The Search for the “True Indian”: A reflection on insidious narratives and call for a rights-based future
Guest Post by Maria Gabriela Fink Salgado and Eduardo Rafael Galvão
Visiting Scholars, Department of Anthropology, Purdue University
During a traditional ceremony Motere Kayapó and other Indigenous People record the event in the Moikarakô village, Kayapó Indigenous Territory, Pará, Brazil. Photo: Beprot Kayapó.
In 2002, Dr. José Ribamar Bessa Freire, a Brazilian sociologist, identified critical insights on the perception and treatment of Indigenous Peoples in Brazil. Speaking specifically to the non-indigenous majority in Brazil, he identified many of the mistakes and misconceptions of Indigenous Peoples that persist today. These insights are revelatory. They show the ongoing prejudices against Indigenous Peoples, and how these perceptions and attitudes continue to obscure the rights and freedom of Indigenous Peoples.
We reproduce his list here:
We think this is a critical moment to revive these insights. From our experience, these misconceptions have not gone away, and in fact, we are seeing a resurgence of these discourses and narratives in popular culture. If we are going to move ahead with supporting indigenous rights in Brazil, as guaranteed by the constitution, and Indigenous Rights as outlined by the United Nations Declaration for Indigenous Rights, we need to continually recognize the negative impact these narratives have on Indigenous well-being and self-determination.
We still do not know who we are as a Brazilian society. A reflection of such relevance in the current situation in Brazil, taken by innumerable aggressions mainly to the rights of indigenous peoples, and which unfortunately should not be exclusive to the South American continent. For this reason, we provide a discussion here on how these misconceptions are insidious, pervasive, and persistent.
The first mistake
The first mistake is the idea that all Indigenous Peoples are homogenous. In Brazil more than 305 Indigenous Peoples thrive and speak more than 274 different languages. And each Indigenous Peoples are unique in their language, lifeways, and worldviews, which are reflected in religious, culinary, artistic, literary and aesthetic diversity. Cultural diversity does not fit into a single representative generic category. To say "He is Indigenous" is an aggregating discourse that dismisses this heterogeneity. Furthermore, it fails to recognize Indigenous Peoples by their self-designation or their diverse ways of being.
The second mistake
The second mistake is to consider Indigenous Peoples and their cultural expressions as backward and primitive. This fails to recognize Indigenous knowledge systems and furthermore wrongly places Indigenous Peoples on an nonexistent cultural evolutionary scale. Indigenous Peoples are resilient and innovative, and have been subjugated to and still are influenced by over five hundred years of colonialization. As recognized by the Declaration of Belém, The Convention of Biological Diversity, for example, Indigenous knowledge systems are longitudinal and rich, and knowledge holders steward plants, soil ecologies, domestication of species, fauna and flora and even invisible beings (who protect human-environmental relations). Indigenous health systems and healers, such as shamans, provide diverse insights on ways to care for communities and support indigenous well-being. This ranges from specific knowledge about natural resources to care-based practices. Orally and musically transmitted, narratives and historical events are transmitted to diverse generations in communicative norms that are often not recognized by outsiders.
In the eight years I worked with the Mebêngôkre-Kayapó Indigenous Peoples who steward their homeland in the south of Pará in the Brazilian Amazon, I had the good fortune to observe the sophisticated knowledge they have about caring for their communities through diverse practices, including medicinal knowledge based on Forest and Cerrado resources and healing practices across communities. These communities are working within both Mebêngôkre-Kayapó and Brazilian health systems. For example, community members to differentiate if the patient presents a "Kuben's disease (white)", being taken for treatment in the city or if he is affected by some "Mebêngôkre disease” (Kayapó indigenous). Therefore, to consider the Indigenous Peoples as primitive, is first and foremost false, but secondly ignores the complexity of this indigenous universe and the wealth of knowledge.
The third mistake
The third mistake is considering Indigenous Peoples and their cultures as frozen in time. According to Dr. José Ribamar Bessa Freire, this mistake is most visible when someone imposes the imaginary of Indigenous Peoples during colonization as a representation of what it means to be "the true Indian". For example, if an indigenous person no longer is naked, using technologies such as bows and arrows, many no longer consider that individual as indigenous. On the contrary, they startsto be categorized by Brazilian Society as an "ex-indigenous person." This not only misrepresents indigenous identity but also has political implications for the rights of Indigenous Peoples today.
