Dilemmas of Essentialism in the Amazonia

There is a current trend in the activism regarding the protection of the Amazon rainforest and the indigenous people who live there. Indigenous cultures of the Amazon Basin have long been the poster children for ecology and sustainable development (Graham 2002: 181-182). The west has had a long fascination with looking at the exotic non western cultures from around the world ever since 1492 and the age of European exploration (Conklin 1997: 714). Today with the use of photography, video cameras, and the internet, images of primitive non European cultures living a wild and natural existence have become powerful tools in the fight to defend these cultures and the ecosystem in which they live. To be authentic, and in this case as pre-Columbian as possible, is a powerful political tool in gaining widespread support and concessions from the governments of the surrounding Amazonian countries. In the past, indigenous people thought it best to hide signs of cultural authenticity. Now, they are seeing the benefits of exposing it (Conklin 1997: 711-713). All of this is now being done at a transnational level; seeking to gain the international attention that is characteristic of the New Social Movements that have been sweeping Latin America since the late 20th century and into the 21st century (Garfield 2001: 160-161).

Essentialism and its Current Uses in Amazonian Activism
The obsession with portraying the indigenous people of the Amazon Basin as authentic as possible falls into the concept known as essentialism. One of the goals of the Amazonian essentialists is to seek out the most exemplary indigenous community (Varese 1996: 130). When doing this, they look for those with the most close-corporate entity, those that are static and immutable in time, socially undifferentiated, culturally repetitive, and finally, impenetrable to external influences (Varese 1996: 130). In turn, European, Eurasian, and western cultures are treated in an opposite way such as being rewarded with a sense of agency (Mann 2006: 13). Essentialists, whether they are western environmentalists or local indigenous leaders, understand that wearing feathers, lip disks, and war paint serve as important symbols in the fight for cultural survival especially since it is an impressive sight. Without such a lavish display of what it means to be indigenous, you might not be considered indigenous at all.

One of the main points critical of this sort of thinking is that outsiders are, in a sense, responsible for determining what is and what is not authentic. As Beth Conklin stated:

“There is an inherent asymmetry at the core of the eco-Indian alliance: the symbolic
value of Indian cultural identity is bestowed on terms defined primarily by non- Indians. Transnational symbolic politics accommodate native peoples’ definitions of themselves only to the extent that these self-definitions resonate with Western ideological and symbolic constructs. The irony of this pro-Indian politics is that, by insisting that native Amazonian activists must embody ‘authenticity’, it may force them to act ‘inauthentically.’” (Conklin 1997: 729)

Despite the alliances between these groups there can also be points of contention. This includes eco activists encouraging the wearing of traditional clothing acquired from plants and birds (which do not necessarily need to be killed in order to acquire feathers) but not if it is clothing made from monkey or jaguar pelts (Conklin 1997: 722-723). Although there may be only one way to be an essentialist, there are, in fact, many ways to critique this ideology. They can include Conklin’s accusation of external interference or the approach that believes the introduction of modern conveniences is insufficient in rendering native cultures inauthentic.

The Emergence of Political Essentialism
Among all the indigenous cultures of the Amazon Basin, the Xavante have been one of the most outspoken defenders of their land and heritage. However, their history is long and complex. Still, it is important to understand the Xavante and their relationship with the Portuguese colonists and the Brazilian state of later times. This plays role in how both parties viewed and treated each other towards the 21st century. Today the Xavante inhabit the Brazilian states of Mato Grasso and Goias located in central Brazil. The lead up to this modern residence, however, is the result of constant warfare pushing them out of their original homeland near the Atlantic coast until the 19th century. They were first referenced as Xavante in 1751. The Xavante, like many other Amazonian natives were contacted by Jesuit missionaries and affected by the 17th century Jesuit reforms meant to for their protection from slavery and colonial hostility. Still, the Xavante found their way of life under threat from the colonist’s hunger for land and gold, the missionary’s need for converts to Catholicism, and the colonial authority’s need for organization. Diseases such as smallpox and measles were the most devastating result of contact. Between 1500 and 1800 Brazil’s native population of two and a half million was reduced by three quarters (Garfield 2001: 3-11).

