Putting Ukraine’s Russian Language Issue into an International Perspective

Vladimir Putin makes a big point of protecting Russian speakers in Ukraine as if they were Russian. The huge flaw in his logic is the fact that a vast majority of the people in the country speak Russian. They also speak Ukrainian. It is the largest natively multilingual country in the world. Moreover, the language issue is seldom as divisive as Putin would make it seem. Let’s take a look.

Switzerland is the world’s most perfectly multilingual country. This country of less than 8 million speaks German, French, Italian and Romanche. The percentages are 65 percent, 23 percent, eight percent and one percent. As a bonus, most educated Swiss speak English as well. There is no notable friction on language front.

Some cities are quite bilingual: Brussels in Flemish and French, Montréal in English and French, and Strasburg in German and French. Knowing the language is a simply a matter of getting along. These cities happen to be located on linguistic borders. The countries on either side of their particular borders, however, tend to be monolingual. Or, if they are not, they use English as a second language.

English is far and away the world’s most important second language. It is a mandatory subject in elementary schools in the smaller northern European countries – the Netherlands, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, and Finland. While natives of these countries all speak their native language, they expect to speak English when they study abroad, travel, and do business.

English is the world’s lingua franca. It is the language that Indians from different regions of that vast country use to communicate with one another. It has the richest vocabulary of any world language, and far and away the most support in terms of dictionaries, word processors, search engines and everything else one could want to go with a language. It is grammatically fairly easy, and because it is so universal most people who speak English can converse usefully with people who don’t speak it well. While there may not be a vast number of natively bilingual people one of whose languages is English, English is by far the most prevalent second language among people who are bilingual to some degree.

English colonial expansion spread the language throughout the world. Britain colonized the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong, India, and a lot of Africa. The language remained because it was useful. However, these events happened one or two centuries ago. Countries have either adopted English as their native language, as in Liberia, or as a firmly established second language for the educated.

The expansion of the Russian speaking world has been more recent. The Soviet Union dominated Eastern Europe until three decades ago. Russian was a mandatory subject in school, and a knowledge of Russian was essential for career development for the generation now in their 60s and 70s. It was a living imperial language until recently.

That has certainly been the case in Ukraine. Ukraine has been dominated by Russia since Bogdan Khmelnitsky was forced into a fateful choice between Poland and Russia in 1648. Various czars and commissars have forced the teaching of Russian over the years, to the extent that everybody has some exposure. Just as an example, my wife’s parents, born in the 1940s, spoke Ukrainian in school. 30 years later in the same region my wife was schooled in the Russian language. Russian is what we speak at home. Needless to say, the choice was made in Moscow, not anywhere in Ukraine.

Ukraine’s situation differs from that of many of the former Soviet Socialist republics only in the period of time that it was dominated by Russia. The Baltic states came under the communists only after World War II. Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan had been under czarist control, but later and not as strongly. The same can be said of the Central Asian ‘stans. For this reason one can get by in any of them, even today, by speaking Russian. However, without a doubt Russian is more pervasive in Ukraine than the others because of the length of the association and the determination with which the language was forced on the population.

That is the history of what is to my knowledge the largest almost totally bilingual country in the world. It is home to the world’s third-largest Russian speaking city, Kiev. Yes, Ukraine is Russian speaking. No, it is not because they love Russia. They remain bilingual because their own language, and sense of themselves as a people, has survived massive programs of education, indoctrination, exile, colonization, repression and starvation conducted by the Russians.

Following the Trail of the Red Man

Ten years ago I had an opportunity unique for a retiree – I spent a month on a remote Indian reservation in Brazil. At the time I thought it was no more than an exotic and exciting adventure which had no bearing on my life. It appears now that the Indian experience presages that of the millennials, and even more my toddler son’s generation. The Indians’ way of life seems destined to end in tragedy, and I fear the same for our progeny.

The Kayapó roamed wild through the Brazilian Amazon until 1967, battling other Indians and avoiding Brazilians. The government finally convinced them to accept a reservation. Not a bad deal – the size of Virginia for 5000 Indians.

The Kayapó are as remote as possible from Brazilian society, both physically and socially. The Brazilian Law of the Indian restricts their interaction with the mainstream society. There are limits on trade and travel, rules against alcohol, and protection of their indigenous society and languages. The men my age – born in the 1950s and before –had totally traditional childhoods and even in adulthood have only been minimally affected by modernity.

The men my age were a splendid bunch of people. They knew the forest intimately, and were proud to show it to an American who spoke Portuguese. They knew how to catch fish with their bare hands, how to kill wild pigs with war clubs, how to find everything edible in the Amazon forest, and which herbs, vines and barks were good for which ailments. They laughed easily, and were at ease with themselves. They loved children, and romped with grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

They had given up their nomadic ways, settling in permanent wooden shacks built by the government, living on well water and using a modern septic system. A small generator powers a radio and water pump. There is a landing strip for single-engine planes such as the one we flew in on.

