little more than 100,000 in the 1950’s, they have more than tripled to some 350,000 and are generally rising fast.

The health of the Indians is basically good, Hemming reported in Die If You Must. The killers of yesteryear–measles, TB, pneumonia, cholera, and smallpox–are rare. Their land is also secure: “a remarkable 11 percent of the land-mass of Brazil is now reserved for Indians. The 587 indigenous areas total almost 105 million hectares–an area greater than France, Germany, and Benelux combined.” Environmentalist ideals and indigenous interests have apparently been reconciled: “From the air, [one reservation] now stands out as an immense rectangle of verdant vegetation framed by the dismal brown of arid ranch-lands.”

Explorers up the Amazon

It was in the 1950’s and 60’s that Hemming, Hanbury-Tenison, and Cowell, three young men from Oxford and Cambridge, launched themselves on the world. They were talented and energetic, they had good connections, and above all they shared a boyish taste for adventure. At Eton they probably read about Lawrence of Arabia; at Oxford, where Hemming and Hanbury-Tenison roomed together, they already knew that “exploring” was what they wanted to do most. They regarded the rain forests of Brazil as a natural field for their endeavors, and in no time they were paddling up the Amazon in canoes.

Adrian Cowell was a Cambridge man, and his precocity as an explorer makes an impressive tale in itself. As a student in 1954 he joined a university Trans-Africa Expedition. The following year he was in Asia. Then, as he relates in The Heart of the Forest (1961), “the Oxford and Cambridge Expedition to South America . . . brought me to the Amazon forest.” Thereafter he joined the Brazilian Centro Expedition, an enterprise associated with the creation of the new national capital of Brasilia. Its purpose was “to canoe down the Xingu River and burn an airstrip at the exact geographical center of Brazil.”

It was all tremendous fun and very romantic–a word that occurs spontaneously in the books of Hanbury-Tenison, who has written voluminously about his explorations and today runs a booking agency for exotic locations. Here, from his website, is a typical passage about adventuring in Afghanistan:

A sound like distant thunder made me look up at the rich blue cloudless sky before I turned to see twenty wild horsemen in turbans and flowing robes bearing down on me. They carried long-barreled rifles and had daggers in their belts. Beside their spirited horses loped large, hairy hounds. With their Genghis Khan moustaches and fine, aquiline noses they were almost caricatures of the bandits we had been warned about. I should have been frightened, but all I could think was that if I had to go I could not have found a more romantic end.

This tells us quite a bit about the attitude of all three men toward indigenous cultures. In light of it, Hanbury-Tenison must have been somewhat taken aback when, in 1971, he called on the anthropologist Margaret Mead at the Museum of Natural History in New York to tell her about Survival International (as Survival was then called), and she gave him a piece of her mind. Mead at the age of seventy was a very different person from the idealistic young woman who had visited Samoa in 1926. By 1971, she was fiercely unromantic, and the spectacle of yet another young Oxford “explorer” embarking on yet another “expedition up the Amazon” must have set her teeth on edge. With sturdy good sense she tried to talk him out of his fantasies.

In his 1973 book A Question of Survival, Hanbury-Tenison describes this “small, beady-eyed dumpling of a lady who sailed into the attack as I came through the door”:

The main point that annoyed [Mead] was the concept, unstated by me, that primitive peoples were any better off as they were. She said she was “maddened by antibiotic-ridden idealists who wouldn’t stand three weeks in the jungle” . . . and the whole “noble savage” concept almost made her foam at the mouth. “All primitive peoples,” she said, “lead miserable, unhappy, cruel lives, most of which are spent trying to kill each other.” The reason they lived in the unpleasant places they did, like the middle of the Brazilian jungle, was that nobody else would.

There was much talk in those days of the pharmaceutical benefits of rain forests, and Hanbury-Tenison and his friends were sure that the Amazon was about to make a huge contribution to the world’s health. (This was a little before the discovery of the supposed wonders of jojoba oil.) But Mead was having none of it:

She said that to protect [the Indians] on the grounds that they could be useful to us or contribute anything was nonsense. “No primitive person has ever contributed anything, or ever will,” she said. She had no time for suggestions of medical knowledge or the value of jungle lore.

The only grounds on which Mead relented were broadly humanitarian. For one thing, the Indians’ “art, culture, dancing, music, etc. was pleasant and attractive and their grandchildren might thank us for trying to preserve or at best record it now that we have the proper technical means–tape and film–for doing so.” For another thing, “it was bad for the world to let these people die, and the effort to prevent their extermination was good for mankind even if it failed.”