It is remarkable that these outdated visions persist, which do not accept Indigenous Peoples as citizens of Brazil and who have the free will to choose their own individual and collective expression. The prejudice that we often see, is that owning a watch, cell phone, computer, clothes or even speaking a language different from their mother tongue can be used to negate their identity. Yet, this is, as proposed by José Bessa, interculturality, or the capacity to weave together diverse realities and build new meanings that will be added to diverse cultural traditions.
A practical example of interculturality can be seen in the illustrative photograph of this text (Figure 1) where the traditional ceremony (Metoro) of the Mebêngôkre people is being recorded by indigenous filmmakers. In focus is the indigenous filmmaker Motere Kayapó who films the traditional cremony. The camera in Mebêngôkrê language (Jê) is Mekaron which also means soul, ghost. However, today they have no fear of using this tool and instead are becoming more experts and producing their own documentaries. This is a clear demonstration of the ability that they have to re-signify the objects who they have interest, naming them and learning to use them, when believed this is useful for their Peoples, such as for protection and monitoring of their territory, record of their traditional practices, dances, music, stories, and other practices.
Therefore, to freeze the indigenous culture is to take away the freedom of Indigenous Peoples to innovate through other cultures - a privilege only granted to non-indigenous society - without ceasing to be who they are, or having the right to transform themselves.
The fourth mistake
The fourth mistake is to consider that Indigenous Peoples are part of the past. Most Latin American countries have gone through a colonization process marked by massacres, exploitation and slavery, which have led to the ethnocide of thousands of Indigenous Peoples with countless cultural losses (traditions, languages, customs, for example). Although Indigenous Peoples make up this history, it is wrong to still consider Indigenous Peoples as only occupying the past. By seeking to preserve their traditions, Indigenous Peoples are celebrating their cultural wealth and histories in the current moment.
For example, art produced by different Indigenous Peoples, such as body painting techniques are important immaterial cultural heritage. Body painting is traditionally present in the daily life of different indigenous groups, with varied and complex meanings, representing the cultural identity of these peoples. Today, the same designs used in body painting are now used in different arts made by them, such as bracelets, earrings, and paintings on canvas. Just a Google search with the keyword “ethnic style” reveals, while perhaps wrongly labelled, Indigenous Peoples continue to explore diverse ways of transmission of their cultural practices in varied marketplaces and visual economies.
The fifth mistake
The last mistake we find is the denial of our society in relation to the role colonization and programs for “miscegenation” has played in the formation of our Brazilian society. As the Brazilian anthropologist Eduardo Viveiros de Castro said, "In Brazil everyone is Indian, except those who are not".
However, unfortunately, in the Global South, especially as a strategy of their political and economic elite, they rely on the tendency to only recognize the history of the winner and/or colonizer (in our case - European) denying other peoples who were also important in this construction of "Who we are". In Brazil, for example, the colonization and ethnocide of Indigenous Peoples, the participation in the transatlantic slave trade, and the role of colonizers all formulate our roots.
In conclusion, we hope that readers will reflect on these five mistakes and consider how these persistent and false narratives about Indigenous Peoples still influence outcomes today. We hope that the search for the "true Indian" be stopped, giving way for a true respect to the Indigenous Peoples rights and self-determination as well as for cultural diversity to thrive.
Written by Moriah Lavey
Observing the 16th International Society of Ethnobiology was my first experience with
ethnography outside of an undergraduate research methods class. And what a time it was. I
came face to face both with the challenges of collaborative event ethnography in general, as
well as some context specific issues that arose institutionally at the ISE.
Collaborative event ethnography as a methodology, is challenging. Though valuable, it is
difficult to take on a field site that is temporally constrained and incredibly jam packed. The
four days of the conference were the only opportunities we had to collect data and make observations. For example, on day three, I was tired, frustrated about the language barrier, and a bit distracted due to some personal concerns that arose, and I know it impacted the way I collected data. The events that I attended on day three will not happen again, so the pictures I did not take will remain undocumented, and that is unfortunate. Additionally, even with the five of us spending multiple hours a day within the conference, there is so much that occurred that was beyond our reach. Especially in the first three days, I was consistently doubting myself, feeling like I was not seeing nor doing enough,
despite the entirety of my days being spent observing and participating. Thankfully at a team
meeting, Laura affirmed that this sentiment is common in doing CEE’s. Not to mention it
certainly is tiring to invest the majority of your waking hours physically, mentally, and
emotionally invested in the goings on of the ISE.
Doing the field work was demanding, but also rewarding. To be documenting the ISE was certainly enjoyable. The events that I observed, and especially the ones I could linguistically understand, were fascinating, and the conference itself was a historic event. But outside of the challenges inherent within collaborative event ethnography, the ISE itself posed its own obstacles.