The younger Indians’ lives are very different from the men my age. They did not learn the forest from their elders because they did not need to. They hunt wild pigs with shotguns and fish with fishing rods. There is a Brazilian nurse in the camp to cure their ills. They seem to spend their time playing battery-powered video games and listening to popular Brazilian music on boom boxes.

Simply put, there is nothing in the lives of the young Indians that demands the human characteristics of intelligence, dedication, courage, physical labor or self-sacrifice. Everything seems to be given to them. They are forgetting how to be Indians, and in losing that, they are losing their humanity.

The Kayapó are traveling a trail of tears forged over the past four centuries by Indians throughout the Americas. They do not adapt to Western culture. They are not individualistic. They don’t particularly want to work for wages, they are not competitive, and they don’t see much point in the way the white man does things. Disaffected, they succumb to alcohol and dissipation. Rape and pederasty are rampant on Indian reservations in North America. Their society has fallen apart.

Not coincidentally, a famous series of rodent studies by John B. Calhoun in the 1960s made the same observation. Rats and mice that have everything given to them, and do not have to use their wits to obtain food and avoid danger, likewise fall apart. The resulting “behavioral sink” spells doom. They forget how to be rodents, how to breed and raise young, and, in the midst of plenty, they go extinct.

I read today that only 44% of working-age Americans have full-time jobs – 30 hours a week or more. Only a fraction of those 44% are truly satisfying and remunerative. The rest are just marking time, keeping bread on the table.

Increasing numbers of young people stay in school as long as possible, taking student loans they will never be able to repay in order to forestall the day of reckoning when they must attempt to find work. For a great many, work will simply not be there. Youth unemployment approaches 50% in some southern European nations and among some demographics within America.

Technology is racing at breakneck speed in the wrong direction. Millions of jobs have already been lost to automation. Warehouses are automated, self-checkout reigns in grocery stores, ATMs have replaced tellers, email has replaced postman, and online shopping has replaced retail shop clerks. It will get worse. Self-driving vehicles and companies such as Uber and Lyft will eliminate millions of drivers, insurance agents, carwashes and others in service industries. GPS guides driverless vehicles through tilling, seeding and harvesting our food. Cryptocurrencies and automation will continue to decimate the legions of clerks in the financial sector. Artificial intelligence, driven by neural networks and the like, will reduce the doctor’s judgment in the practice of medicine, and most clerks and associates in law offices. We are encountering a future in which opportunities will be vast for the highly intelligent, but there will be nothing much meaningful for the rest to do. For a preview of the result, one has only to look at life in the ghettos and barrios of today’s American cities, the zones sensibles in France, and the African enclaves in Scandinavian cities. The things which made life meaningful to these citizens’ ancestors are simply not part of their contemporary existence. They are at the end of the process of which I saw the beginning during my visit with the Kayapó. With nothing meaningful required of them to survive, they have lost their humanity.

The human animal is resourceful. We react, though not in healthy ways. We white people in Asians are simply not repopulating ourselves. Why bring progeny into a meaningless existence? Sex has swirled down the above-mentioned “behavioral sink”. Asexuality, homosexuality, and hyper sexuality are rampant, while few parents seem interested in or capable of raising normal families. Normalcy itself has lost its definition.

The Indians first confronted the loss of meaning in their lives with the arrival of the white man. Harvard and Dartmouth were dedicated to educating Indians – a project that never got off the ground. Indian culture has been a disaster. There has not been a successful Indian society after their contact with the Europeans.

It would be nice to say that we are different, that there are signs of hope for the future of Western civilization. It does not appear to be so – life for the bulk of mankind is becoming meaningless. One reads this gloomy prognostication from more and more of our wiser heads. It appears that we are traveling the path of the red man, simply with a couple of centuries’ remove. The reprieve may be longer for the smarter among us, but who can, in the long run, outpace progress itself?

A Month with the Kayapo in the Amazon

This is an academic paper written in 2004 after a month-long stay with the Kayapo Indians in the state of Para, in the Brazilian Amazon. I reference it in a subsequent blog.


The Kayapó are making their accommodation to Brazilian society late in history. Whites (kuben) worked their way only slowly into the Kayapó’s homeland in the cerrado (savanna) and forests of the Brazilian states of Pará, Matto Grosso and Tocantins. The Kayapó’s reputation for killing intruders made fortune hunters tend to look elsewhere. A lack of ferocity and the misfortune of living in the paths of an expanding Brazilian civilization long ago brought most of their Indian brethren to terms with the national society.

Terms of accommodation were overwhelmingly dictated by the Brazilians. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the Portuguese simply enslaved the Indians. The Jesuits gradually brought the practice to an end, noting that Christianity was a hard sell among enslaved peoples. Thereafter and through the twentieth century Indians continued to be brought under the “protection” of the white man, supposedly for their education and betterment, a situation which again often meant labor for minimal wages at tasks not of their choosing.

Over the past few decades the situation has improved. The Indians’ rights to their own reservations and their land is written into the Brazilian constitution. The result is that while Brazil counts only about 200,000 tribal Indians, a mere ½ of one percent of Native Americans in the hemisphere, those few groups are today quite well endowed with land and have several government bureaucracies to serve them.