For the rest, however, Mead vehemently denied that the Indians

had any special reasons for being protected, as she denied any advantage of one race over another. She also claimed emphatically that they all wanted one thing only, and that was to have as many material possessions and comforts as possible. Those still running away in the jungle were the ones who had encountered the most unpleasant savagery from Europeans, and even though they might be having no contact now, if they could possibly get hold of any aluminum pots they would use them.

A history of atrocity

Although faithfully recorded by Hanbury-Tenison, Mead’s argument was as lost on him in 1971 as it is lost on legions of like-minded people today who mouth the slogans of multiculturalism. What Mead herself failed to grasp was that, naive though he may have sounded, Hanbury-Tenison and his friends had been radicalized, and they were never going to accept her bleak view of the tribal world. It was not that they had been reading Marx; instead, they had been reading Norman Lewis’s digest of the worst parts of the Figuereido Report, including Figuereido’s judgment that “the Indians [had] suffered tortures similar to those of Treblinka and Dachau.”

Torture, indeed, was too tame a word for what had taken place. In 1963 there had been massacres of the Cinta Larga tribe in Rondonia. One gunman’s taped testimony describes how an employee of a rubber company named Chico Luis

gave the chief a burst with his tommy gun to make sure, and after that he let the rest of them have it. . . . [A]ll the other guys had to do was finish off anyone still showing signs of life. . . . [T]here was a young Indian girl they didn’t shoot, with a kid of about five in one hand, yelling his head off. . . . Chico shot the kid through the head with his .45 and then grabbed hold of the woman–who by the way was very pretty. “Be reasonable,” I said, “why do you have to kill her?” In my view it was a waste. “What’s wrong with giving her to the boys? They haven’t set eyes on a woman for six weeks. Or we could give her as a present to de Brito. [their boss]”

But Chico would not listen:

He tied the Indian girl up and hung her head downward from a tree, legs apart, and chopped her in half right down the middle with his machete. Almost with a single chop I’d say. The village was like a slaughterhouse. He calmed down after he’d cut the woman up, and told us to burn down all the huts and throw the bodies into the river

This is unbearable: but it is not essentially different from what had happened to many Indians in Latin America after 1492. The lawless frontier was for centuries a refuge for loners, criminals, and violent psychopaths who had nothing to lose and could act with impunity. Those who went searching for El Dorado in the 1540’s behaved like packs of ravening wolves, seizing food from the same Indian villagers whom they then enslaved as porters, and who were tortured or killed when they failed to cooperate. As one soon learns from Hemming’s three-volume work, this sort of thing has had a very long history indeed.

Colonial nations fashion their heroes from the timber at hand, much of it twisted and full of knots. Australia, for example, invites its citizens to admire an unappealing Irish bandit named Ned Kelly. But the Kellys smell sweet alongside Brazil’s much romanticized bandeirantes. What are often referred to as expeditions of “pathfinders” from Sao Paulo into the interior in the first half of the 17th century were mostly slave raids aimed at catching, chaining, and marching back to the coast as many Indians as a group of well-armed and ruthless men could seize.

To be sure, there was sometimes a genuinely exploratory aspect to such forays. In Red Gold, Hemming offers a balanced account of this phase of Brazilian expansion inland, and fairly describes the ordeals of the bandeirantes themselves. Since slave-raiding was a central feature of traditional Indian culture, too, the journeys engaged whites, Indians, and those of mixed ancestry (mamelucos) in a common enterprise:

The Indians contributed their forest skills and geographical knowledge. They soon grasped the purpose of the mission and became expert enslavers of other natives. Although brutalized and worked hard by the captains of the bandeiras, the Indians probably enjoyed service on them. It was quite normal for Tupi warriors to make long marches through the forests to attack enemy tribes.

In the course of his own periodic visits to Brazil, Adrian Cowell seems to have come rather closer to the realities of Amazonian Indian life than either Hanbury-Tenison or Hemming. Although aware of the horrors long endured by Indians at the hands of slavers, settlers, and frontier psychopaths, he was also more prepared to face up to the grimmer aspects of the native cultures themselves, and to the horrors Indians had long inflicted on each other.

