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22.2.04

Cultural Change And Indigenous Rights

Indians Fearing Development On Oldest Preserve In Brazil

"We're worried for our children and grandchildren," said Rea, a Kayabi Indian woman. "Our Xingu is an island, and if the white man enters with his machines, he'll break it all down in no time."

Xingu is Brazil's oldest and probably its most successful Indian reservation, a 10,800-square-mile sprawl of pristine rainforest where 14 Indian tribes live.

Kuiussi, the Suya Indians' chief, wearing a skimpy swimsuit, warned visitors not to take pictures of Indians wearing Western clothes.

"If people see the pictures, they'll say we're not Indians -- that we're mixed [race] -- and that's not true," he said. "We are all Indians here."


Kuiussi's concern illustrates an interesting point about the rhetoric that's used to bolster the claims of indigenous people. An element of the argument for indigenous rights often rests on a claim of the superiority of indigenous culture -- that it's more attuned to the environment and people's welfare, unlike the cold and greedy modern western culture. Furthermore, indigenous culture is framed as primal, unchanging (like their claim to the land) since time immemorial and rooted in tradition. This is a powerful claim in the ears of many non-indigenous people. But it creates a vulnerability when it manifestly conflicts with reality. It gives a political tinge to factual disputes over scientific findings such as migration histories and megafaunal extinction. And it also arises when traditional ways change -- Kuiussi wearing a swimsuit, US tribes jumping into the capitalist system through casinos and tax-free shops. If they're going to act like us, the thinking goes, why should they get special privileges? I'll admit to thinking this way some years ago (though not any longer) -- that the purpose of Indian reservations was to allow Indians to continue their traditional way of life, and that if they didn't do that, then they could enter mainstream society as regular Americans, without any claim to land or sovereignty. The issue is reinforced by traditionalists within the indigenous community, who talk of youth as in some way selling out their heritage and identity by adopting Western ways.

There are a host of endogenous concerns about cultural change for a less powerful culture -- about the value of difference and heritage and about the intrinsic value of the particular cultures and political-economic systems in question. Kuiussi's comment illustrates an exogenous concern, about the way that cultural change could alter a group's ability to claim its rights against more powerful groups.

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