Indians continue to suffer from the gap between de jure and de facto law in Brazilian society. The Kayapó have however grown resourceful in using the law and public opinion to defend their interests. For the first time in history there are groups of Indians who have title to something well-defined and worth defending, and the tools and connections to mount a defense. This moves the focus of the issue to a new set of questions. What are the Kayapó’s long-term prospects? What are their long-term interests? Do they know their long-term interests? And, most significantly, what can they do for current income to support their material needs without invading the corpus of their forest patrimony?

The question bears on three interwoven themes: time, money and education. For Indians, the equation between time and money is a new thing. The nomadic Kayapó, with minimal material culture, historically lacked the realization that structures and machinery have to be maintained over time. They had no history of trading time at labor for money, nor of investing over time in return for interest income.

Indians’ initial exposures to a money society are fairly uniformly disastrous. Kaj Århem noted that Indians of the Colombian Amazon tend to spend what money they get, acquiring things they do not need and cannot maintain, and contract debts they cannot service. The history is repeated throughout the Americas. Zimmerman et. al. (2001) report that the Kayapó realized millions of dollars liquidating their prime mahogany and permitting gold mining in the 1990s, and have little left to show for it today.

Here are the elements of the dilemma. The Brazilian Constitution and the Law of the Indian grant the Indians the right to self-determination. It is only just, and could not be otherwise in today’s rights-conscious world. At the same time, it is widely observed that indigenous American peoples have difficulty coping with aspects of the modern world such as alcohol, money and individualism. Brazilian law accords them a status of judicial incompetence similar to that of minor children. What kinds of lives will or should today’s indigenous peoples lead, what education do they need to prepare for these lives, and what right do any outsiders, conservationists, governmental or whatever, have to influence indigenous education?

External Contacts and Essential Expenditures

Kayapó Chief Rop Ni observed in 1976 that the time had passed when the Kayapó could maintain a totally autonomous existence. The villagers of A’Ukre depend on the government to maintain their airstrip, their deep water well and their septic system, complete with its flush toilets. They have eased their traditional hunting and gathering labors through the acquisition of shotguns, outboard motors, chain saws and fishing tackle, their paths through the forest with manufactured shoes, and their treks with sleeping bags, tents, mosquito nets, flashlights and other western paraphernalia. They have generated a demand for gasoline and batteries. As a consequence, the Kayapó’s attentions are focused on acquiring these goods by trade, and increasingly, simply acquiring the cash to buy them.

The 5,000 people of the 16 villages of the Kayapó nation are closely related. They use air taxi services and an airplane bought with mahogany money to visit one another. They are linked by a CB radio network powered by solar cells connected to automotive batteries. Whoever paid for it — the cost was probably not great — radio has become indispensable. Radio has evident imperfections as well. It can handle only one conversation at a time, it is absolutely not private, and requires all speakers to be at their radios at the same time. There will be a market for telephones or VOIP connections.

Maintaining airplanes, radios, and even chainsaws and outboard motors requires more training, reference materials and tools than the Kayapó possess. Their dependence on kuben society for these services exacerbates their need for cash income. Negotiating and contracting for complex and expensive services such as aircraft maintenance requires a certain level of sophistication in addition to knowledge of Portuguese and basic accounting.

A mere inventory of material wants understates the interaction with and dependence of the Kayapó upon Brazilian society. The Kayapó recognize both Western and traditional branches of medicine. Shamans still treat some ailments, but they look more and more to Western medicine. FUNASA (Fundação Nacional de Saúde) has established an infirmary at the village of A’Ukre. Angela, the resident nurse, maintains health records and growth charts of all the village children and treats common infectious diseases. She arranges air transportation to send the more seriously ill to hospitals, the closest being about 100km distant in Ourilandia do Norte. The Kayapó have an increasing appreciation for the value of eyeglasses, insect repellants and over-the-counter medicines.

The Kayapó are in the minority among Brazilian indigenous people in having no school of any sort. Accounts of Kayapó education under FUNAI prior to 1991 are vague. In any case little residual effect is noticeable today. The probable reasons that they don’t have a school today are complex. There is an anecdote to the effect that the elders of A’Ukre rejected an offer to set up a school in the abandoned Body Shop / schoolhouse building, demanding instead a new and better building. Such a stance would have been in character, but it is not even clear with whom they would have been negotiating.

They want a school. Most of the elders with whom we worked signed the plea that has been posted on the Internet since 2002. Dealing with educators should and will become an essential outside contact for the Kayapó. The evidence is that they will need to be strong advocates of their own interests as they deal with the educational bureaucracies.

Kayapó Sources of Income

The Kayapó control a vast resource in their virgin rainforest, 11 million hectares, the size of the State of Virginia. The income potential represented by their labor force of 2,000 untrained adults is insignificant by comparison.

