Let’s Talk About “Culture”
The Amerindians and Their Transformations
Until the mid 1970s, it was believed that the disappearance of indigenous peoples was inevitable. Whole peoples from all corners of South America were seen as fossil records of cultures fated to inexorably disappear. That is, Indian was a “thing of the past”. Terms such as cultural change, acculturated, miscigenados, caboclos, mestizos were commonly used in the anthropological literature and common sense to express a process of disappearance of the cultures. Were the amerindians in danger of extinction? Would they be swallowed by history?
This “sentimental thinking” that permeates the idea of cultural loss is, according to the eminent anthropologist Marshal Sahlins, part of the way Western thought deals with culture and history. History seen as a timeline and culture as a collection of traits and characteristics of a people, would separate the peoples between those with history and those without history, a distinction between the modern and the traditional. Tradition would therefore be seen, as static, a prison to the past, and the “other”, the native, as representative of this primeval phase of humanity, as opposed to us supposedly modern and civilized.
It is in this sense that the idea of “true Indian” or the “real Indian” is invented, those who still live immersed in nature and would be guardians of ancestral and singular knowledge, in spite of those who underwent more acute transformations in the face of contact. An invention of our ethnocentrism and our evolutionary thinking that express little about how the various indigenous societies live and conceive the world and humanity.
I remember a course I gave recently to natural scientists involved in environmental projects, where I had great difficulty arguing 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.
The case of identity formation of the Suya Indians, studied by Anthony Seegers is exemplary. Seegers pointed to another way of understanding the processes of constitution of ethnic identities. For him the process of cultural differentiation of the Suya was marked by the adoption of cultural “traces” of the indigenous people from Xingu and white people, describing punctually a process of “mixing”, that did not resemble the idea of acculturation. The anthropologist Dominique Gallois, in dealing with this theme with the Wajãpi, reacts to the idea of disappearance of cultures and tries to understand the construction of the differences from the native models of humanity and culture. She points out that the Wajãpi control their transformation in contexts of networks. The interculturality is, therefore, a condition of the existence of indigenous societies.
Secondly, I argued, what has actually happened is just the opposite: we are facing a vigorous “Amerindian renaissance”: they have not disappeared. Without denying the notorious genocide and ethnocide that has afflicted indigenous peoples since colonial times, the cultures are there, alive, active, resilient, inventive and proliferating in diverse ways, reinventing their past and subverting the exoticism.
According to the IWGIA organization, there are at least 5 thousand indigenous peoples in the world today, totalling more than 370 million of persons. In Brazil, since the 1980s, there has been a demographic resumption by the majority of the indigenous peoples with vigorous population growth, although specific groups have declined demographically and some are even threatened with extinction, such as the Indians in voluntary isolation. Today there is an immense sociodiversity in Brazil, with 254 indigenous peoples, speakers of more than 150 different languages, being 896,917 individuals. In the Peruvian Amazon live more than 50, while in the Equadorian there are 12 ethnic groups.
It was impressive to see the eyes of my environmentalist collegues shine facing our talk about “culture”: that these myriad of indigenous peoples live and struggle to maintain their traditional territories and ways of “managing the world” in front of oil industries, mining companies and agribusiness. In this way, for example, the indigenous communities of the Negro River in the Brazilian Amazon provide us with complex and innovative traditional knowledge about the diversity of cultivated plants. The Ashaninka from Acre, Brazil, create an amazing school to teach the non-indian to manage the environment. And the Munduruku, of the Tapajós River, has been fighting against hydroelectric projects, affirming their contemporaneity, their sacred places and their way of life. They are three examples of many that we can follow and learn.
In the 21st century the vast majority of South Americans ignore the immense diversity of indigenous peoples living in the continent. The difficulty of seeing them as subjects of history and part of contemporaneity, or simply as different, blinds us to our own ethnocentric arrogance and prevents us from having more symmetrical and fraternal cultural relations in a truly decolonizing ecology of knowledge. Something we should reflect on.
 On the list of Indigenous peoples in Brazil elaborated by the Socio-Environmental Institute – ISA, seven of them have populations between 5 and 40 individuals.