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«Language endangerment in Amazonia: the role of missionaries PATIENCE L. EPPS University of Virginia Viele Sprachen Amazoniens, wie auch anderswo in ...»

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Language endangerment in Amazonia:

the role of missionaries

PATIENCE L. EPPS

University of Virginia

Viele Sprachen Amazoniens, wie auch anderswo in der

Welt, sind heute ernsthaft bedroht. Zu einem großen Teil

resultiert dies aus dem Druck, den der Kontakt zwischen

den eingeborenen Sprechern dieser Sprachen und den

nicht-indigenen (hauptsächlich europäischen) Neuankömm-

lingen hervorgerufen hat. Dabei hat der von Missionaren ausgeübte Druck bei der Entwicklung der Bedrohung eine Hauptrolle gespielt. Dies trifft nirgendwo mehr zu als im Rio-Negro-Gebiet des nordwestlichen brasilianischen Ama- zonas, wo sowohl katholische als auch protestantische Missionare über Generationen ihren Ein8uss haben walten lassen. Dieser Aufsatz untersucht die Auswirkungen der Missionare auf die eingeborenen Völker und Sprachen des Rio Negro und des größeren Amazonasgebiets und vertritt die These, dass die Sprachgefährdung in diesen Gebieten von der Anwesenheit der Missionare bedeutend verstärkt worden ist.

1. Introduction Amazonia is well known for its remarkable linguistic diversity, with an estimated 300 distinct languages comprising some 20 families and a dozen isolates. However, the linguistic diversity of Amazonia – as else- where in the world – is seriously threatened. In Brazil alone, at least 90 of the approximately 270 known native ethnic groups have disap- peared since 1900, together with their languages, while two-thirds of the remaining languages have fewer than 1,000 speakers (NETTLE / ROMAINE 2000: 48).

The Upper Rio Negro region of northwest Brazil (see Map 1) represents a microcosm of both this linguistic diversity and this endangerment.

The region is home to dozens of languages belonging to the Arawak, 311

PATIENCE L. EPPS

Tukanoan, and Nadahup1 families, as well as the creolized Tupi lan- guage known as Língua Geral [yrl]. The most striking feature of the Upper Rio Negro region is the multilingualism of its inhabitants, which is brought about by intense socio-economic interaction and by the wide- spread practice of linguistic exogamy (by which marriage takes place obligatorily between speakers of different ‘father-languages’2). Tradi- tionally, it was quite normal for an individual to speak or understand half a dozen languages, and (with the exception of the languages of the Nadahup peoples, who are considered socially inferior by their neighbors) the languages were all understood to be socially equal.

Today, however, many people in the region are monolingual, and have relinquished their languages for Tukano [tuo] and/or Portuguese [por].

For example, AIKHENVALD (2002a: 27) provides the foll

–  –  –

What has led to the endangerment of the Rio Negro languages, and those of Amazonia generally? The answer to this question includes pressures that are present in language endangerment situations all over the world. One of the most devastating has been the deaths of speakers and entire speech communities, through disease and massacre via contact with European invaders and their descendants. Another has been the indigenous peoples’ loss of their lands, typically accompaI prefer the name Nadahup for two reasons: 1) There is some confusion surrounding the name Maku, which occurs in the literature in reference to several unrelated language groups in Amazonia. 2) The name Maku (probably from Arawak ma-aku [NEG-talk] ‘do not talk’) is widely recognized in the Vaupés region as an ethnic slur, directed against the members of this ethnic / linguistic group. Nadahup combines the names of the four established members of this family (Nadëb [mbj], Dâw [kwa], Yuhup [yab], and Hup [jup]). The name Vaupés-Japura has also been used fort his group (cf. EPPS in press).

Ethnic and linguistic identity is traced through the male line.

2

312 Language endangerment in Amazonia: the role of missionaries

nied by the loss of traditional subsistence patterns and cultural norms, and commonly resulting in the essentially forced assimilation of the remnants of these groups into the dominant society. Finally, language endangerment and loss is also a frequent outcome of an unbalanced social situation, in which indigenous peoples may come to perceive themselves as socially and economically inferior to the members of the dominant society. In the search for economic opportunity and for freedom from social discrimination for themselves and their children, speakers sometimes abandon their languages and seek to blend in with the dominant culture.