They must meet their cash needs by one means or the other. The essential questions are how to derive an ongoing income from their rainforest without destroying it, or how to increase the value of their labor. Otherwise they are likely to fall back on the third and tragic option, far too commonly followed by indigenous peoples, squandering the patrimony in return for a temporary influx of cash and leaving future generations to fend for themselves. A catalog of the major income possibilities includes:
o Handicrafts: The Kayapó sell bows and arrows, war clubs and beadwork to visitors, and have some limited outlets in the cities. Production and marketing of handicrafts could benefit by better organization and connection with markets. There is however a limited market for tourist items and many other Indian tribes make comparable artifacts.
o Services: Kayapó genipap body painting is quite unique. There is again a limited market and it is a service that must be delivered in person.
o Conservation Organizations: Conservation International employs a significant fraction of the elders of A’Ukre village as associates in their Pinkaití research center. There is potential here. A tiny fraction of the resources of NGOs, environmental organizations and environmentally engaged individuals would satisfy the Kayapó’s income needs.
Sustainable forestry income
o Brazil nut collection: Brazil nuts remain abundant despite widespread logging. The world market is weak and getting nuts or oil to market from remote corners of the reservation is prohibitively expensive.
o Permits and Fees: The Kayapó receive a per capita stipend from visitors to the Pinkaití research station and a stipulated income for the use of the 8,100 hectare (ca. 32 square mile) station. Increasing the number of visitors could significantly offset their income needs.
Attractive but unproven suggestions
o Ecotourism, including sport fishing: Such ventures would require the development of significant infrastructure and would expose the Kayapó to potentially detrimental outside influences.
o Harvesting or researching medicinal plants: Though much is made of the medicinal value of rainforest species, few are proven and there are no markets.
Unsustainable Activities
o Logging: Most mature mahogany has already been cut; it will be at least a generation before it can be harvested again. Cutting what remains in Pinkaití and in remote recesses of the reserve would end the relationship with Conservation International. Logging lower value species would very likely have to ruin the forest to be economically feasible.
o Agriculture: The Kayapó are not and do not want to become ranchers or farmers. Either activity would require clearing some forest and represent a radical change in their culture.
o Gold mining: Mining on the Rio Fresco in the Gorotire territory was a disaster. It converted the valley into a wasteland of sand dunes and stagnant pools that will take decades or centuries for the forest to reclaim. Mercury poisoned the fish, the groundwater, and the Kayapó themselves.

Income from sustainable activities may runs into the tens of thousands of dollars per year, that from unsustainable activities could easily be millions. The challenges for the Kayapó are stark. They need to invent ways to earn more sustainable income. If, in the worst case, they are forced to realize unsustainable income from the forest, it is essential that they invest the proceeds to provide returns over time. They will need education in either case. The Kayapó have to become sophisticated in trading time for money and letting money work over time or they will become the slaves that Sting so fears.

The State of Indigenous Education in Brazil

Until recent decades Brazilian applied a mainstream view of education to its Indians. All Brazilians need a primary education to learn to read and write Portuguese, to do basic arithmetic, and to know the fundamentals of Brazilian culture and government. Promising students need the opportunity to advance to secondary education, which involves more advanced work in these subjects, and broader exposure to sciences and the world outside of Brazil. Those with the ability and desire should have the opportunity to go from secondary into universities.

Brazil’s 1988 constitution reflected the world, and more specifically the American multicultural zeitgeist. “The State shall protect expressions of popular, Indian and Afro-Brazilian cultures…” and “…Indian communities shall be ensured the use of their native tongues and their own learning methods.” Articles 78 and 79 of the 1996 Lei De Diretrizes E Bases da Educação Nacional effectively give Indian communities control over their own education. This implied autonomy is a major theme of most of the addresses to the 1994 Congresso de Leiture do Brasil included in “Leiture e Escrita no Brasil.” The various authors at once examine what autonomy might mean in theory and deplore the fact that in practice few Brazilian states have implemented much of anything. Tocantins, a recognized leader, declares “A conquista da autonomia” (the conquest of autonomy) as a goal, and provides a program to educate native teachers.

The Lei de Diretrizes e Bases da Educação Nacional defines Indian rights in education. However, since an executive decree transferred responsibility from FUNAI to MEC in 1991, indigenous education appears to have fallen into limbo. The competent bureaucracy remains within the Ministry of Education (MEC) but responsibility lies with the various state educational bureaucracies. As the law is not very specific about what needs to be done and who needs to do it, not much is happening.

The noble turns of speech in the constitution and the laws aside, it is unclear what indigenous education should or could be. The laws do not deal with the practical limitations. Education programs are expensive to develop. That is why most societies centralize the effort at national and state levels. One criticism of American education is that local school boards, serving only tens of thousands of students, don’t have funds to do an adequate job. Where does that leave the Kayapó, with 5,000 people and no tax base?

Implementing a complete program for Kayapó education would be vastly more complex than a mere school district. There is no written language. It is unclear what literacy even would mean if it were not in Portuguese. The written materials that exist regarding Kayapó history, myths and culture are written by outsiders in outside languages. Even if there were a written language, which might be developed by philanthropists such as the Sumner Institute of Linguistics, the economics of publishing would make it cost-prohibitive to translate textbooks into Kayapó. There are few examples in history of a written language being adopted de novo. The most notable, Vietnamese, involved a population of tens of millions and a society with a basis of literacy in Chinese ideograms. Written Hawaiian and Maori are struggling because they have no natural role within their English-speaking societies. For the Kayapó, an attempt at native-language education would be a conceit standing in the way rather than a path to education.

