Wednesday, 1 September 2010

Amerindian Heritage Month

How can you generalise about humans? I am often staggered by how unfeasibly different even family members can be. Generalisations about races went out with the Ark (as did all races- except the Chosen People, and a few lucky bestial couples, along with of course a lot of very smug fish who have harked back to it ever since as the Great Piscine Renaissance).

Nevertheless, there are some things I’ve noticed about ‘Amerindians’ as a group which fascinate me. To celebrate Amerindian Heritage Month, which starts today, I should like to start by mentioning some of those observations. Then each Monday I will attempt a ‘portrait’ of one of the Wapishana people I have got to know in Aishalton.

When I arrived in Guyana, I was told that Amerindians are shy. I believe this impression comes from two things: in my experience, Amerindians talk less than Guyana’s other populations, and I have found them to be reticent with strangers. The first Amerindian I met completed most of a seven-hour jeep journey without speaking to me, and would not make eye contact, let alone return my smiles. I thought I must have either gaffed horribly, or repulsed her with some malodorous foulness or other. The following day she came up beaming and threw her arms round me. I don’t believe it’s shyness so much as an instinctive, uncalculated caution. The vast majority of the Amerindians I have met have been both very friendly and very private. It’s a warm yet respectful combination.

Sorry, I know it’s a cliché, but they are happier. This might be due to the fact (from my experience, I believe it to be fact) that people in developing countries, especially in rural areas (I suspect it isn’t true in the capitals), are brilliant at getting enjoyment out of a life whenever nothing is going actively wrong, where many of us developed country people seem to be expecting something to be going actively right in order to be happy. Maybe that is part of the reason why they are also widely perceived as passive: maybe their passivity is connected to their skill at contentment, and to sacrifice the one is to threaten the other.

We are formed by our language: of course the Wapishana language has shaped the consciousness of people in Aishalton. My teacher told me that the word “wapichan” means “slow and methodical” and the word “macushi” means quick, so a Wapishana will do a slow, laborious, thorough job where a Macushi will finish faster but less finely. All those gorgeous details, such as the word for face meaning literally ‘the savannah of the eyes’ and solar eclipse being rendered as ‘sun death’, create a mind-map uniquely contoured to suit life here. Having a small vocabulary also affects the way you view the world: grouping things differently, relying on words less. It makes it difficult to teach here, and to write up group documents with any kind of consensus.

Wapishanas have an immediacy of the mind which is lost to those of us who have learned detachment. They are either out or in. When they read a novel or a poem, the writer IS the protagonist. My trainees could not detach themselves to do a task purely as an example: at the Training Centre we did an exercise to teach spreadsheets, where the trainees called out scores for themselves in various personality traits. The spreadsheet training was swept away as people got thoroughly enthralled by the content. I’ve seen it in all sorts of fields, that incapacity to think in the abstract. In a way, I think it’s really good that we Westerners are able to look at ourselves as consumers, as audience, as targets for an advertising campaign- can see how the writer is trying to manipulate us at the same time as we read his message. But it sucks away our spontaneity. Our capacity for enthralment is stunted.

How much of this is cultural and how much socialisation cannot be disentangled. These are my impressions; I wouldn’t claim them to be diagnoses.

Amerindians are one of the great romanticised ethnic groups in the modern world, along with Tibetans and a few others. In a way, they are blessed by their isolation, and the fact that an outsider cannot “become” an Amerindian. The Dalai Lama does not encourage converts to Tibetan Buddhism. He points out that we are born into a culture and religion or world view and it’s probably as well to stay there. But he gets stuck with a lot of post-modernist Tibetan Buddhists (memorably termed “dharma bunnies” by a rather scurrilous friend of mine in Xining) who shop for the peace and harmony and try to ignore the sky burial, the occasional fat-cat Rimpoches and the status quo feudalism that come with it.

Perhaps because outsiders cannot buy in, perhaps simply from isolation, most Amerindians (unless they have lived on the coast) are unused to presenting themselves; either to impress, or to be understood. Ask a villager “what do you do?” and you will probably get a blank stare in return. The 1001 questions that determine job, status, abilities, social level and background are utterly meaningless here. I and most of my British friends probably don’t consider ourselves vain, but we have been packaging ourselves in increasingly sophisticated wrappings since our eleven plus or first SATs, or whenever the world first held up its yardstick and raised a sardonic eyebrow. Amerindians in the interior don’t do this. The outcome is that the careless or biassed bystander will confirm their prejudice that Amerindians are unimpressive, and will entirely misunderstand them. And I’m not entirely sure that anyone cares. I sincerely hope that they continue not to give a tinker’s cuss. What happens when Amerindians move to the coast, though?- that’s when the misunderstandings become dangerous.


  1. I think it is absolutely impossible for us to avoid two things; judging others, and judging others by our standards. We are so westernized now, that the thought that if you are not moving ahead, you are moving backwards has become an integral part of our psyche.

    So when we look, and inevitably judge, we proclaim that the Amerindian villagers in the interior must be made to welcome progress to prove to us that they are not backwards.

    I am not excluding myself from this criticism, but I have always regretted the thought that we are causing people who have figured out how to truly be satisfied with their lives, to develop dissatisfaction and resentment. Makes me wonder who are the backwards ones.

  2. “There is a new religion, Progress, in which we all devoutly believe, and it is concerned only with material things in the present and in a vague golden-handed future. It is a rootless utilitarian faith, without beauty or mystery; ... I feel that this religion is in great part a delusion, and will peter out in the marsh.”

    George Mackay Brown, 1969