Missionaries Have to Go If We Are to Save Brazil’s Indian Culture

A Brazilian Yanomami child

The fact that a considerable chunk of the Amazon is located within Brazilian
borders has certainly intensified the controversy about environmental protection
in our country. We have historically suffered from a lack of clearly established
public policies for the region. This deficiency helps to turn the attention of
the rest of the world on Brazil.

One of the consequences is our permanent state of political vulnerability before international ecological preservation movements and watchdogs, always ready to expose alleged crises in the framework of Brazilian public policy impacting the Hylea from both perspectives – exploration of natural resources and problems resulting from the relationship between ‘civilized’ people and native ethnic groups.

In one way or another, we have been able to provide positive answers to domestic and international claims regarding the preservation of the Brazilian Amazônia. But important issues, still invisible to our nation’s eyes, remain tragically neglected.

We know that the guiding principles of Amazonian domestic policy must deal with the complex and dynamic (and actually not very well known) problems related to the exploration of the region’s formidable natural resources. As far as the ethnic groups living there, it is a different story altogether.   

The protection of the ‘forest people’, or encouraging their acculturation, represents a conceptual dichotomy well known by Brazilians and with ample historical precedents. We must remember the huge disaster that took place when we were still a colony – a landmark era for the disappearance of many native groups after their first contact with European colonizers. 

The whole world knows about the immunological vulnerability of native communities in general, a reality with tragic consequences not only for Brazilian history but also for the rest of the world. Once exposed to the infectious and contagious diseases brought into their environments by non-natives, these populations are destined to disappear.

It is well known today that the cultures of Amazonian native communities have assimilated deep knowledge about the wealth of their land. The rational and economic exploration of this wealth depends, therefore, on respecting and protecting the etno-botanical assets of the forest communities.

This concept links local wealth to the knowledge accumulated by the ancestral cultures of the region, intimately connecting flora, fauna and culture in a synergistic relationship of knowledge, respect, usage and conservation.

However, if the physical and tangible preservation of the ‘forest communities’ is a natural, immunological and medical issue, their preservation as a culture has a strong political component which is much more controllable and welcoming of government intervention.
Cultural preservation, in layman’s language, implies in providing conditions for indigenous populations to continue their way of life into the future, based on the ancestral beliefs and customs they have preserved for millennia. The foundation for all of this could well be the very ‘cosmic vision’ of these communities, including their ‘theological myths’.

It is heart-warming to learn that Yanomame (or Yanomamo) cosmology makes these groups perceive themselves as ‘the people’ (translation of “Yanomame”). They believe that they live in a place on Earth which literally “fell down from the sky” following that same cosmic vision…

Just like Jews and Christians, Buddhists, Muslims or any other religious community, the indigenous peoples of the land we call Brazil have their own gods and worship them just like any other community…

In his studies on theological myths of different world populations, renowned American anthropologist Joseph Campbell [The Hero With a Thousand Faces (1973)] stresses the significance of this concept as a reference for various other groups, because it works like a basic element of cultural conservation.

It is impossible to protect the natives of Brazil in their unique and singular expression while at the same time allowing the systematic destruction of their cultural values by “professional missionaries”, the “new Crusaders” of the modern era. 

Under the guise of ‘Amazon charity’ programs, some officials still allow foreign groups and even Brazilian groups to promote the religious indoctrination of Amazonian native communities, which corresponds invariably to the demolition of the cultural identities of these ethnicities. 

In exchange for a few packages of Western style medicines and eventual health care actions, which are goods and services Native Brazilians never hoped to have, these “modern era Crusaders’ are allowed to take from these people everything they always had and hoped to have forever: their culture, kept alive for thousands of years.

And then the natives who manage to survive this veritable ethnocide go and join the hordes of excluded urban Brazilians, only to become victims of the same ‘social illnesses’ of non-natives: poverty, violence and crime, prostitution, alcoholism, unemployment, etc.

As natives, they resign to lack for everything they have always had in order to be converted into a subclass of ‘civilized’ people, masters of almost nothing of what they never intended to have. The counterpart of all this is a mistaken idea of altruism and mission accomplished. 

These post-modern pseudo-Messiahs, with their ethnocentric agenda imported from Europe and North America (and even from Brazil itself!) insist on reediting, in today’s Brazil, the  miserable benchmark established centuries ago in the Americas, Asia and Africa.

It is urgent. We need to think of the Amazon, in all its immense economic possibilities, as an amalgam of inseparable components which necessarily includes the natural and the cultural: forest and man.

Professor George Felipe de Lima Dantas, Center for the Study of Defense, Security and Public Order (NEDOP), Centro Universitário do Distrito Federal (UniDF) (Federal District University Center), (061) 3393-6468 and/or 9293-9594.

Translated by Tereza Braga. Braga is a freelance Portuguese translator and interpreter based in Dallas. She is a certified member of the American Translators Association. Contact: terezab@sbcglobal.net.


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