As a team, I believe we underestimated the extent to which the three members who did
not speak Portuguese were excluded from the events at the conference. Of the twelve events
that I went to, only one was explicitly in English, while three were equipped with translation
services. This limitation certainly created obstacles to my ethnographic observation,
understanding, and analysis of the events that I witnessed. Not to undervalue context clues like
vocal tone, volume, body language, and materials like slides and videos, but to be disconnected
from what was actually being discussed, and especially from the conversations that were had in
event question and answer sessions, barred me from a lot of content. Not speaking the
language, however, did provide us with a powerful experiential viewpoint, that of being a
participant unable to access the common language of the space. It cannot be understated how
this linguistic difference impacts the ability to participate and contribute to the events.
All in all, being part of a collaborative event ethnography at the ISE in Belém has been a
powerful learning experience, challenging me both in ways that I anticipated and in ways that
caught me by surprise. Through this experience, however, I feel myself to have grown as a
person and as an ethnographer.
Written by Michelle David
The 2018 International Society of Ethnobiology Congress has come to a close. This conference not only created a space for people from across the world to meet, but also a space for discussion, dialogue, and collaboration. After four days of lengthy yet lively sessions, a Letter from Belem+30 was created to revisit the original 1988 Declaration. The letter was read aloud and presented on two large screens for all ISE attendees at the Closing Ceremony. One of the women invited to read the letter, a Quilombola leader, announced, “when I signed this letter, it marked one of the greatest moments in my life.” The letter included clauses that renounced existing rights violations against Indigenous Peoples, Traditional Peoples, and Local Communities; empowered Indigenous Peoples, Traditional Peoples, and Local Communities to protect their lands and knowledge; defended the inherent ties between and importance of respecting biological and cultural diversity; reaffirmed free, prior, and informed consent for both private and public projects; and called upon national governments to uphold these protections.
On the first day during the Opening Ceremony, Pepeyla Miller, President of the International Society of Ethnobiology, reminded all attendees to “communicate, communicate, communicate…and listen.” Listening to the letter as it was read, I was pleased to hear some of the proposed language from the two Forum dos Povos (People’s Forum) sessions I attended. I would like to believe that the Indigenous and Local Peoples who spoke up to defend and propose their own ideas felt some mix of satisfaction, empowerment, and hope as their ideas were presented to a large auditorium of eager listeners, knowing their audience would soon be the world.
Despite the creation of the Letter from Belem+30 and all the collaboration I witnessed these four days, I can’t help but come back to one message from the opening speaker at the Closing Ceremony: “Don’t forget that we have a lot to do after this event. We have a lot to work on as researchers, as people… as partners, from the communities and the social movements we work with. And it’s necessary that we learn some more to denounce, to shout it out, to feel dignified.”
Tomorrow is the last day of the ISE Congress, which should bring exciting things for Congress attendees. So far, there have been many spaces for indigenous voices to be heard, which very much differs from the normal academic conference program. The Feira de Sociobioversidade (Sociobiodiversity Fair) is certainly the liveliest part of the space, which invites different NGOs, activist groups, academic societies, and even food vendors to create a market in the midst of the Hangar. It is exciting to see Indigenous Peoples and Traditional Communities inserting themselves into the daily activities and panels. We’ve seen everything from academic panels to forums, provide space for Indigenous voices, and I don’t foresee the last day of the Congress being any different.
We’ve heard from various participants that ISE is the liveliest and most fun conference they’ve been involved with, in fact, as I’m writing this, I just witnessed researchers I know dancing between the stalls at the Feira, while Michelle and myself sit in an empty stall to catch up on work. Our team is exhausted from the CEE process, yet meetings are a rewarding space as they give us the opportunity to talk about our daily experiences and make connections across events. CEE is definitely not for the faint of heart. Sleep may be futile, but our data is not!
It’s day 2 at the ISE 2018 Congress and time is already flying by. It feels like just yesterday I was a mere undergraduate student learning about collaborative ethnography on campus, and here I am working on a research team in Brazil. The transition from research assistant to field research has been difficult, but I’ve learned a lot. One lesson I’ve learned after only 72 hours in Brazil is the importance of language. I have no experience with Portuguese, and I naively did not expect this to be an obstacle in the field. Even the smallest questions like, “where is auditorium A?” become a confusing slur of words and a jumble of hand motions. It’s almost impossible to be self-sufficient with this language barrier, so the collaborative nature of our team is particularly important for me.
