Laura (tavella) wrote,

An Ishi who is not

The Washington Post has a great, sad story today. It's about the attempts to contact, or at least protect, the last surviving member of an Amazon tribe. Despite a decade of efforts, he has remained resolutely hostile, and the contact team's careful detective work documents why: the levelled village, the quiet whispers from former employees of the local landowner about the thugs hired to bulldoze the huts and shoot any survivors.

The story touches on a lot of subjects -- the political forces of Brazil, the internal conflicts of the team members, both in the question of dealing with the lone Indian who so very much wants to be left alone, and how their successful contacts with other tiny tribes changed them even in the midst of protecting them from logging and displacement:

Shortly after Purá saw the jungle camp that Funai built to monitor the Kanoe and Akuntsu tribes -- a collection of large, rectangular wood-and-thatch huts with sloping rooftops -- Purá reconsidered the wigwam-shaped huts in his tiny village, tore them down and rebuilt new houses using the newly observed architectural style. He used knives, axes and machetes lent to him by the Funai team members, who didn't think it was right to deny him tools that they used themselves. The Kanoe -- unlike the Akuntsu, for example -- had always worn clothes tribe members made themslves, but, after Purá got to know the Funai team, he began to prefer T-shirts and shorts.

Team members believed that his traditional clothes were beautiful, but could they really blame him if he liked their exotic clothes and found them more comfortable, too? A similar circumstance arose with the Akuntsu. Though team members praised the beaded necklaces and jewelry that the women wore, they found that after contact was made, the women had begun to wear something new as earrings: aluminum tabs from soda and beer cans.

I'm fascinated by information and knowledge and memory, and the loss of them always hits me hard; the burning of the libraries of the Maya brought me to tears the first time I ever heard of it, and the fact that brilliant, painstaking work has recreated the writing system and allowed the history to be read from the walls of the classical ruins delights me. So I saw in the similar last survivor Ishi as much of a happy ending as could be extracted from such a tragic story: a little of his people's language, their history, their traditions survived even if they didn't. But there are some cultures that make a point of destroying possessions, or letting tribal stories die rather than lose meaning by having them recorded by outsiders.

If the preservation only benefits us, do we really deserve it?
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