By the 20th century, Brazil formed the Indian Protection Services (SPI) which is today known as the National Indian Foundation or FUNAI (Garfield 2001: 33). The middle of the 20th century was an important period for Brazil’s economic development and cultural heritage. The two of which were linked in many ways especially when indigenous people were involved. The regime of Getulio Vargas (1937-1945) ushered in a period known as the Estado Novo, or New State. As president, Vargas envisioned a national project for Brazil which involved both subduing the wilderness to the north and giving the indigenous people a special place in the Brazilian national identity. The Estado Novo’s message was one of multiculturalism now and homogeneity later. The Brazilians celebrated the indigenous people as primordial Brazilians and as the base of the national character. Often this involved the essentialist portrayal of an idealized noble savage (Garfield 2001: 11-13). There was a desire for an authentic Indian identity representing Brazil in the form of “imperialist nostalgia” (Garfield 2001: 63-67). During the Estado Novo, there was a belief that the Indians, who were the original tamers of the wilderness, should embrace expansion because it was in the “national interest” of a country that honored them. Mesticagem, or the mixing of race, was a source of pride but it was hoped that it would have a result favoring whites. This was called blanqueamiento, or whitening (Garfield 2001: 11-13). All of this seemed somewhat contradictory. Honor the indigenous people’s unique heritage but require them to incorporate into the greater national identity and make sacrifices for the good of the state.

The Estado Novo left a legacy that continued during the expansionist regime of Juscelino Kubitschek (1956-1961). By that time, the Brazilian government began to assert its claims to the Amazon Basin in what were known as “The March to the West” and “Pacification”. This struck deep into the heart of Xavante country (Garfield 2001: 45). The March to the West was slow and when the military seized power in Brazil in 1964 they demanded swift development in what was known as Legal Amazonia. Domination of the Amazon was a matter of national security (Garfield 2001: 137-139). The need to develop the Amazon remained a national priority, yet the Indians were increasingly being marginalized. The idealism of the Estado Novo was being replaced with a shift to racism. Much of this was caused by the failure of that era to make authentic Indians a reality. The reality was that the Indians found it hard to adapt especially when expected to remain either as noble savages or become successful whites (Garfield 2001: 97-98). As Seth Garfield wrote:

“At last, one commentator noted, cariocas could view firsthand authentic Indians—'like the Tupis that Cabral saw’ when he arrived in Brazil in 1500- instead of the ‘decadent’ ones always milling about their city” (Garfield: 2001: 66).

Although the quest for authentic Indians began with the Estado Novo, it would not become a political reality until the Amazon was under threat of total destruction and the international environmental movement revived this type of essentialism.

Contemporary Examples of Essentialism in Amazonian Activism
Defining the criteria for true Indianess is often the work of both outsiders and the natives as well. Here are two examples of situations that have demonstrated the popularity of essentialism.

In 1988, the famous British rock singer Sting, also a well known environmental activist, paid a visit to a Kayapo village in central Brazil. His visit was meant to raise awareness of the ongoing destruction of the rainforest and the people who live there. However, being an attention gathering celebrity, Sting did more than just speak on the Kayapo’s behalf against the ongoing intrusions of loggers, cattle ranchers, gold miners, and others who pose a threat to the rainforest. Soon, photographs were taken of the rock star naked and painted and standing side by side with a chief wearing a huge distinctive lip disc. “It didn’t take long for the varnish of civilization to leave us” uttered Sting who continued to say, “After 48 hours, we were naked, covered with paint, and fighting snakes.” The headlines in People magazine read: “On a Three-Day Tour Break, Sting goes native- very Native- To meet a Chief Amazon Indian.” Clearly, the attention was received (Conklin 1997: 714).

Earlier in that decade, another conflict arose involving the protection of indigenous land rights and the fulfillment of indigenous claims to that land. The Pataxo of Brazil’s northeast began a legal battle to regain a valuable stretch of the Atlantic coast that belonged to their ancestors. In doing this, the Pataxo struggled to identify themselves as indigenous people especially since they lack the elaborate and exotic fashion similar to that of the Kayapo. Because of their “acculturated” appearance, the government questioned the legitimacy of the Pataxo’s claims. A violent standoff between Indians and non –Indians was soon to come. Even when Mario Juruna, a Xavante congressman, visited the disputed area he angered the Pataxo by saying that they were not real Indians. “Indians don’t have beards, or mustaches, or body hair,” asserted the congressman. At that point, the Pataxo understood that it paid to be primitive (Conklin 1997: 727).

