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  • Rich D'Amaru

High-Tech Amerindians

Thiago Cardoso

They report environmental crimes using computers, mobile phones and internet access, carry camcorders to preserve and disseminate their culture and show their living conditions, by means of radio and audiovisual production they communicate the "being Indian", defend their territorial rights with GPS and cartographic techniques in hands. Daily struggles of diverse indigenous communities that have now gained a powerful ally: technology otherwise.

But the use of so-called "modern" technologies by indigenous peoples is not just about political struggle. Televisions, cars, radios and everything else in the world of goods have been part of the daily lives of South American indigenous villages for decades. Mobile phones to communicate with each other, television to watch daily programs, internet access, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts to communicate the daily lives of individuals in the village and cities are not new things. And many of these online resources are used to amplify the connection between communities and individual, and also to overcome the lack of space that these peoples have in traditional media.

Many would accuse an Indian with a mobile in the hand of no longer being an Indian or being a "false Indian." This argument, still widely used, has a strong racist connotation. That is, for the common sense the use of "modern" technology by an indigenous people would invariably transfigure the "original native culture" leading them to cultural loss and to be "civilized". Summarizing the formula: Indigenous individuals or groups that use the "modern" technologies in daily life would already be in an advanced stage of acculturation. For those who follow this logic the argument is ancient and strongly based on a kind of evolutionary thinking that sees the Indians as primeval humans, members of a pristine stage of humanity, while "we" would have separated us from nature when we reached the maximum degree of civilization.

Armed with this thought, well-intentioned persons would say that the amerindians culture should be preserved, as well as primates and birds, so as not to "lose culture." And the malicious would say that the change of culture is inexorable to progress and that the Indians should abandon the struggle for differentiated and ancestral rights and accept the fate of living in "civilization", yielding their territories to the land market and entering the global labour market.

In an earlier text entitled Let's Talk about Culture, published in this journal, I argued that the idea of “cultural loss”, for them represented in the image of acculturated Indians wearing clothes, using money and cell phones, no longer made sense in anthropological terms. Firstly, I argued that we could think of culture in the plural and not as a thing (objects and static behaviours), but as a process, as different ways of inhabiting the world where lives entangle in a regime of interculturality. In other words, every way of inhabiting the world is historical and transforms itself along the time.

Far from being an acculturation, or a change of cultural stage from “primitive” to “modern”, the use of technologies by the Indians can be understood as a "capture of the other" for the very continuity of the indigenous cosmological system: technology otherwise. This capture involves the active incorporation of the commodities of the "white" world, something that many ethnologists call "predation of otherness" or what the anthropologist Marshal Sahlins called "indigenization of modernity". For Sahlins, studying how societies in Hawaii, Kwakiutl, and China, interconnected since the end of the eighteenth century by a system of trade with Western merchants, this peoples are authors of their own history and not only victims of capitalism. The argument is that their positions in the already globalized world system were not passive, even when faced with serious crises.

In other words, consuming the different and incorporating the new and the "controlled transformation" is the modus operandis of Amerindian culture: far from loss we are talking about a critical space of interchange where mobiles, GPS, camcorders and plasma televisions enter the indigenous world without necessarily imploding their way of life, on the contrary, conforming an Amerindian technosphere where the acquired object are in friction, coexists or hybridizes in the local culture, and often constitutes as continuity and potentiality of the cultural production of a community. The Indians have already shown us that they are not passive in the history of contact, but rather agents of their transformations.

In this way, perhaps we can understand - free of ethnocentric prejudices - the political attitude of the Kayapó carrying camcorders to film their political avatars against economical developmentalism in the Xingu River, inaugurating an entire Amazonian scene of indigenous activist cinema – the video in the villages. Or the Munduruku, from the Tapajós River Valley, who recreated a whole technology of online production and publication of letters and photographs that display manifestos and reports about their struggle against hydroelectric dams in their rivers, now learning to use GPSs to map their territory and press the government for the demarcation of their lands.   

It was through the connection with the world computer network that the Ashaninka, who live in the region of Alto-Juruá, on the border of Brazil and Peru, began to defend themselves against Peruvian loggers, who deforested the forests, harmed their resources and often entered into friction with the community. The Ashaninka innovated: armed with a solar panel and a computer, they began sending out denouncing e-mails to NGOs and to agencies of the Brazilian government. Another innovation in Brazil was the creation of Radio Yandé, an online platform run by indigenous people who post texts, news and has programs of interviews and indigenous music.

In order to guarantee their territorial and environmental rights, the Paiter Suruí people, who live in Cacoal (Rondônia, Brazil), have been adopting the Internet and social networks as a strategy to publicize their cause, that is, protection of their territory, preservation of their culture and protection of the environment. Almir Suruí, a renowned Suruí leader asked Google executives to help their people monitor the forest, which provided the people with training and donation of equipment such as laptops, mobile phones and GPS. A technological arsenal that are now employed to monitor and help combat the exploitation of natural resources on their lands.

As I said earlier, the idea that the Indian "stops being Indian" if he has contact and uses "modern" devices is very strong. The Indian would be that being who should remain exactly in the same form of life before the arrival of the colonizers. It is the spectacle of exoticism and racism, generated in a context totally alien to the reality of the indigenous people! It is important to point out that this way of seeing is an ethnocentric imposition of Western culture so that Amerindian cultures follow the paths outlined for them. But the basic idea is the same: the annulment of indigenous people as agents capable of deciding their own life and culture, including what technologies they will "indigenize".     

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