Despite the emotional attractiveness of bilingual education the Kayapó language can serve only as a bridge. Students must enter the Portuguese world to encounter advanced materials of any kind. It is also essential to interact with anybody outside of their tribe: Portuguese is the lingua franca among Indians themselves. The traditionalists were right in their conviction that indigenous education had to mean familiarizing Indians with the language of Brazilian society.

If the Kayapó are to be educated, it has to be done using outside curricular materials and at least some outside instructors. What kind of education they need to acquire is a separate issue.

The Need for Education Among the Kayapó

Musician Sting noted that “… you meet the [Indian] people there and you hear their story, and you realize that without their environment they are going to be sucked into the lowest part of Brazilian society, which is basically slavery.” d’Angelis, an advocate of autonomous education, laments Indians trained as accountants and secretaries in the Rio Negro region “became hod carriers and maids in Manaus.” Their forest reserve should provide the Kayapó with more attractive options for putting an education to use than merely working as hired hands in that kuben society. The question is, how?

The elders we worked with, Ukaruru, Ngipre, Ireo, Tiago, Bastion and Kubanyet, earn money working for Conservation International and serve the village of A’Ukre negotiating with the outside world. Tiago, who polished his Portuguese during a stint with FUNAI, is frequently sent to training courses in medicine and maintenance of such apparatus as the deep well system.

The esteem in which the village holds those members who speak Portuguese, and their eloquent Internet plea for education, bespeaks a sincere interest. The fact that these elders took the effort to learn Portuguese despite the lack of a school indicates that they would probably be receptive to outside help in education.

The ability to write Portuguese is essential. The Kayapó need to be able to draft contractual agreements. They also need to become familiar with terms common in contracts, stipulating contract deliverables, payment terms, liquidated damages, dispute resolution and the like. They need enough arithmetic to deal with the time value of money as represented by interest, payment schedules, and computing return on investment. They already have experience in contract management, having designated elders to oversee gold, mahogany, water, health and other projects. Though it is not in their tradition, it makes sense for them to protect their contract managers from second-guessing in the men’s house by documenting their rights, responsibilities and privileges. This is part of a larger theme. The Indians’ affairs are becoming too complex to manage by mere oral agreements.

The Kayapó can reduce their cash expenditures if village members are able to perform necessary services. They need to learn to build houses, to repair buildings, plumbing, septic systems and motors, and to read instructions so they can install radios, solar panels and other gear. The more Kayapó that get involved in delivering education and health care, the better the level of service and the more money is likely to flow into the village in the form of government salaries.

The Challenges in Adopting a Western Mindframe

The emerging discipline of Ethnomathematics suggests that even learning arithmetic may imply cultural changes. The nearby Bororo Indians’ reckoning of the time of day and the day of the month, which appear to apply as well to Gê peoples such as the Kayapó, is by the position of celestial objects. The sun and stars mark hours of night and day, days in the recent past are identified by the hour the moon rose, the more distant past by seasons and the positions of constellations, and past years by the height or age grade a villager had attained at the time of a past event.

Jonathan Hill discounts Lévi-Strauss’s characterization of Amazonian societies as “cold” in that they resist historical changes. Hill demonstrates that Indians recognize their lives’ recurring cycles of days, moons and seasons are nonetheless imposed upon the linear unfolding of historical events, the most significant of which has been the arrival of the white man, the devastation wrought by disease and the acquisition of artifacts such as guns.

The current generation of Kayapó may however be the first to deeply internalize the implications of linear history. The forest, which has always been taken as a given, is not unchangeable. The big mahoganies are gone and mining has ruined the Rio Fresco. Tapir are becoming scarce. Kuben and the Kayapó’s increasing dependence on the kuben society are permanent. Kayapó must think of the lives their children will lead, and even of their own old age, in ways that never would have occurred to their parents. They have to think in financial terms, recognizing education, investments and their territorial endowment as financial assets that must over time yield the income the tribe needs to survive.

Learning to relate time to money, capital to income, is not an easy task… witness the American sports stars and even entrepreneurs who fail at it. Acquiring money sense may be the most difficult aspect of Kayapó education. Their tradition of community, however, will work to their benefit. One can hope that once the elders fully grasp what the tribe must do to support itself over the long term the will have the power to sway their people.

Although education is essential to support these immediate needs, it will also give the Kayapó access to print and broadcast information about the broader world and pleasures such as reading, television and video. All are mixed blessings, and all promise to significantly change the Kayapó culture. Given that, bidden or not, the media eventually intrude on every society, the Kayapó can at least anticipate their exposure.