Body language and context will suffice for basic questions, but things become more complicated during events. Since the schedule is in English, I have a general sense of each event before attending, but I am unable to get a comprehensive understanding of the content. I have felt intimidated walking into these events that I won’t understand. I am exhausted from trying to pull out the few words and phrases that I recognize and construct a possible narrative based on the event theme. Despite the challenges of a language barrier, I have been able to gain something from each event. Instead of writing down every single word (which I would do in an English-speaking event) I am able to look around the room and see how people respond to each speaker. I can also devote more time to spatial awareness, taking in the environment of each event space. My contextualizing skills are getting some great exercise as well. I’ve been reminded of the uneasy feeling of dependency and confusion that many non-English speakers may feel in the US, and I feel privileged to live in a place where most people speak the language that I’m most familiar with. There are also the multiple Indigenous languages to keep in mind, but I’ll tackle one at a time.
Luckily we have 2 Portuguese speakers (Laura and Emily) to guide us through the language barrier and ensure that we are not ordering the wrong thing at restaurants.
Written by Moriah Lavey
The 2018 collaborative event ethnography team for the International Society of Ethnobiology Congress has assembled! The five of us (one faculty member, one graduate student, and three undergraduate students) are in Belém, Pará in Brazil, eagerly preparing for the start of the conference tomorrow morning. I have spent the last two days exploring the city on my own, adjusting to the time difference (a meager two hours, but travel is tiring!), the language barrier, and a vastly different space. I have spent much of my time alone, walking around, taking the environment in, and anticipating this next week and a half of arduous but incredibly exciting work.
And now we are here! It really and truly is happening, with Laura adding ‘all at once’. I feel as though I spent so much time in anticipation and preparation, it is hard to make sense of the fact that the time has come. Tomorrow we will be in the field, putting into practice all that we have talked about over the last few months. We are staying at the Stada Hangar Hotel with the Hangar Centro de Conveções e Feiras da Amazônia, the site of the ISE, visible from our window. The Hangar is a massive geometric structure with windows covering the exterior that demands attention. While it certainly is daunting from the outside, the english-speaking owner of the hostel I was staying at previously assured me it feels even bigger on the inside. I am curious to see how the five of us will be able to navigate, occupy, and eventually map out the space. Our goals are lofty, but I believe in the team’s ability to do meaningful work over these next four days and beyond. I am experiencing similar levels of excitement and overwhelm, and I figure that is a good sign. Ready or not, ISE, here we come!
Written by Sarah Huang
This project is interested in better understanding the modes of representation, which can also be considered through consideration of how space is created. While the main site of the World Conservation Congress occurred in the Hawaii Convention Center, there were also other places around Honolulu where our team engaged with the WCC at various side events and team meetings. This map displays the location of these particular sites, which raises questions about how we can think about space in relation to a large event like the World Conservation Congress. For example, what was the presence of the WCC in Honolulu, and also how present were conceptualizations of 'Honolulu' and 'Hawaii' at the WCC? Who created these narratives about place, and how did the conference physically construct and perform those particular narratives?
For an interactive version of this map and more information about side events that we attended, please click here.
Posted by Sarah Huang
The P2I team has returned from our trip to the World Conservation Congress in Honolulu, Hawaii. Please enjoy a gallery of photos taken throughout the conference at the Honolulu Convention Center, team meetings, and various places throughout the city.
Written by Sarah Huang
As we begin to wrap up our time here in Hawaii and as the World Conservation Congress concludes, motions and the programme will be decided on today. This programme sets the agenda for the next four years for the IUCN and member organizations. Today, Laura asked me what I wanted to see happen after the WCC. I responded with something about wanting to see more meaningful engagement of the youth, as stated in the IUCN's goals. But, after thinking about it a little longer, I began to dream a little harder about where the conservation world could go.
This year's WCC theme, "Planet at the Crossroads", has been used to describe the the current crisis that we have on our hands, as the planet is warming, species are becoming extinct, and the natural world is collapsing. The speed and intensity at which this is occurring has put humans at a crossroads; in our decisions to do or not do something - and if we do, then what exactly should we do? I consider myself one very, very small part of this crossroads, but I, along with the other 10,000 or so folks here, have big dreams for this planet.
So back to Laura's question, what do I want to see happen after the WCC? I want to see the planet at the crossroads to meaningfully include all people within this crossroads, especially those who have been silenced, left off the agenda, and not invited to the conservation table. My own interests in gender based violence in environmental development have revealed the ways in which women are criminalized for protecting their environments and live in communities where their bodies are no longer safe as industrial development moves into their homes. And yet their crossroads, and the agenda that is meant to address their challenges, is not represented here at WCC.
