Wednesday, May 5, 2010

They Were Here First















I have always had a certain amount of conscience and sentimentality for indigenous Indians...from North American to Latin America to the many other global regions they have been largely deposed from. While North America's 200+ year history of growth and modernization as well as history's largest experiment with democracy is an amazing feat...it did not happen without the immoral and savage trampling over the "original" Americans. As I studied the REAL history of my nation's founding, I find it hard to be 100% proud of how things came to be and in essence our "white man's" total disregard and disrespect for so many Indian cultures throughout the Americas.

Thanksgiving is my least favorite holiday because I believe it is founded on some of the most subtle atrocities the Pilgrims and other European pioneers elicited on their original hosts. We wiped out their culture and killed hundreds of thousands in a few short decades with not only guns, but diseases and alcohol that were so foreign to their culture and race. We then relegated their remaining dwindling numbers to reservations usually located in the worst areas and conditions...in deserts and other remote areas not good for anything as far as the white man was concerned. I now have seen it first hand many times over from visiting American Indian reservations to Mexico's Aztec and Mayan "ruins" to now living 90 minutes from the Embera and Kuna Indian populations that somehow still survive, if only marginally, in Panama.

Obviously it is too late for true "reparations" in most of those historic regions since so much immigration and reconstitution of the global populations has forever taken over those lands and countries. There's not enough money (especially in these times) to ever begin repaying those populations. It is now the reality that everyone from the former black slaves to the American Indians must now rebuild modern versions of their culture and heritage within the framework of new, melting pot countries like the USA. Europe also is experiencing a huge reshuffling of political realities as immigration from the Indies to Arabia has totally turned those former white cultures into a new rainbow of political and global reality. "Globalization" is here to stay and I don't think anything accept perhaps a nuclear holocaust can change that dynamic.

The good news is that we still have time and ability to do the right thing when it comes to the dwindling populations and cultures of Indian heritage that still exist. I'm not calling for a religious or even political reform on this subject. It is more to me one of simple "human decency" worldwide.

I have made a number of trips the past 18 months or so to the Embera Drua village on the Chagres River in the Chagres National Park of Panama. Early on I was moved to help these wonderful people when I first went there, and I was honored to help them establish a computer "lab" in their village of thatched roofed, stilt homes...living as they have for the past 400-500 years. They have no electricity yet...but they do have solar panels that were donated by the German consulate years ago (who NEEDS electricity really?). In addition to their traditional living structures, Christian groups have built a church and a school building of more Panamanian tradition on that site...but their life is still lived in their own homes and in the open air of this tropical paradise. I've never seen any of them enter those more "modern" structures.

Panamanian census counts estimate that there may be around 22,000 Embera in Panama...indigenous groups who come from the Darien province of Panama and Northwestern Colombia. (You can get a pretty quick history on this culture from THIS LINK at Wikepedia). There are 5-7 different tribes/villages that have migrated north towards Panama City and civilization in order to increase trade and access to goods and services. The village I have spent time getting to know is Embera Drua. Each village is called "Embera _____ " to distinguish between the groups. The Drua is apparently the largest and furthest up the Chagres River with 20 families living there since the early 1970s. A couple large families migrated up from the Darien at that time and then little by little other families or "cousins" joined them.

I am actually now curious to travel down to the Darien to see how they live there. It is my understanding it is more backward, but still they are friendly people. The Darien is a large jungle region that borders Panama and Colombia. It is so thick and backward that there are no roads connecting the two countries yet. Only rivers and trails...which apparently are frequented by guerrilla groups on the Colombia side and narco traffickers. Makes sense when you think about it. The Indigenous people down there are not too happy at being in the crossfire of the narco guerrillas and armed forces of either Panama or Colombia. They just want to be left alone to hunt and gather and grow as they have for 1500 years or so down there. But the modern world's demands for drugs and armaments encroach upon these people even in such a remote area.

Back to my adopted tribe though. Last weekend I took a couple friends up the river for their first visit with the Drua. One friend from New York city was impacted I think by the experience with this culture...as compared to NYC, or Panama City only 90 minutes to 2 hrs away by combined boat and car. Its impressive how these villages can retain their culture and ways so close to the modernity of the city, Panama Canal and increased plane traffic flying overhead.

I had mixed feelings about the computer lab project. On one hand I was excited to see their excitement when I brought out the first laptop and brand new printer/copier. Most of them seemed afraid to touch it or play with it. It was quite a kick though to reveal how they could take a picture from my digital camera and within a couple minutes have it uploaded on the laptop and printed out on paper. Many of the older generation seemed to have never observed this before. Now, a few months later, Amy the peace corp worker living there with them told me they are doing all their accounting for the village on the system. We have since given them two more laptops and they have received some items from other donors as well. Last Sunday they were having their bi-weekly village business meeting while we were there. It was the first time observing that for me, and it could have been a "shareholders" meeting like any in the world...accept these people were all dressed in their native garb...which is very little.

