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Out of Contact

On a more philosophical level, do we want to keep people in a “cultural museum,” a time warp as it were? Putting aside the practical questions of how this would be accomplished, is it morally the right thing to do? This is a question of values and some of my anthropologist colleagues would say yes. But the morality of this question has to be considered in the light of our own cultural origins. Once upon a time, the ancestors of each and every one of us lived in a premodern culture. Those cultural origins have now been completely erased from our collective memory. Do any of us regret the loss of this memory? Would any of us prefer to return to our ancestral condition, rather than to live in the modern world? Few, if any, would say yes. To live in isolation is to live a short, hard life in the absence of modern medicine and in complete ignorance of history, geography, science, and art.

To my admittedly biased way of thinking, the modern world offers a vastly richer existence—intellectually, culturally, physically. Not only do we live nearly twice as long on average, but we are able to travel, to experience the accomplishments of a cultural history that goes back three thousand years, and to savor the best creations of a highly diverse global cuisine. Recently contacted people I’ve met in both New Guinea and the Amazon were grateful for contact. For the first time, they were able to move freely without the burden of anxiety that comes from living in a state of hostility with neighbors or the outside world. Really, it’s no contest, and many of the Amazonians I know, especially of the younger generation, are eager to immerse themselves in Western society.

The question is, how to make the leap? The cultural gulf is both wide and deep and there is no easy way to jump over it. Three generations of FUNAI policy have all failed to answer the question of how successfully to assist isolated people negotiate the leap into modern life. A native Amazonian does not know how to function in contemporary society. He or she speaks an unwritten language and is possessed of jungle skills that are of little value in the money economy. Add to these handicaps the almost universal tendency of frontier societies to exploit and discriminate against the members of less acculturated ethnic groups, and the barriers are almost insurmountable. Social ostracism, demoralization, and alcoholism comprise the barren netherworld between cultural states.

It was this trap that Rondon failed to perceive when he promoted a policy of assimilation. Yet in my view, assimilation offers the only moral and permanent option. The cultural gap can be bridged, but only by education. Yet the educational services provided to unacculturated natives are usually abysmal. Here might be the starting point for a fourth-generation policy that would break new ground while benefiting from insights gained through the experiences of thousands of Amazonians who paid for the mistakes of the past with their lives.

Letters

A Man of the Amazon June 7, 2012

The Fate of the ‘Unconquered’: An Exchange May 24, 2012

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