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.
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.