You also have the local "Shaman" and the village "doctor"...two distinct roles in their society. Up a long path you can find their village "botanical garden" where all their organic and natural "medicines" are cultivated. They claim to have cured heart disease and cancer with many of their plants and the "doctor" told me he has a few European doctors who come and consult with him who have cured their patients back home. Last year on a visit I had some digestive system issues and asked his advice. He gave me some plants to make tea with and drink every day for 10 days. I have to say it seems to work quickly and noticeably. These people look very healthy and work hard...stay in shape. I think I would slim down very quickly living and eating with the Embera.

A number of observations have impacted me this past couple of years there:

The children are friendly, open and active. No obese children in this town.

Babies cry very little. I think they get more attention and feel more secure with the family structure and attention they get. The extended family all gets involved in watching and caring for the young...which is a huge missing link in families of the modern world.

The adults seem to be very proud on one hand, yet they work well together as a community. I have heard of squabbles between some of the families...but they are usually resolved quickly and by involvement of the whole village to broker peace.

It sounds like there have been more conflicts in recent years based on the Christian church that was established there...and also over the school. Before these two "institutions" arrived, I think there were much fewer conflicts. Apparently 30% of the village have some involvement with the Christian church there while the rest remain with their indigenous culture and belief system. There was obvious conflict over the church's desire to change how they dress...or not. I think it a mistake to try and force Victorian traditions and lifestyles on another culture. This mentality killed off the Hawaiian and other Polynesian cultures over the last 200 years as well. Sad.

Education IS changing things in their culture. Education is offered to the 6th grade in the village I believe. After that, their kids have to travel over 90 minutes once a week to get to the nearest school...and then just do homework in their village until the following week. One of the key uses of our computers seems to be the transfer of data from school to the village instead of lugging so many books. That makes sense and I am glad for that use. The current village President I believe went to college and has traveled in Europe and the USA. He speaks a bit of English and is trying to bring leadership to the village from his experiences. Yet...money and money management is their new challenge compared to their centuries of barter and trade. As they try to develop a tourism industry for themselves, the costs of motors, gas, food and other business expenses climb higher and higher while currently tourism along with the global economy is on a downturn. Good thing they still know how to fish and hunt for food if this keeps going on.



The fears I have for these friends and other indigenous Indian populations that remain are:

Will they continue to be infiltrated by modernity until they no longer want to retain their distinctive race and culture?

Will they continue to be divided by new ideas about culture, religion and education? Will the educated ones look down on those less fortunate...like the rest of the world? Will various religious viewpoints be perpetrated on them until they are divided on God like the rest of the world?

Will technology (even the computers I contributed) cause them to lose their current core capabilities of carving, weaving, fishing, hunting and growing things? Will they be overtaken like so many of us with frivolous information and issues that they will lose the beauty of their simplicity and core values?

Will their lands and freedom to roam be continually taken from them? How long before they too, like their North American brothers, are slated to "reservations" of very limited scope and quality? How long before the issue of holding title to some piece of land they can count on is a reality?

How long before more of the youth get programmed by universities and life in the big city to where they have no interest or connection to their roots?


I'm sure there are no simple answers to some complicated questions, but at the rate our world is shrinking and changing with globalization and the information age...I can't see how these cultures can remain in existence, at least in their current form.

If there is one message about this I would like to "shout out" to the rest of the "first world" on this...it would be "get to know these people, but don't try to change them". They have a life, talents, and values that the rest of the world could use more of. Knowing how to live without heavy government intrusion and expectations for living in a certain location is a dying art in this world. As poor as these people may be, they are much richer than many of the world's wealthiest in many ways. They have the option to live more freely and peacefully than most of us. If we force them to adopt our ways, I strongly believe you will very soon hear screaming babies, see chubby boys and girls playing computer games all day long...and the parents will be gone to work somewhere else in order to pay for their mortgaged lives. God forbid this ever happens...but I am not sure they are strong enough to not fall into the traps of modernity. This thought saddens me a lot.

Meanwhile, I will try to enjoy, share and learn from them as long as I can. They and others like them were here first...and we should respect that.

3 comments:

Bonnie said...

Since I've been among the fortunate few to have been taken to see these wonderful people by you, Ed. I am very touched by this blog. You have beautifully expressed the conundrum of appreciating the native lifestyle, wanting to help them in some way, yet not wanting to contribute to the encroachment of modern civilization on their lives. Would that they could live forever as they are !

You may enjoy reading Thirteen Moons, by Charles Frazier. I know you tend to read non-fiction more, but he incorporates much of the "real" American history into his novel. His writing style is engrossing and the way he expresses the happening of "The Trail of Tears" will move you to tears.

Love, B

Dez said...

Eddy u r a beautiful cat !
i think u may have jokingly stumbled across something big here when u talked about getting skinny...
"The Kuna Diet Book"
whadayathink??

sonia bibiana said...

Lindo Blog de los Embera, comunidad Drua en Panama, en Colombia tambien los tenemos, espero que sigan tan originales como la primera vez que los visite en Panama.

Lastimosamente, siento que en mi ultima visita despues de casi 3 anos, los hemos contaminado un poco.

Ojala continuen originales y nunca cambien, pues la primera vez los tome como mi ejemplo de vida.

Felicidaes Ed.