Potential Forms and Objectives of Kayapó Education

Indigenous educators in Brazil, like those in Chile, Mexico and elsewhere, seem to picture it being delivered in a one- or two-room primary school, staffed by indigenous professors, delivering bilingual education in the fundamentals of language, arithmetic, and ethnic and Brazilian culture, history, geography, laws and customs. Such systems have been subject to a host of criticisms:
o Education deracinates the young, neglecting traditional knowledge and providing them with learning that they cannot apply within the village.
o Giving value to “white” knowledge systems devalues the knowledge of the elders and estranges the young from those who should be teaching them to garden, weave, hunt, fish and appreciate the forest.
o Western education is inherently individualistic, acknowledging differences in drive and ability and thereby eroding the communitarian nature of Indian society.
o A principal objective of primary education is preparation for secondary, which assuredly renders an individual unfit for life in the village.
o Educators believe overwhelmingly that girls have an equal right to education. Such education is bound to change sex roles to the detriment of traditional culture.

The Kayapó need to strike a balance, and it will be uncomfortable. People need education even if it does imply fundamental cultural changes. The Kayapó need to find the most appropriate compromise and somehow locate resources to implement it. There are a couple of other aspects to consider.

The adults of A’Ukre appreciate the value of Portuguese and arithmetic in dealing with the outside world. They are good candidates for adult education. Paolo Freire was a strong advocate of adult education, providing adults with the practical tools they need in life, and the Brazilian educational establishment embraces Freire. Giving adults, men and women, the opportunity to learn will raise the esteem of education within the village and diminish potential resistance to schoolhouse education.

Indian children are not the only potential students interested in traditional Kayapó education. The material the elders teach their children about hunting and fishing, myths, folkways, medicine and festivals is of interest as well to anthropologists, botanists, foresters, ecologists and other scientists. The Kayapó can use outside resources to collect curricular material and they may be able to persuade outsiders to help develop curriculum as part of their own scholarly pursuits.

Education’s Likely Impact on Traditional Values

The advocates of autonomous education, designed and delivered by the Indians themselves, rightly want to mitigate the “noxious” effects of education on indigenous society. Marta Maria Azevedo writes:

“School is and always was a colonial, civilizing institution. It was always used, as much in Brazil as other countries, to colonize and to civilize. It is an occidental institution person, and as part of occidental culture it creates individuals. School is not an institution that takes care of, for example, the social family, or groups, or communities, or clans. The school ministers to a classroom of individuals. It is in the school the creation of this idea of “individual” begins. This individualism, a central concept in our culture, is not at all central in the aboriginal cultures. This is terribly important because many times people use aboriginal languages in school, speak of working in the native cultures in the schools, but overlook this very important point. I already said on other occasions (including in Brasilia) that I find that one of the important questions that people are forgetting as they work in the aboriginal schools is the question of evaluation. Grading always touches in this point of the individualism, of the individualization of the person within a community that is not whatsoever individualistic. In the village, if the oldest brother goes to the garden with his younger brother new and they cooperate, or it may be the son-in-law going to work with the father-in-law. In any case, the environment outside of the school is totally one of cooperation relation, of mutual aid. Inside of the school the pupil has learn on his own; the grade will be his own. And it is forbidden for one pupil to help another, even if they are brothers, . For what!? Because the whole purpose is to create this figure of the individual.”

Azevedo is right about individualism. Most educators claim that their goal is to help each individual attain the maximum that is within his or her power to achieve. Educators accept that children have differing levels of drive, character and intellect. It fits well with the fact that the immense range of occupations within our society demand equally broad ranges of skill and formation.

Equality is an overwhelming social value in Kayapó society. Families live so communally that the lack of privacy drives the visiting non-Indian crazy. Substantial material possessions such as canoes and outboard motors belong to the community. The only things an individual tends to own are goods for personal use: tents, sleeping bags, flashlights and fishing gear. Houses are identical and their furnishings indistinguishable. The culture includes a kind of forced generosity. If one Indian expresses a desire for another’s possession, unless he can make a good excuse not to the possessor is morally obliged to give it up. Idleness is a cardinal sin: an individual should always be working, helping others.

The Kayapó have always practiced political equality in that they (men only) make decisions communally. Discussion of an issue continues until there is a consensus. Traditionally, the village would split when it was unable to achieve consensus on an important issue. The fact that this traditionally nomadic people has an increasingly fixed village structure, with wooden houses, an airstrip, infirmary, plumbing and such, also means they are no longer free to split. Who in a dissident group would have the skills or desire to clear the forest and build a longhouse village? They have to live with each other and resolve their differences.

Their tradition of rather pure and immediate democracy will likely be forced to change. When dealing with the kuben, a contract is a contract. The men’s house is not at liberty to reargue contractual terms or overrule a contract administrator’s judgment. To do so would rupture relationships with the outside world.

The men’s house is the center of male social life as well as politics. It is where the community plans hunts, festivals, war and all other community projects. Even when there is nothing that to be decided, the men gather in the evening to tell stories and enjoy each other’s company. There is a lot of locker-room kidding. The visitor notices a few looming threats to this venerable institution. Pre-teens now gather in the dark to listen to Brazilian music and dance the forro. They are captivated by video games. It seems unlikely the Kayapó will do better than any other culture in resisting the inevitable incursion of video and TV. When this happens, the retreat from the men’s house to the TV room appears likely to signal the kind of disengagement from community life that Århem chronicled among the Makuna of the Rio Negro.

