I’ve been thinking a lot about the sovereignty of indigenous peoples around the world. It’s a multilayered issue that deals with land rights, the right to choose one’s culture and lifestyle, the right to opt out of the global economy or engage that economy on that group’s own terms, the right to build their homes in their traditional ways or to grow or hunt or gather their own food. This is freedom, is it not? To live in the ways that you believe are good and right, and to develop along a natural course that is not imposed by outsiders?
This is such a complex issue. There’s no way that I can even scratch the surface in a blog post. Luckily, this is a religious blog, and not a human rights blog (per se), so I can focus on just one piece of this puzzle here.
But, of course, even that is a tangled ball of threads. It touches on the right to follow a traditional path and the right to have your religion recognized and respected by outsiders. There are also questions of cultural borrowing and cultural appropriation, and the problems of religious exchange that are tied up in power imbalances.
The thought that’s been on my mind recently has to do with the right of indigenous people to be Christian.
I’ll let that sit there for a moment. The idea of it. The idea that African tribesmen or Amazonian villagers or Pacific Islanders have to keep their traditional ways *because* they are indigenous is as faulty as the notion that an American born to Southern Baptist parents must remain an Evangelical Christian.
My heart bleeds for the religious traditions that have been lost to the onslaught of evangelical religions. Christianity isn’t the only one. Islam has wiped out many Pagan cultures, and so has Buddhism. But not all religious changes have come through force or evangelism. I learned today that one group who use Ayahuasca as part of their traditional religion has only, in grand historical terms, been using The Vine for a short while. Three hundred years ago, they used only Tobacco, not The Vine.
I think I know what happened. I think that the change happened when this group was forced down out of the foothills and into the jungle. Different environment. Different plants. New cultural groups for them to come into contact with, and new Medicine to be learned. I might be wrong. I have a lot to learn still.
This summer I’ll be heading to the Amazon with my 16 year old son, the president of the board of directors of the organization I work with, and a family from this Amazonian community who currently live in Seattle. We three North Americans are going down there to build a library and a pseudo-Internet we’re calling “Canoe Net”. There will be a network in this one village, and a handful of tablets in the new library. Once per week, if all goes to plan, the librarian will travel with a laptop to the nearest place with Internet to sync Emails with the outside world, and to download new resources that have been requested by the community.
It’s just a pilot project, and the community might choose to get rid of the whole thing at the end of the summer. Or we might start working on the next phase, to bring more connectivity and more tools for communicating with the outside world.
The community has a mixed religious tradition. Their ancient ways are animist. They had contact with Catholic missionaries long ago, but only integrated some of the Christian concepts into their folklore without becoming quite Christian. A generation ago, a family of missionaries moved in, though, and the community has become more Christian since then.
As we travel down to work with this community, it is vital that we not commit the same crimes of colonialism that others have committed before us. It is equally vital that we not act as evangelists or missionaries in our own way.
I may want to say, “How could you possibly give up your religion for this faith that allows people to destroy the whole world?!” but it’s not my place to do so. The question of whether I “have to” or not shouldn’t even be on the table. Yes, the community has been working hard as caretakers of the Land they live on, even after many or most of them have converted to Christianity. They know the value of the jungle. But even if they didn’t, what right would a white woman from California have to tell them that they’d taken a wrong turn?
I suspect that I may build friendships with those who have maintained their animist traditions, just as I often build close friendships with those who hold animist religious beliefs where those traditions have long since lost their major hold on the culture. I’m sure that I will also make friends with Christians, there, just as I have elsewhere, even though we don’t look at a tree or a stone or a bird in the same way.
The people that are getting this “Canoe Net” know the stakes they face, and they have been struggling for generations to maintain their sovereignty in the face of outside pressures to assimilate. My job is to give them the tools to meet the world on a level playing field and then get out of their way.