The power of tribal stories

As many of us in the West become ever more preoccupied with technology, it’s easy to forget the many traditional cultures that live in far more simple ways, in closer contact with nature. Indigenous peoples inhabit every climatic zone, on every continent except Antarctica.

At the turn of the 21st century, these tribal groups were estimated to number around 325 million people, or about 5 per cent of the world’s population. Incredibly diverse, they belong to about 5000 distinct tribes. Many are found in tropical rainforests, while others have adapted to the extreme conditions of the Arctic (such as the Sami of Scandinavia and the Inuit of North America) and deserts (the Bedouin of the Middle East and the Australian Aborigines).

Often pursuing a subsistence lifestyle, some of these people are hunter-gatherers whose diet involves a mix of animals and edible plants. Others live as nomads, including the Khamseh in Iran and the Bhils in India. These migratory groups travel with the seasons to follow wild plants and game or to prevent their grazing animals from over-consuming the grass in a particular locality.

Shamanism, a spiritual path that predates all religions, is held in common by many tribes. Typically, this involves a spiritually significant figure such as a medicine man who, often with the aid of potent consciousness-altering substances, undertakes trance journeys to the spirit world to intervene on behalf of the community. Sometimes, this spiritual intercessor will ask for abundant harvests, or may treat illness, which is often considered to be caused by evil spirits.

The Yanomami

This tribe lives deep in the jungles of northern Brazil and southern Venezuela. As hunter-gatherers, work is divided according to the sexes. Men hunt tapir, deer and monkey using a poisonous plant extract called curare, while women tend gardens and collect nuts. They fulfil all their material needs working less than four hours a day, with the rest of the time devoted to leisure and social activities.

Traditionally, minimal clothing was worn by the Yanomami and body painting is still commonly practised. Men wear multi-coloured bracelets made from bird feathers and pierce their noses with thin bamboo sticks. Both sexes decorate their ears with adornments made from feathers, flowers and leaves.

Villages are designed with an open-air central plaza that is surrounded by large circular communal houses known as shabonos. As they are polygamous, a family is made up of several sub-families headed by women. Living without chiefs, they make their decisions by consensus.

Since the 1980s, when gold was found on their land, the Yanomami’s way of life has been threatened by intruders. They are currently facing challenges from both gold miners and ranchers.

The Maasai

This semi-nomadic ethnic group lives in a hot and arid area of Kenya and northern Tanzania, close to some of east Africa’s largest game reserves. The Maasai are distinctive for their stretched earlobes and have created a strongly patriarchal society where older men make important decisions.

Like the Yanomami, they live polygamously and wealth was traditionally measured in terms of cattle and children. Cattle were their only source of food and their diet traditionally involved meat, blood and milk. To the Maasai, God is known as Engai and possesses a dual good and evil nature. According to their mythology, all the cattle in the world were intended for them and this belief was formerly used as a justification for cattle-stealing.

Houses are built by the women, either in a star-shaped or circular form. The role of the men is to construct the thorned acacia fences that surround their villages as a protection against wild animals.

The Maasai are being increasingly encouraged by the Kenyan and Tanzanian governments to abandon their way of life. Due to their geographic situation, they have been unavoidably exposed to the outside world and its tourism economy. Many tribal members now work in exchange for money.

Encounters with the outside

Back in the 18th century, the Enlightenment philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau viewed indigenous peoples as “noble savages”. His views were more enlightened than those of the majority, who saw a duty to “civilise” these warlike and primitive people who often practised cannibalism, believing they should be elevated from their unevolved state by forced assimilation with the wider world.

Unfortunately, when this has occurred, the results have usually been disastrous. Indigenous peoples typically have a deep connection with their land, which they see as part of their being. Experiencing the loss of this bond is traumatic in a way that we cannot easily understand. Displaced tribespeople typically lose their health, culture and self-sufficiency, often living in temporary camps where social problems are rife.

Sadly, throughout the world the history of contact with indigenous peoples has frequently involved genocide, often driven by European colonialism. The recent film Avatar brings these issues to a mass audience under science fiction garb. A peaceful race known as the Na’vi live on the planet Pandora and experience a violent incursion by Earth people, who covet one of their minerals.

