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Meeting The Other (How to Learn about Humanity)

I just found an article by author David Maybury-Lewis, where he described the confrontation with people who are different, "others". Meeting the other is combined with lots of prejudices in patriarchal societies. Patriarchal people are not open for something new. (See differences between matriarchal and patriarchal views.)

Here is a part of Maybury-Lewis' adventure: I wanted to study a central Brazilian tribe that had a dual organization that was not breaking down. The only sure way to do that was to study one that had very little contact with the outside world. But such a people might not welcome outsiders

and they probably would speak only their own language, so it was not clear how one could talk to them. I thought I could solve these problems by studying the Xavante. They had moved away from the settlers in the nineteenth century by burying themselves in the heart of Brazil and were in the process of being recontacted. They were also thought to have been one people together with the Xerente, who had stayed behind when the Xavante disappeared into central Brazil.

The Xerente had therefore had long contact with Brazilians and some of them were sure to speak Portuguese. My wife and I planned to work among the Xerente, speak to them in Portuguese, and learn their language. Then we would go off to work among the Xavante and hope that they could understand us when we spoke to them in Xerente. All of this took a while. By the time we had studied anthropology, lived with the Xerente, learned their language, and received some funds to go and work among the Xavante, we already had a baby son. We decided to take him with us into central Brazil, but with some misgivings.

After all, the Xavante had a fierce reputation and many of their communities had not yet made peace with the Brazilians. We were not sure what sort of a welcome we would get when we sought them out. I had nightmares in which I was surrounded by strange Indians to whom I could not talk. And the Xavante were not just any Indians.

They had acquired a reputation in Brazil for being especially ferocious. Settlers avoided their territory. The Brazilian Indian service had sent an expedition to make peaceful contact with them, but the Xavante had killed the expeditionaries. Only their Xerente interpreters escaped to bring back the news. The Indian service had persisted and eventually established posts in Xavante country. We hoped that the Brazilian air force would fly us to one of these. After that, it would be up to us.

My mentor, Herbert Baldus, defended the Xavante. He wrote a controversial article in a major Sao Paulo newspaper entitled "Are the Xavante Bellicose?," arguing that they were not particularly fierce. All they were doing was defending themselves, and they had good reason to fear the arrival of outsiders.

We agreed with him, but it was one thing to agree and quite another to test our opinions by dropping in on the Xavante to see whether they could easily distinguish between friendly outsiders and unfriendly ones. Besides, the Xavante were shrouded in myth. Everybody was agreed that they were tall and tireless. Some said they slept like bats in the trees as they wandered over their lands. Others insisted that their feet were fixed backward onto their legs, which is why people had such difficulty following their trail.

We tried to keep our perspective. Bound by the romantic tradition of the West, we could not just visit the Xavante. We had to organize an "expedition" to them. The Brazilian authorities insisted that we should constitute ourselves an expedition, which could be duly authorized to proceed by the National Council for the Fiscalization of Artistic and Scientific Expeditions into the Interior.

We felt a little incongruous - graduate students with minimal funds, no equipment to speak of, and a small son now approaching his first birthday - to be offering ourselves as an Expedition to be Fiscalized, but that was the only way it could be done. Our one special item of equipment was an army surplus radio transmitter and receiver, which we hoped to use to call for someone to come and get us out if our son got sick. It was impounded by the Brazilian customs and delayed us for months while we tried to get it out. We finally liberated it a day or two before we were to leave for the interior. It never worked properly in the field.

It was in 1958 that we found ourselves, at long last, in a Brazilian air force Beech craft, flying to the airstrip that supplied the Indian post named Pimentel Barbosa, on the Rio das Mortes. The names were not auspicious: the post was named after the leader of the expedition whose members had been killed by the Xavante, and it was located on the River of Deaths. We were appropriately apprehensive, but our nervousness gave way to excitement as the plane flew over the great horseshoe village and we saw our first Xavante come running out of their beehive-shaped huts.

We landed at the airstrip and the crew flung our baggage, rather hurriedly we thought, out onto the rank grass. They took off hastily as the Xavante came loping toward us.
It was the young men who arrived first, running easily like athletes, with their long hair streaming behind them. They were well built and stark naked, except for small white cylinders that they wore in their earlobes and tiny palm-leaf sheaths that they wore on their penises.

We waited for them, feeling an immense loneliness. Our gear, which now lay in a litter around our ankles, looked pathetically inadequate to sustain us for a year in the wilderness. Even our two tin cabin trunks, containing presents for the Xavante, gathered with care and (what was for us) great expense, now seemed puny and insufficient.

The Xavante gathered around us, eyeing our belongings with interest and pointing out the Xerente sling, woven from palm fiber, in which my wife was carrying our son. Hesitantly, spoke to them in Xerente.
"Let's go," I said. "Let's pick this stuff up and take it to your village."

To my relief and amazement they burst out laughing. They had never expected anyone who literally dropped in on them from the sky to speak to them in an intelligible language. My Xerente was understandable, but it sounded so funny to their ears that they doubled up with laughter every time I opened my mouth.

This was disconcerting but, I thought, it was better to be welcomed as a figure of fun than not to be welcomed at all.

We were among the Xavante at last. After all those years of anxious preparation we had reached the edge of our world. We were finally living among the "other."

Anthropology has always claimed that we learn a great deal about ourselves from studying the "other." But, in order to differentiate between self and other, there has to be some common background against which difference is conceived.

For anthropologists, this common background is the notion of humanity itself. In learning about the other, about many "others," our conception of humanity is enlarged and enriched. We gain insight into the plasticity of human culture. We begin to see that our way of life is determined not so much by nature but by culture and history.

Only then can we see that our way of life is just one of many possible ones.

Only then can we pass informed judgment on our own way of doing things. In studying the other, we begin to learn how to separate fact from fantasy, not only about ourselves and others but also about humanity itself.


David Maybury-Lewis, Millenium

Recommended reading:

Indigenous Peoples, Ethnic Groups, and the State




"Today's Matriarchies From the Newest View"

7 parts
one Email per week
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