Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Valuing Indigenous Knowledge

I just finished David Grann’s book, The Lost City of Z.  Grann tells the legendary story of British explorer Percy Fawcett’s ventures into the Amazon jungle. The last time I wrote a book review was in an undergraduate course, so I can’t recall if a review is supposed to give away the ending but Fawcett never returned from an expedition resulting in a long list of explorers trying to solve the mystery of Fawcett’s last trip into the Amazon.

The book is worth reading. It provides a very detailed account of Percy and his expeditions into the Amazon. The amazing thing about Percy was his ability to enter a very dangerous environment, for several months at a time, and survive. There were many who entered the Amazon only to be consumed by it. The main goal of Percy was to discover, what he believed to have existed, a lost city “Z” that was thought to be a thriving, sustainable community deep within the jungle. His pursuit and obsession of finding the lost city of Z ultimately took his life, his son’s, and others who traveled with that group.

While the book is an adventurous read, drawing the reader into the life of Fawcett and the experiences of being in the Amazon jungle, the most interesting parts for me were the times when explorers came into contact with the Amazon’s indigenous (Indian) populations. The author does give some positive opinion on 20th century attitudes towards these indigenous folks; however, the attitudes towards Amazon Indians during Fawcett’s time were associated with them being “savages.” These were not the times to value Indigenous Knowledge.

The Amazon Jungle is in a Bad Part of Town

The Amazon is unforgiving. Fawcett states that the “the logic of the jungle dictates” every action of the explorers. According to Fawcett, all aspects of the jungle, weather, landscape, animals, etc, “is against man as it is nowhere else in the world.” For instance, the sauba ants can reduce men’s clothes and rucksacks to threads in a single night. Ticks attach like leeches. Red hairy chiggers consume human flesh. Parasitic worms cause blindness. “Kissing bugs” bite on the lips transferring Trypanosoma cruzi which twenty years later cause death by heart or brain swelling. And the mosquitoes transmit all kinds of deadly problems like yellow fever or malaria. There is a frog in the Amazon that has enough toxins to kill a hundred people.

An experienced explorer with Fawcett brushed up against a plant resulting in his finger nail falling off as if it had been “ripped off with pliers.” He later developed uncontrollable diarrhea. He woke up with worm like creatures in his knee and arm. They turned out to be maggots growing inside his body. According to his colleagues, he smelled like a “rotting corpse.”

These were the typical experiences of the Europeans who choose to visit the jungle. When they crossed paths with the indigenous people, the explorers labeled them as savages. All indigenous people were regarded as less than human. One of the Holy Roman Emperor’s chaplains, Juan Gines de Sepulveda, argued that “Indians were half men who should be treated as natural slaves” and that “the Spanish have a perfect right to rule these barbarians.” The common attitude toward the indigenous of the Amazon was that they were not descended from Adam and Eve, inferior non-humans who could be wiped from the face of the earth without being much missed.

I wonder how these savages could have ever survived in the cruel, unforgiving environment of the jungle. How could the relatives of Adam and Eve suffer and die in a place where savages lived? Fawcett believed “they had developed an array of medicinal herbs and unorthodox treatment to protect themselves against the daily assault of the jungle.” Fawcett tells of seeing one of the “savages” remove the maggots from under the skin, which was the same kind that had been torturing one of his men, by making “a curious whistling noise with their tongues, and at once the grub’s head would issue from the blowhole.” The “Indian would give the sore a quick squeeze, and the invader was ejected.”

Fawcett reported that he “sucked, whistled, protested, and even played the flute to mine, with absolutely no effect.” He considered these “assortment of herbal cures, as marvel,” while Western doctors who traveled along considered such methods “witchcraft.” Fawcett reported that “it seems as though every disorder has its appropriate nature-cure.” He continued, “Of course, the medical profession does not encourage people to make use of them. Yet the cures they effect are often remarkable, and I speak as one who has tried several with complete success.”

Fawcett’s experiences and reports were in the early 1900’s. Every disorder has its appropriate nature-cure! He is experiencing and explaining life-saving Indigenous Knowledge. Real world, real time knowledge! Would you let a savage treat your life threatening disorder? How desperate would you have to be to place your life into the hands of an uncivilized, non-human?

Appropriate Nature-Cure

This Indigenous Knowledge base still exists today. There are still appropriate nature cures for every disorder. There are people who have this knowledge doing amazing things every day. There is also a belief that our culture is beginning to turn around headed back toward these ideals of nature cures and away from the westernized trainings. 

Current Writers on Indigenous Knowledge

In the upcoming year, posts will be submitted from current folks who are and have been working toward educating our communities on the values of Indigenous Knowledge. There will be a wide sample of writers with various topics on this important subject. It is very important to discuss and educate the public about current Indigenous Knowledge and how it applies in today’s world. I will be previewing upcoming writers as they get close to contributing their work. This will be an exciting opportunity to present and learn about their important ideas regarding Indigenous Knowledge. If you are interested in submitting something, please let me know.

Peace, DAP

1 comment:

  1. It was perhaps 14-15 years ago that a friend and I, went for a hike with our respective children. Her son, upon seeing a thicket of pines, exclaimed that they were just like the ones in his video game. It left an impression on me. The jungle we live in today is a little different than the Amazon, it's electronic. The distractions are many. However, there are many who have stayed grounded, and they are sharing that knowledge. Ultimately, the responsibility is ours. When I read 'And Grandma Said' by Tom Porter, last year, it was a breath of fresh air. The spiritual obligation rests with the adults, the elders, the ones with the knowledge.
    Photography allows me to share that oneness with the Creator, with all who care to view it. It promotes conversation, teachings, wellness.

    Thanks for taking the time, David.