I turn to a gender and environment event that I attended a few days ago. The Women's Environment and Climate Action Network (WECAN) implored us to consider our relationship to women, violence, and the environment. Indigenous women put their bodies on the line and the increase in violence and murders of indigenous women for the benefit of all of us is increasing. We wouldn't be able to live without the waters and forests that surround us, and yet we often don't consider who is on the front lines, ensuring that these resources are there for us and our future generations. We see this currently happening in the NoDAPL, North Dakota Access Pipeline, where indigenous women were putting their bodies in harm's way to protect their sacred burial sites. And yet long history of the violence against indigenous women goes unrecognized, and women are continuously silenced, criminalized, and forgotten.
Looking at the current 2017-2020 programme for the IUCN and then also thinking about this event that I attended on violence, as well as the countless stories of violence that I heard at COP21 in Paris, on various activist news outlets from North Dakota, Honduras, and other places; I can't help but wonder why violence is exacerbated on certain actors more than others. The politics and systems that allow for violence on our environment and the raping of land by mining companies and dam construction are the same ones that allow for indigenous women to be raped, abused, and murdered.
At the opening ceremony here at WCC just a mere 10 days ago, a representative from United Nations Environment Programme said that we need to stop playing the blame game; blaming countries and blaming industry. Well, in the next four years after this WCC, I want to see more of the blame game. I want to see more member nations and organizations calling out the actors who allow for a perpetuation of colonialism on our environments and on indigenous women. It is only by pointing the finger and calling attention to the actors, actions, and frameworks that colonize our environments and women that we may begin to address these violent acts. We need a disruption of the current ways that we define and address our crossroads; one that brings indigenous women, their violent experiences and realities to the forefront, much in the way that they have put themselves at the forefront of protecting the natural resources that we depend on.
As we leave Hawaii and the World Conservation Congress, I only hope that the next four years will not replicate the past four years of indigenous women disappearing in mining towns and indigenous women activists being murdered and terrorized by their governments. Instead, I hope that we being to push the bounds on our governments and projects and programs that allow for these types of violence to occur in order for a more safe environment.
Written by Baylee Bunce
This post is part of our digital ethnography of the World Conservation Congress conducted by nine students in Laura Zanotti's Anthropology of Water (Anth392) class at Purdue University.
As the IUCN's World Conservation Congress comes to a conclusion, I have been able to watch the development of Marine-centered issues across my various sites. As most of my sites have booths at the WCC, it has been great to also see them share information about the work they have been actively doing in real time at the event. Many of my sites have shown increased activity during the WCC, especially the larger organizations Mission Blue and the Marine Conservation Institute. And although smaller organizations have sometimes had limited updates, the few updates have provided very useful comments on different issues, such as marine litter and indigenous rights and activism.
Across multiple sites there has been a lot of attention paid to both Motion 26 and #30by30. From what I understand of Motion 26, it has incredibly important implications for both indigenous rights regarding natural resources and bodies of water. I find the relevance to the current situation in South Dakota very interesting and I am eager to see how it plays out towards the end of the WCC. The campaign for 30% of oceans protected by 2030 has also been very prominent in the posts from most of my sites. I've noticed that support for the petition is commonly accompanied by #RightsofNature and #HarmonyWithNature, implying the link between oceans and global environmental wellness and responsibility. The addition of "harmony" has been a newer hash tag and I think the emphasis on the idea of nature having explicit rights along with the possibility of living well with nature is a discourse that I want to follow as the congress begins to conclude.
Finally, the majority of updates that have drawn my attention are those that speak to the relationship between marine issues and people explicitly. An article posted by Marine Conservation International talked about the links between poverty and marine conservation, particularly the importance of conserving marine resources to avoid or alleviate poverty in various places of the world. I have also seen more connections being made by sites between indigenous rights and conservation, particularly articles promoting the inclusion of indigenous rights and ideas into environmental policy decisions.
Overall, I have seen issues related to marine conservation develop in very different, but connected ways across my different sites. While much attention is still paid to Obama's designation of the large Marine Protected Area, those updates are now including critical discussion around the topic. Most of the sites have increased their attention to critical discussion and avid activism as the WCC has progressed. I expect to see this become even more apparent in the next two days.
In the field...
Follow our team as we cover international environmental policy making meetings.
Dr. Kimberly R. Marion Suiseeya, Department of Political Science, Northwestern University
Dr. Laura Zanotti, Department of Anthropology, Purdue University
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