Even the governments of developing countries that are trying to modernise often see tribal peoples within their borders as an unwelcome primitive element. These original inhabitants are frequently accused of being lazy and backward and may suffer due to a lack of political representation.

In Europe, by the middle of last century a shift in attitude was under way in which tribal self-determination was given greater importance. It was increasingly acknowledged that indigenous tribes should have the choice over whether to interact with the outside world. This is an important consideration for tourists attracted by their photogenic, exotic qualities. Visiting without proper permission is demeaning and treats these people like live museum exhibits.

Dozens of tribes, all in South America and New Guinea, have chosen to remain uncontacted. As they have no immunity to common diseases such as chickenpox, visits from outsiders can be fatal and there are strong arguments for respecting their wishes. Yet Peru’s jungles are currently being opened up to oil exploration on a vast scale, potentially jeopardising the future of numerous uncontacted tribes.

Land rights and land wrongs

Under the International Labour Organization’s Article 169, tribal peoples have the right to their own lands. In total, 20 governments have ratified this agreement, but unfortunately they do not always adhere to it. In 2007, the UN’s Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples set out a broad range of human rights. At the time, Australia was one of four countries to vote against the Declaration (the others were the US, Canada and New Zealand) but has since endorsed it under Kevin Rudd.

Despite these advances, as the world economy grows, we are seeing an increasingly environmentally destructive rush to seize resources located in inaccessible places. Tribal people have long had their lands coveted by ranching, mining, logging and palm oil interests, and where it is appropriated, nearby tribes are often adversely affected by environmental pollution that drives away the animals they need to hunt to survive.

Where conflicts arose between tribal peoples and powerful intruders, traditionally these confrontations were on a highly unequal footing. In recent decades, a number of activist groups have sprung up with the sole intention of advocating on behalf of indigenous peoples in difficulty, the most prominent of these being London-based Survival International.

Some members of indigenous tribes have embraced modern technology and are organising in cyberspace as well as on the ground. At the Copenhagen climate conference last December, tribal representatives armed with mobile phones and laptops voiced their concerns about the UN program REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation). Land is sacred and they have difficulties with the concept of turning it into a commodity as forest carbon sinks that will be sold to rich nations as offsets. They are keen to ensure that their views are heard.

Diamonds or bushmen?

The Bushmen of southern Africa are found in Botswana, Namibia and South Africa. In Botswana, until recently a population of about 5000 Gana, Gwi and Tsila tribespeople inhabited the remote Central Kalahari Game Reserve.

However, in the 1980s diamonds were found throughout the reserve and government ministers told the Bushmen they would have to move out because of the diamond finds. Starting in 1997, they were forcibly relocated in cattle trucks to a distant resettlement camp on the park perimeter called New Xade. Unable to pursue their traditional lifestyle, they fell victim to alcoholism, prostitution, AIDS and boredom, and became dependent on government handouts.

With the help of Survival International, in 2006 the Bushmen scored a win over the Botswana government, with a legal ruling stating they had been unlawfully evicted and had the right to return. However, the government continues to deny them access to a water borehole, plus they are arrested when hunting and are prevented from taking small numbers of goats into the park. Hundreds remain at New Xade and feel too intimidated to return.

Since 1997, diamond mining developments have sprung up within the reserve, some close to Bushmen villages. The grassroots group First People of the Kalahari believe the real reason for the eviction is the diamond royalties the Bushmen would be eligible to receive if they remained in their homeland.

Positive developments

Fortunately, in some places the picture is more encouraging. In Russia, both the Sakha and Komi people control their own Siberian territories. Canada’s provinces were joined in 1999 by the northern territory of Nunavut, largely inhabited by the Inuit Eskimos. This has provided some important opportunities for self-determination.

One of the most remarkable good-news stories comes from the Brazilian Amazon, where a tribe known as the Yawanawa had become enslaved by rubber tappers who moved onto their land. Simultaneously, their spiritual beliefs were being undermined by missionaries who converted them to Protestantism. Yet during this difficult time, they managed to hold onto their cultural traditions.