The Authentic Advantage
Today it is prestigious to be authentic and it is often the case that NGO’s (Non Governmental Organization) and governments will only help those that fit into the idea of how a real Indian should act (Conklin 1997: 711-713). In the 1980s, as Indians began to fight for the preservation of their land, they were often arrested and forced to appear before a court. One of these cases involves a Kayapo Indian named Payakan who was viewed by a Brazilian judge as not being a real Indian because he owned a VCR. Payakan would eventually appear in before a judge again on charges of sedition for making a trip to the United States as an activist. Payakan proved his Indianess by appearing in traditional costume and engaged in a war dance with fellow Kayapo. This act proved his authenticity and, along with international protest, the charges were dropped (Conklin 1997: 715-722). The Kayapo soon began to disrupt meetings regarding the alteration of the Amazon. One of the most famous was at Altamira in February 1989 to protest the building of a hydroelectric dam on the Xingu River. The Kayapo, again wearing traditional costume, confronted heavily armed riot police. The event attracted so much media attention that the Kayapo’s non Indian supporters were completely excluded from this coverage (Conklin 1997: 720-722).

Brazil is not the only country where the drive to be or seek real Indians is relevant. Recently, Colombia has seen the effects of the passage of its 1991 constitution which promised to uphold the rights of the nation’s ethnic minorities (Ramirez 2002: 140). Colombia has given differential legislative treatment to indigenous people in recent years to which the Indians only want to strengthen now that non indigenous newcomers are arriving in the southern jungles. In the valley of Sibundoy, the dominant Inga and Kamsa groups were angered by the governments recognition of a new indigenous group known as the Quillacinga-Pasto in 1998 (Ramirez 2002: 142-147). Around that same time, the Cofan People of the Putumayo region formed La Mesa Permanente de Trabajo por el Pueblo Cofan (Permanent Council Working for the Cofan People). This organization asserted that the Cofans were the real Indians and that the Colonos, the government, and any multinational corporation must consult on land issues with them only. In Colombia, being an Indian is a political stance (Ramirez 2002: 135-158). A negative result of essentialism in this case is the development of a hierarchy of real Indians that creates inter-ethnic conflict (Conklin 1997: 722-727).

The Hidden Authenticity
Recently, scholars have accepted the indigenous use of modern technology and European languages as consistent with native traditions. They have been critical of the essentialists who believe using video cameras and speaking Portuguese makes indigenous people inauthentic. New research tends to read between the lines and discover the hidden authenticity.

Davi Kopenawa, a Yanomamo activist, was accused by American anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon of being a “parrot” and “ventriloquist’s dummy” of the western environmentalists for whom he had close relations. It was believed that his speeches on behalf of his people and their land were full of the westerner’s conception of environmental conservation (Graham 2002: 184). However, the hidden, and sometimes obvious, authenticity that the essentialists cherish was already there. As Laura Graham wrote, “The Power of Davi Yanomami’s speech therefore derives in part from his ability to link local Yanomami concerns with the concerns of the broader public. It also stems from the poetic way he weaves Yanomami themes into the content of his speech” (Graham 2002: 205).

Not all native Amazonians can speak Portuguese or Spanish and translators, often natives themselves, are not always well trained. In one instance, a Xavante translator omitted the cosmological significance of a speech by a chief who was critical of FUNAI. The references to the indigenous world view and spiritualism, if translated carefully, would have been very impressive to outsiders (Graham 2002: 193-197). Essentialists want the natives to maintain their traditional tongue and accept the deliberate use of native speech to sympathetic crowds that probably won’t understand it. Still, the primordial symbolism of this “strategic essentialism” is powerful enough (Graham 2002: 206-208). Later translators would include the spiritual and social, as well as political, significance in their translations. This was apparent in a 1989 meeting when representatives of the environmentalist GAIA foundation met with the Xavante. The representatives were shocked when the Xavante requested trucks, tractors, and generators because it was thought that the Indian that GAIA idolized were eco friendly. Suddenly, a Xavante translator clarified that the machines were needed for a fruit processing and agricultural regeneration project being conducted by the Union of Indigenous Nations and the Indian Research Center (Centro de Pesquisa Indigena). GAIA found this acceptable (Graham 2002: 198-200). In addition it should be noted that Amazonian shamans, even when speaking European languages, have a long tradition of making creative analogies and updating mythology to fit changing times (Graham 2002: 211).