In addition to traders, settlers, soldiers, and many others, the agents for social and cultural change among the indigenous peoples of the Amazon have included Christian missionaries. The in8uence of these missionaries on indigenous cultures has historically been direct and Map 1: The Upper Rio Negro Region profound, and their corresponding impact on indigenous languages both direct and indirect. This paper focuses on the role these missionaries have played in the lives of the indigenous peoples and in the fate of their languages in the Upper Rio Negro region, as well as elsewhere in the Amazon. As argued here, missionaries have done much to promote the process of language endangerment in these areas, and relatively little to combat it.





313 PATIENCE L. EPPS

2. The Rio Negro peoples and the missionary onslaught Despite the fact that the Rio Negro peoples have been able to maintain many aspects of their native cultures and languages compared to many of Amazonia’s indigenous peoples, the story of their interaction with non-Indian people is a long and grim one. A European presence was Mrst felt in the region early in the eighteenth century, when slaving expeditions decimated the indigenous populations along parts of the Rio Negro and the Vaupés River; as many as 20,000 people are estimated to have been killed or captured from the region, particularly during the period between 1739 and 1755 (MEIRA 1994: 9). This activity was followed by a colonial period, in which settlers and merchants ruthlessly exploited local Indian labor, and then by the rubber boom of 1870-1920, when Indians were virtually enslaved to the rubber gatherers through a debt-peonage system.

While the lives and livelihoods of countless indigenous people in the region were shattered by these onslaughts, it was the missionaries that had by far the greatest impact on the way of life of those Rio Negro Indians who survived. From the beginning, the European explorers and settlers were accompanied by Catholic priests, who quickly set about evangelizing the native peoples. The priests established mission villages and forced and enticed local Indians (who were often desperate to escape the brutalities of the slave trade or the rubber boom) to settle in them—although their successes were frequently followed by sweeping epidemics that left the villages empty again. BUCHILLET (1992) describes the missions on the Vaupés River in the late nineteenth century, where the priests submitted the local Indians to strict regimentation and did their best to eradicate the religious practices of the local people. They focused particularly on the Jurupari rituals, which centered around male initiation and involved the playing of sacred trumpets that were forbidden to women and children. One priest, Father Joseph Coppi, even managed to gain possession of some of the sacred Jurupari masks and trumpets and tricked women and children into viewing these, which led to enormous social upheaval and resulted in the temporary eviction of the priests by the furious Indians.

314 Language endangerment in Amazonia: the role of missionaries

The Salesian Catholics gained control of the region in the early twentieth century, and by the 1940s and ’50s had dramatically stepped up the campaign to change Indian ways of life all over the region. Now equipped with boats with gasoline-powered engines, the priests were able to extend their sphere of in8uence to Indian communities up and down the rivers, instead of focusing just on those Indians that lived within easy reach of the missions. Only the Hupd’äh and other Nadahup peoples – who lived far back in the forest and moved frequently – were temporarily spared because of their relative inaccessibility.

One of the Salesians’ Mrst steps was to break up the traditional longhouses, or malocas, and create villages of single-family houses, complete with a chapel. Whereas some visitors to the region, such as the ethnologist Curt Nimuendajú, wrote that the longhouses were spacious, cool, and clean, neatly divided into compartments for each family, the priests had a different impression. As Father Brüzzi da Silva wrote during this period, these Indians may still live completely naked, dirty, fetid, promiscuously congregated in infected malocas, with their poor belongings confusedly scattered on the 8ea-ridden ground, including even their food… It is a standard of living that grieves our hearts, without any doubt unworthy of human beings.

Monsignor Pedro Massa summed up the general opinion of the Salesians when he noted that “the maloca is… ‘the house of the Devil’, for it is there that they hold their infernal orgies and plot the most atrocious

vengeance against the whites and other Indians” (cf. HEMMING 2003:

244).