In 1984, a member of the tribe named Bira was sent to a nearby city to study. He discovered through research that the tribe had a legal right to its land. After becoming tribal leader, he later succeeded in reclaiming it for his people. At this point, the tribe was still economically dependent on the rubber barons but found a solution in a partnership with the progressive US beauty company, Aveda.

The urukum tree grows up to nine feet tall and produces pods full of red seeds. These contain a dark orange pigment used by the tribe as a body paint and which was found by Aveda to be an ideal lipstick ingredient. Urukum is bought by Aveda under a fair trade agreement and, so far, 13,000 of these trees have been planted in groves, between houses, along paths and in deforested areas of the community. With the help of Aveda, demarcation of the Yawanawa territory took place last year.

Australia’s record

Following British colonisation in 1788, many Aborigines were subjected to massacres or died from disease. From a starting point of perhaps around half a million, Australia’s Aboriginal population fell steeply during the first century of occupation. Between 1870 and 1970, Aboriginal children with white blood were systematically removed from their parents and sent to white families or mission schools. This “Stolen Generation” was finally acknowledged in 2008 when they received an apology from Kevin Rudd.

Over time, Australian legal cases established the legal principle of terra nullius, essentially a view that the Australian continent was empty before the European arrival and one that ignored its Aboriginal past. In 1992, this was overtured by the historic Mabo decision, which paved the way for the recognition of Native Title.

In practice, this form of title is very different from Western notions of ownership and, instead, involves rights to and interests in the land linked to traditional laws and customs. In the past, mining on Aboriginal land would go ahead with minimal consultation: today, the flow-on effects of Native Title include some veto rights over resources projects.

Today, indigenous Australians make up 2.7 per cent of the population but are 11 times more likely than whites to be in jail. Increasing attention is being given to a life expectancy gap of 17 years between indigenous and non-indigenous people, a disparity that is uncomfortably similar to having a Third World country within our borders. Many difficulties can be traced back to the disconnection of indigenous people from their traditional cultures and the existential trauma linked to a loss of identity.

Last year, Australia’s treatment of Aborigines was criticised by Anand Grover, a UN special rapporteur on the right to health. He raised a range of issues, including housing, drinking water, sanitation, education, the recent Northern Territory intervention and the disproportionate prison population.

A Maori resurgence

The Maori are Polynesians who migrated from the Pacific Islands, probably in the 13th century. Despite disruptions to their society following interactions with European settlers, on the whole they have fared better than Australia’s Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders. Since the 1960s, a Maori land rights protest and cultural movement has had a far-reaching influence.

In recent decades, the Maori have become more urbanised. As with Australia’s Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders, the Maori also experience lower health and education outcomes than the rest of society. With 14 per cent of the population, they represent 50 per cent of those in prison. Their life expectancy is about eight years less than that of the white population.

Under the 1840 Treaty of Waitangi, an agreement signed soon after New Zealand became a British colony, the Maori were guaranteed property rights and tribal autonomy. Starting in the 1990s, the government has been engaged in an ongoing process of making redress for breaches of the Treaty of Waitangi, mostly in the form of land Deals. In the recent “foreshore and seabed controversy”, the government passed a law overruling Maori “customary title” over these coastal areas, following a widespread fear that public access to beaches could be under threat.

What can we learn?

Australians who emulate tribal ways are sometimes known as “ferals”, and to a modern materialistic society their very existence often arouses an irrational hostility. The milieu they belong to involves low-impact living, tipis and yurts for housing, shared land ownership and communal living experiments.

As the globe becomes more homogenous, cultural diversity is becoming more and more important to maintain and defend. In an increasingly environmentally aware world, more people are starting to recognise what indigenous peoples have to contribute. Their cultural knowledge involves an intimate connection with their surroundings, including the plants and animals and their many uses. The ultimate sustainable living experts who tread with a light ecological footprint, they have a lot to teach the rest of us.

While there is no going back to the past, as a society we can recognise that it is possible to live more in tune with the natural world around us and to create a more sustainable planet.

Martin Oliver is a writer and researcher based in Lismore, northern NSW.

Martin Oliver

Martin Oliver

Martin Oliver writes for several Australian holistic publications including WellBeing on a range of topics, including environmental issues. He believes that the world is going through a major transition and he is keen to help birth a peaceful, cooperative and sustainable reality.

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