In The Heart of the Forest (1961), Cowell writes in idyllic prose of the partnership he formed with an Indian hunter, carrying his friend’s gun and studying his craft, teaching himself to decoy wildfowl by imitating their calls. But he also reports how, in 1958 on the Xingu River, there were continual killings of itinerant Brazilian rubber tappers (seringueiros) by Indians, and of Indians by seringueiros. A Juruna Indian told him how

first we lived lower down the Xingu and worked for the seringueiros, but they killed many [Indians] with rifles. So we came up here past the great rapids and lived till the seringueiros say they are friends and gave us rifles. So we went downriver again and worked for the seringueiros till they killed more Juruna. Then we killed many seringueiros and came back here and killed Trumai and Kamayura Indians. Then the Txukahamae tribe came and killed almost all of us so that we are only twelve now.

The Villas-Boas brothers

That is the way things were and always had been. And this, too, was a seemingly ineradicable aspect of the culture that Cowell thought worthy of being saved. Back in 1967, he had joined the brothers Claudio and Orlando Villas-Boas in an attempt to contact and “pacify” the elusive Kreen-Akrore. But violence in the camp was making it hard to manage a community where different tribal groups had been brought together for their own safety. The captions on a page of photographs in Cowell’s 1973 book, The Tribe that Hides from Man, read like the list of casualties on some exotic war memorial: “Above. Javaritu, a Trumai killed by Tapiokap. Above. Pionim, a Kayabi, killed Tapiokap to avenge his brother-in-law.” And so on.

Much has been written about the endeavor of the Villas-Boas brothers to establish the Xingu Indian refuge and entice the tribal remnants of the Kayabi or Txikao or Suya to join it. A passage from The Tribe that Hides from Man offers a glimpse into the thought processes of Claudio, a “Marxist philosopher” in the Latin American manner:

Look around this camp and you will see Indians are more loving than we are. But the expression of their love is confined to the limits of this society. They cut a hole in the wilderness to contain their family, but outside this camp is the jungle where they kill meat for food, kill bamboo for arrows, kill bushes for leaves for their beds. Killing is the essence of forest existence, and if you stopped it, the forest and the Indian would die. Within the Indian mind there is a complete division between the duties within the group and the absence of duty in the land of killing outside.

At one time, Claudio suggested that Indians should feel free to kill white seringueiros or any other uninvited marauders who came into the Xingu Park. While warning them of the inevitable costs of this practice as a permanent way of life, he understood that, according to the tribal code, revenge killing was natural, habitual, and inevitable.

Nor was this the only aspect of Amazonian Indian culture that was hard to reconcile with modern life. Strict rules of seclusion were found among all the upper-Xingu tribes. Women were subjected to draconian punishments for violations of taboo. In a British television documentary from the 1970’s, a young Mehinacu woman was asked what would happen if she were to glimpse, even accidentally, the sacred flutes played by the men. She would be gang-raped, she replied, smiling sadly as if in recognition that in the genteel world of her white interviewer, such sexual punishments—culturally authorized, approved, indeed mandatory—were unthinkable.

Horrors that had to go

Hemming’s account of Amazonian life is hard on the efforts of Christian missionaries, and especially hard on the Jesuits (“fanatical missionaries intent on replacing native society and beliefs with their own Christian model”). One line of grudging appreciation will be followed by the word “but” and ten lines of disparagement. As his impressive study proceeds from volume to volume, he becomes ever more severe, his language becomes more tendentious, and an austere secularism dictates his judgment of religious matters. In his recent article in Prospect, he approves only of the politically radical priests who began to appear in the 1960’s–“trained anthropologists who did not try to undermine indigenous beliefs and ceased to be aggressive proselytizers”–but his view of Catholic missionary activity before that point is mainly negative.

But what exactly were the religious authorities to do when they first arrived from Portugal and had to deal, for example, with the Tupinamba? Did they not have a clear obligation both to undermine and to prohibit certain indigenous beliefs? In modern times, we have seen the rise of whole political cultures gripped by pathology, with hideous consequences; so, too, sick ethnic cultures evolved historically in the tribal world. Few quite so sick as the Tupinamba have been recorded before or since.

They loved human flesh. Prestige and power centered on the ritual slaughtering of prisoners. In an account prepared by Alfred Métraux for the Smithsonian’s Handbook of South American Indians (1948), we read that the killing and eating of these prisoners (who were fattened for the purpose) “were joyful events which provided these Indians with the opportunity for merrymaking, aesthetic displays, and other emotional outlets.” Métraux then describes what took place at a cannibal feast after the victim’s skull was shattered:

Old women rushed to drink the warm blood, and children were invited to dip their hands in it. Mothers would smear their nipples with blood so that even babies could have a taste of it. The body, cut into quarters, was roasted on a barbecue, and the old women, who were the most eager for human flesh, licked the grease running along the sticks. Some portions, reputed to be delicacies or sacred, such as the fingers of the grease around the liver or heart, were allotted to distinguished guests.