Another issue of contention is the use of modern technology by indigenous activists. The essentialist thinking is that modern technology corrupts the Indian’s authenticity. However, new research into indigenous film making techniques reveals close attention to the native world view. One example is of the Kayapo film maker Mokuku whose film Peace between Chiefs captured the 1991 dispute between two rival Kayapo chiefs one being the western chief Ropni (Rauni), who was an avid defender of the rainforest and a close friend of Sting, and the eastern chief Pombo (Tut), who collaborated with miners and loggers. The dispute was over the distribution of money raised from one of Sting’s save the rainforest tours in which the two chiefs participated. Mokuku, while filming, paid close attention to the Kayapo’s traditional political forms of oratory and conflict resolution as well as the ritual performances, etiquette, age grades, and symbolic social space (Turner 2002: 238-240). As Terence Turner wrote, “It is thus ironically the most untraditional component of the hybrid cultural product that is Peace between Chiefs, the camera, that serves as the vehicle of the most traditional aspects of its structure and meaning” (Turner 2002: 243-244).

A New Social Movement
Expressing authenticity and debating its essentialist qualities are nothing new in issues regarding indigenous Amazonian rights. However, in examining where these views are coming from and who promotes them, there are significant historical differences to be found. During the Estado Novo, the Brazilian state promoted the expression of indigenous traditions. Indians were seen as the first Brazilians and the original tamers of the wilderness. The government wanted to development the Amazon quickly and used this rhetoric to get indigenous support. However, the Indians found it hard to adapt with the intrusion of white colonists. Idealism was soon replaced by racism on the part of the colonists. By the later parts of the 20th century, however, as the Amazon rainforest was endanger of disappearing due to intense development, the international environmental movement intervened and used the Indians ecological poster children thus repeating a similar appeal for authenticity.

In the past, essentialism in native Amazonian identity was a national characteristic and the nation state was the main forum for indigenous people to express grievances. It was also used as an excuse to develop the forest. Today, this type of essentialism is internationally spearheaded by the environmental NGOs and is used as an excuse to protect the forest.

The difference in the current usage of this type of identity based activism makes this a new social movement. However, unlike many other new social movements that have swept across Latin America in the past few decades, indigenous Amazonians are constantly being seen as participants in the political process and although they identify themselves as indigenous people, they are not in extreme objection to the South American states (COICA).

Currently, they have organized themselves into a group known as Coordinator of Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon River Basin or COICA. Founded in Lima Peru in March 1984, COICA integrates nine Amazonian indigenous organizations from Brazil, Colombia, Bolivia, Venezuela, Peru, Ecuador, Suriname, Guyana, and French Guiana. Their objectives include creating a forum for interaction, defending indigenous territory, self-determination, and human rights. Other objectives include coordinating with the state, the international community, and other indigenous groups as well as fortifying their organization and promoting their culture.

According to COICA’s vision:
“We are an international organization indigenous Amazon, which coordinates the efforts, dreams, and ideals of nationalities, peoples, and indigenous organizations in the Amazon Basin to promote, protect, and enforce, the rights of life as an integral part of nature and the universe” (COICA)

According to their mission statement, they:
“Generate policies, proposals, and actions at the local national and international people, nationalities, and Amazonian indigenous organizations, through coordination, dialogue, consultation, and strategic alliances with actors public, private, and international cooperation for equitable development and differentiated from the Amazon” (COICA)

Works Cited
Conklin B. 1997. Body paint, feathers, and VCRs: aesthetics and authenticity in Amazonian activism. Am. Ethnol. 24(4): 695-721.

Garfield S. 2001. Indigenous Struggles at the Heart of Brazil: State Policy, Frontier Expansion and the Xavante Indians, 1937-1988. Durham, NC: Duke Univ. Press.

Graham LR. 2002. How Should an Indian Speak? Amazonian Indians and the symbolic politics of language in the global public sphere. In Indigenous Movements, Self Representation and the State in Latin America, ed. KB Warren, JE Jackson, pp. 181-228. Austin: Univ. Tex. Press.

Mann CC. 2006. 1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus. New York: Vintage.

Ramirez MC. 2002. The Politics of identity and cultural difference in the Putumayo: claiming special indigenous rights in Colombia’s Amazon. In The Politics of Ethnicity: Indigenous People in Latin American States, ed. D Maybury-Lewis, pp. 135-68. Cambridge, Ma: David Rockefeller Cent. Lat. Am. Stud., Harvard Univ. Press.

Turner T. 2002. Representation, polyphony, and the construction of power in a Kayapo video. In Indigenous Movements, Self Representation and the State in Latin America, ed. KB Warren, JE Jackson, pp. 229-50. Austin: Univ. Tex. Press.

Verese S. 1996. The new environmentalist movement of Latin American Indigenous people. In Valuing Local Knowledge: Indigenous People and Intellectual Property Rights, ed. SB Brush, D Stabinsky, pp 122-42. Washington, DC: Island.

COICA: http://www.coica.org.ec/index.php

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