Nimuendajú was of a different opinion, however: “The principal reason for the missionaries’ aversion to collective habitations is… that they see in them – with every reason – the symbol, the veritable bulwark of the former organization and tradition of the pagan culture that is so contrary to their plans for conversion, for spiritual and social domination” (cf. ibid.). Accordingly, the new single-family houses that the priests instructed the Indians to build effectively broke up the traditional living pattern and limited ritual life. They were also small and cramped,

315 PATIENCE L. EPPS

in order to limit the number of occupants, and their solid wattle-anddaub walls (for greater privacy) made for hot and stuffy interiors.

Together with the breakup of the malocas, the Salesians carried on the work of eradicating traditional religious ceremonies and other practices, which were considered the work of the Devil. As BUCHILLET (1992: 22) describes, they “initiated campaigns of defamation and ridicule against the activities of the local shamans, prohibited the consumption of hallucinogens, and ransacked the indigenous malocas, robbing them of decorations and ceremonial musical instruments.”3 One Tukano man in his Mfties told me the story of his father, who had possessed a wealth of knowledge of spells, rituals, and other traditional practices. The priests confronted his father time and again, the man recounted, threatening him with terrifying descriptions of the eternal Mres of Hell, which he was sure to experience if he did not renounce these practices. Intimidated, he gave them up at last, and did not pass the knowledge on to his son or to anyone else of the next generation.

Now, his son told me sadly, all that knowledge had died with him and it was gone forever. What’s more, he said, years after the old man’s death, anthropologists arrived in the region, asking “Where is your traditional knowledge? How can you have lost it? ” — “First the Whites come and tell us we must give it all up; then they come and reproach us for having let it go!” he exclaimed bitterly.

In place of the Indians’ traditional ceremonies, the Catholics introduced new rituals and requirements; the fact that these were unfamiliar and essentially meaningless to the local people meant little to them. Marriage practices were a frequent source of friction. For most Vaupés Indians, marriage simply meant setting up house with an intended spouse; there was no formal contract, and if the marriage did not work out the woman merely returned to her parents’ home. With the arrival of missionaries in the region, however, these marriages would be formalized by Catholic ceremonies during the periodic visits of the priests to the Indian villages. One rather tragic case concerned a middle-aged Tuyuca [tue] (Eastern Tukanoan) man I met on the Upper Tiquié My translation.

3 316 Language endangerment in Amazonia: the role of missionaries River. His mother, I was told, had originally married a man from a distant community, and at some point a visiting priest conducted a marriage ceremony. However, her new husband beat her and treated her badly, and she eventually left him and returned home. Later she met another man and they settled down together and had children.

However, after some time the priest from the nearby mission discovered that she had already been “married” to another man. Over the course of several years, he browbeat her continuously, threatening her and her family with all the torments of Hell for their “life in sin”. Finally, the pressure was too great; the mother left her family behind and returned home to her native village. The result: the priest was satisMed, but the children grew up without their mother.

The missionaries’ efforts to break down native ways of life and traditional cultural practices clearly had an effect on the local languages, especially via the gradual eroding of the local people’s sense of conMdence in themselves and in the ways of their parents and grandparents. Over time, many Indian people internalized the primitivecivilized dichotomy and strove to become more “civilized”, which essentially meant adopting a lifestyle more like that of non-Indians — including a knowledge of Portuguese.

In addition to these effects, the missionaries’ work had a quite direct impact on the region’s languages as well. From the beginning, the Catholic missionaries had belittled the multilingualism and linguistic diversity of the Rio Negro peoples, doubtless comparing the region to the Biblical Tower of Babel. Early priests brought in Língua Geral, a creolized version of Tupinamba [tpn] (a language of the Tupi-Guarani family and originally spoken on the east coast of Brazil). Promoted by priests and used by other non-Indians as a lingua franca, Língua Geral became widespread throughout much of the Rio Negro region and in Amazonia generally between the late 17th and mid-19th centuries.



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