The Kayapó hold traditional knowledge in high respect. This includes the shamans’ knowledge of medicinal herbs, elders’ recollections of history and myth, and faithful reproduction of ceremonial rites. The young, on the other hand, are the quickest to accumulate school learning. To grant greater respect to textbook knowledge would be to upset traditional veneration of the elders.

Earlier generations of Brazilians zealously converted Indians to Christianity. In the process they brought them closer to the dominant society and often provided some education. Christianity, however, has lost some of its self-assurance and the Kayapó may be less subject to its evangelistic appeals.

Environmentalism has emerged as a secular religion in America and Europe, complete with the passions and, many would argue, the unquestioning faith of the old-time gospel. The Kayapó could be high priests of such a sect. Chief Payakan was respected as such before his mahogany deals. The tribe already has title to a triple-canopy cathedral, and their oratorical style lends itself well to preaching. If they play their cards right they might parlay the role of Redford’s “ecologically noble savage” into a position of moral leadership on the world stage and maybe even a paying proposition. Their self-image is better adapted to the role of moral leaders on a world stage than that of the downtrodden and dispossessed who are saved only by God’s grace.

The genius of Western productivity is attributable to specialization and capital. The advantages are obvious. We all drive cars and talk on cell phones when no single one of us could make even a tricycle from raw materials. The Kayapó can all, albeit with varying degrees of skill, all make bows and arrows, spears, baskets and every other kind of artifact he needs in daily life. The talents of the average Kayapó taken individually would put a Westerner to shame. Collectively, however, we possess immensely more ability. Each individual among us is educated and/or trained to fulfill an occupational specialty, be it iron mining, rubber chemistry or telecommunications network planning. In aggregate these individual skills make us a highly productive society.

We are also a society of individuals. Contact with civilization will perforce turn the Kayapó into a society of individuals. Education will be key in determining what kind of individuals they become. Will they become professors, teaching westerners their traditional knowledge of the forests, guiding visitors through their paradise and providing them with spiritual leadership, or will they become mere hired hands? It depends on their vision and that of whoever educates them.


The Kayapó will have to deal more and more with Brazilian society. They will become more dependent on the dominant society. They will need more income to support their needs. They will need to acquire a Western-style education in order to function successfully in this new order.

The rainforest itself is by far the tribe’s most significant source of potential income. The most obvious and the largest rewards, however, are one-time affairs like logging and gold mining that destroy the forest. The most essential educational objective must be to enable the Kayapó to derive enough income to support themselves while preserving the forest patrimony for future generations. They need to quickly acquire the kind of sophisticated appreciation of the relationships among time, money and education that remains difficult even in Western societies.

There is every sign that increased contact with mainstream society will detract from the highly communal social order of the Kayapó. It will also require education. The experience of other tribes, the opinion of experts and the very nature of education suggests that schooling will also have a significant impact on traditional values, among them communal decision making and respect for elders.

Sting is right to observe that only their environment can save the Kayapó from the fate of other tribal peoples in Brazil and throughout the Americas, the virtual slavery of disinherited and unskilled laborers. The Kayapó have a few unique advantages. Their rights to their land are as strong as any tribe has ever enjoyed, there is a lot of land, they have the support of Conservation International and the world environmental community, and they have the wealth of tragic experience of other tribes to draw on. Their challenge is to learn how to assemble these unique assets into a unique solution and become the first Amerindian tribe to negotiate the transition into modernity with their lands, culture and dignity intact.

A tragic death I can’t talk about

One of my acquaintances here in Kiev was murdered last week. He had invited some new acquaintances into his flat and they killed him.

As an American, I can say to other Americans that he was obviously gay. He had every mannerism that one associates with being gay.

He displayed an array of the better qualities for which gays are known.  He was intelligent, compassionate, a good speaker, a reliable volunteer in a volunteer organization, and all around good company.

But… being a gay male frequently entails seeking many casual sex partners, and that in turn brings risks, among them disease and violence.

I can’t offer this observation to my Ukrainian friends because homosexuality is not something you talk about here.  They would think I was defaming his memory.  My wife was shocked that I should imagine that that he was gay. The victim kept it to himself.

It was certainly obvious, I would think to any foreigner who is here, and anybody who had much experience in the West, what his situation was. But he was in the closet, as almost all gays here are.

Is this a bad thing? I assume that had he been out of the closet we might have had a bit less of his company. Gays in the United States seem to have retreated in more into their own worlds, comfortable being with each other most of the time. There it is more than a subculture; it’s a dominant culture, on the march. Gays are lionized on TV shows, in the media and everyplace else. Here, on the other hand, gays seem to find it best to act just about like everybody else.

Being just like everybody else means only not flaunting their sex lives. Those of us who are married quietly go about being married. The assumption is that we sleep with our wives, but how and when is strictly a private matter. Same with people who are in long-term relationships, and singles. You don’t ask and they generally don’t tell. So this victim was living in a world similar to that that the gays had lived in when I was a kid, and that all of us heterosexuals live in today, in which sex lives remain generally private.