That Portuguese settlers in the 16th century did not cope very well with this aspect of the Indian tribal world is probably true. That the missionaries who came after them did not handle the situation as they might have done is also likely. But if they had been around at the time, would John Hemming, or Robin Hanbury-Tenison, or Adrian Cowell, or the entire staff of Survival have done much better? Would any of us?

“All primitive peoples,” Margaret Mead had said to her young Oxford visitor, “lead miserable, unhappy, cruel lives, most of which are spent trying to kill each other.” She was overdoing it, but she had a point–a point largely lost sight of in today’s systematic sentimentalizing of the Stone Age.

The Indian prospect

Of course, as we have seen, Mead also acknowledged that certain aspects of Indian culture—“their art, culture, dancing, music, etc.”—deserved to survive, for the enjoyment of the people themselves and for the admiration of humanity as a whole. That, indeed, is more or less what has happened today in the Xingu Park and places like it elsewhere. On display in such places is a pacified, defanged, and somewhat feminized version of Amazonian culture, of the kind that middle-class travellers from the West like to see: a theatrical world where dressing-up in feathered regalia, and ritual ceremonies, and communal dancing never stop.

Hemming, who welcomes the prospect of self-determination, claims that “modern indigenous policy seeks to empower tribes to manage their own affairs.” Yet both self-determination and empowerment imply literacy and modern education; and here the picture is less clear. Officially, the children are learning to read and write, and in the last chapter of Die If You Must—a chapter with the title “Present and Future”—Hemming makes three rather perfunctory references to schooling. But at the same time, he strongly implies that in his vision of the future it does not matter whether the children learn to read and write or not, because others will be there to do things for them.

Who are these others? According to Hemming, the external political affairs of the Indians on the Xingu reserve are “supported by a remarkable contingent of 33 non-government organizations, a tireless band of missionaries, anthropologists, well-wishers, journalists, doctors, and lawyers, both in Brazil and abroad.” As for their internal welfare, that is served by a “resident tribe of whites, composed of social scientists, doctors, teachers, nurses, biologists, and agronomists from all parts of Brazil.” With friends like these, who needs self-determination?

What Hemming is describing is the fruit of the inviolable-sanctuary approach to cultural survival. This rests on what might be called fortress theory, and has two cardinal principles: that “culture” and “people” and “land” should be seen as indivisible, and that they can be kept this way forever in a suitably constructed territorial redoubt. Whatever is happening in the world around them, ethnic cultures should as far as possible be preserved unchanged. With the help of an army of administrative personnel, custodially responsible for seeing to it that they go on wanting the same things they have always wanted, their cultural heritage will be kept alive. Social change is bad—at least as it affects these picturesque tribal peoples—and should be stopped.

Among the Xingu Park Indians, it is in fact safe to say that the older generation remains strongly attached to its remote lands, and intends to go on living there, hunting animals and gathering fruits. But what do younger Indians want to do with their lives? If there is one thing we have learned from modern history, it is that individuals often outgrow their ethnic cultures, find life in a fortress claustrophobic, and choose to move on. In contrast to museum exhibits, real human beings have a way of developing ideas and ambitions and desires–including for aluminum pots–beyond the ken of conservators. Fortress theory, multicultural “essentialism,” and the enduring cult of the noble savage are the enemies of those ambitions and human desires.

In the final paragraph of Die If You Must, Hemming wonders uneasily whether the pessimists might have the last laugh after all–whether the Amazon’s “beautiful, ancient, and intricate cultures will be maintained only artificially as curiosities for tourists, researchers, or politically correct enthusiasts.” That is quite possible. But it is not the only undesirable eventuality.

Preserving ancient cultural patterns is laudable, but it is not enough. No society in history has ever stood still, and however beautiful, and ancient, and intricate ancient cultures may be, it is wrong to lock people up inside them and throw away the key. Uprooting the dishonest and patronizing cult of the noble savage is the work of generations; but as far as today’s Amazonian Indians are concerned, the main priority must surely be to ensure that those among them who do not want to play the obliging role of historical curiosities, endlessly dressing up for visitors whose expectations they feel bound to fulfil, are able to find something else to do in the modern world–on the reservation or off it. In that quest we can only wish them well.

Posted in Tribalism.