I doubt that he would’ve been better protected had he been out. I don’t think that the police would have vastly more sympathy; I don’t notice that they do much of anywhere. I am sure that the victim knew the dangers that come with inviting strangers into your house. When I was a young man hitchhiking in California, 50 some years ago, I was fairly often picked up by gays and I was rather struck by the risks that they took inviting me into their house. If I had been a different sort of person the outcome could’ve been difficult for them. Risk is part and parcel of their lifestyle, a fact of which they are acutely aware.

The reasons why people are the way they are hard to fathom. I’m quite sure that homosexuality is a choice for some people, but I’m equally sure that it was not whatsoever for this young man. It was in every fiber of his being.

Homosexuality is a phenomenon that might be explained but not a problem begging to be solved. Rather, my observation is that we probably induce more problems than we resolve by a bringing it to the surface the way the West has done. Let’s let sleeping dogs lie, and take a moment to remember a man who was accepted by all for just what he was: a nice guy.

What my children learned in school

My son, born in 1982, living in a wealthy neighborhood and attending expensive private schools, nursed a litany of complaints about “the man”. From about the age of 12 or 13 he would go on long riffs about how he was going to be independent and never work for “the man.” This incidentally, and not coincidentally, was offered as an excuse for not applying himself fully in school. I argued with him, asking “Who exactly is this ‘man’ that you don’t want to work for? What exactly is the oppressive system that you want to avoid?” He didn’t have answers to these questions, but the fact that I would even ask them clearly identified me with “the man.” Never clarifying his position, he steadfastly maintained his complaints.

A similar thing happened with my daughters. Again, about the eighth grade, the youngest was coming home from school with a long litany of woes of the things that the patriarchy had done to women. Though I probed, I could never get her to relate these historical wrongs to anything that my daughters had experienced in their lives. In fact, an examination of the men in their extended family revealed a bunch of milquetoasts, men who carried out the will of their women rather faithfully. I have to confess that I was the least pliable of the men, but I put up with much more than I wanted to. At any rate, these points also could not be argued. My daughters made a virtue of ignorance. They had the great disadvantage of not having learned much, which can be expected of teenagers. They also had the disadvantage of having learned that they could get by without listening much, and without showing much respect. They employed those two to the fullest, assuming that my better arguments owed only to my sophistry. Their beliefs in the patriarchy went largely unchallenged, except by me, and remain fervently held and to this day.

There is a twofold result of all this. First, and lamentable, is that the children don’t talk to me. I’m that old fossil white man who just doesn’t understand it. I suppose I could tolerate that if they were otherwise successful. However these attitudes toward life, the belief that somehow they in their hyper-privileged childhood had been beset by slews of evil people and held back did in fact hold them back. Rather than striving to form solid relationships with somebody of the opposite sex, a hard thing even when you set your mind to it, the girls decided that men were evil and they didn’t even want to bother. And they have not bothered much to make their relationships work, and not surprisingly, said relationships are not successful. Even when they later decided that they might want a steady lover or a husband, they simply don’t know how to do it.

By the same refusal to engage a supposedly corrupt system, my son and younger daughter have not learned how to work for “the man.” Or rather, they find themselves working for “the man” in the form of government, at low level positions where they get no respect.

It’s interesting to me that people who say that they will not work for “the man” envision a fat, piggy eyed capitalist who is out to exploit his workers. In no way are they prepared to transfer that concept to the state, the real “man” in today’s society. It appears that they are employed by other bureaucrats who are motivated only by their own advancement, with little care for the common people whose problems they are supposed to solve. My son is employed by the state directly or indirectly as a drug counselor, although he’s quite fond of them himself and has run into problems on this account. I hear that my daughter is going to be working attempting to resettle African immigrants in Scandinavia, another noble liberal cause. I hope she doesn’t get mugged or raped in the process. And she’s getting no respect and no particular money, working for “the man,” who is certainly not the one envisioned by John Gault or Horatio Alger but rather more Joseph Stalin. I doubt it’s in any better form.

I had heard the whole litany of man’s unfairness to man when I was a student. This was 1960-62, in a very liberal college. It was in the songs that we sang: “I am the man the very fat man the waters the workers beer;” “This land is my land, this land is your land.” The pervasive message was that it was capitalists who held the working man down. An objective view of history would say that at that point in time, 1960, the workingman had it better in the United States than he had ever had it in any country at any time in history. The claims of oppression were rather totally misplaced. In fact, was the workers in the Soviet Union who were being held down and had a lack of freedom. It was the same sort of a big lie, playing on the ignorance, altruism and herd instinct of otherwise smart young kids.

My experience with my own education and those of my grown children gives me a profound respect for the power of educators and peers to shape a child. 19th century teachers of Americans in one-room schoolhouses and British public school children advanced Western Civilization to the far corners of the world. The Marxist-schooled teachers of the late 20th Century have led the retreat. I have sought out one of the world’s backwaters where tradition is still respected, and where I can home school my new family as I see fit. There are many ways for it to go wrong, but experience tells me that a crap shoot is far better than the guaranteed loss with the establishment educational system.