«Language endangerment in Amazonia: the role of missionaries PATIENCE L. EPPS University of Virginia Viele Sprachen Amazoniens, wie auch anderswo in ...»
Later, when the Salesian Catholic missions were established in the Vaupés area in the 1920s, the missionaries continued to insist on having just one language spoken. Recognizing that they would be more successful if they promoted a language that was already familiar to many of the inhabitants, they chose Tukano for this purpose. This fos
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tered the gradual rise of Tukano to dominant status in the region, whereas previously all the River Indian languages had been perceived as essentially socially equivalent (cf. AIKHENVALD 2002a: 26).
Perhaps the greatest impact on the region’s languages was realized by means of the mission boarding schools, which River Indian children were for many years essentially forced to attend. At the schools, Portuguese was the language of instruction and interaction, and – as has been the case in so many parts of the world – this rule was maintained by force and intimidation. A middle-aged Tukano man on the Tiquié River described his experiences: if a child was caught speaking his native language, the man told me, the priests would often react by hitting him in the face, producing a bloody nose. “They would tell us over and over that we were just no-good Indians, that we were primitive and worthless,” he said. The effects of such treatment on the Indian children are easily imagined. As REID (1979: 317) expressed it, ‘Progress’ [in the eyes of the Catholic missionaries] necessarily entails the abandonment of traditional ways of life for quasi-enforced education and indoctrination of children in mission schools… Such procedures… entail acute alienation of young children not only from their culture but even from their families...
Such a separation and alienation of the younger generation from the older is directly implicated in situations of language shift all over the world (cf. NETTLE / ROMAINE 2000).
3. The experience of the Hupd’äh Among the Nadahup peoples living in the Upper Rio Negro region are the Hupd’äh [jup].4 Unlike most of the River Indians in the region, the semi-nomadic, forest-dwelling Hupd’äh were spared much of the onslaught of European invaders – including the activities of the missionaries – for many years. However, their relative immunity eventually came to an end. The Salesian Catholics had developed an interest in approaching them before the 1960s, but had had little success – largely I have worked with the Hupd’äh as a linguist since 2000.
4 318 Language endangerment in Amazonia: the role of missionaries because the Hupd’äh were simply difMcult to reach where they lived in the depths of the forest. In the early 1970s, however, faced with the threat of tentative incursions by Protestant SIL missionaries across the Colombian border and into Hupd’äh territory, the Salesians stepped up their efforts. The Hupd’äh, the priests maintained, were “ ‘melancholic’, ‘backward’, ‘primitive’, ‘hungry’, and in need of ‘rehabilitation and civilization’.” The best way to improve their condition, they felt, was “to ‘oblige’ them to live in Mxed residences and to expand their dependence on agriculture, as well as educating and evangelizing them” (REID 1979: 296).
The missionaries’ Mrst step was to entice or coerce many small local groups (of around 20-40 people) into new, settled villages of 150-300, located no more than an hour or two by foot from the river. A missionary – or later, a River Indian – was installed to act as schoolteacher and catechist, and to encourage the Hupd’äh to live according to the priests’ wishes. Handouts of food, tools, clothes, and other goods were at Mrst presented liberally to encourage them to come and stay. However, many Hupd’äh soon tired of the new arrangement, especially when the handouts began to taper off; but when they tried to leave, they were in many cases forbidden to do so, and even pursued and brought back (cf. op. cit. 306).
As one man told REID, an anthropologist working with the Hupd’äh in
[…] the priests come here and tell us to stop chewing coca and drinking beer. They tell us we shouldn’t dance and play the pan-pipes and Jurupari trumpets. This is like one man coming to our village and taking all our food away. What should we do? Without food, without music, there is no movement in the world, and the people are sad, become sick and die. (op. cit. 284).
Today – thirty years later – the effects of the Salesians’ efforts on the lives of the Hupd’äh are striking. Most Hupd’äh now live in the semisettled mission villages, where in some cases populations range from 100 to 300 people. In contrast to the relative health and good nutrition of the small nomadic hunting groups described by REID in the 1970s, many inhabitants of the larger mission villages today are chronically
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malnourished, due in large part to a depletion of game and Msh in the environs of the village, as well as to the increased parasite load. Illness is common, and the mortality rate for children has been estimated at around 35% (Herma Klandermans, p.c.). Skin problems and scabies are rampant, exacerbated by the perceived need to wear clothes despite the hot, humid environment and the scarcity of soap for washing them.
Fights are also more common, and sometimes more deadly, because the traditional way of resolving quarrels – via a group’s Mssioning and going separate ways – is impractical with a more settled lifestyle. Most villages now have a resident River Indian schoolteacher and catechist (or in some cases even a resident nun), who assumes a position of dominance within the community, and insists on the children’s attendance at school despite the fact that most of them understand little of the Tukano and Portuguese instruction. Finally, not a few aspects of Hup traditional culture have become devalued and are not being passed on to the younger generation, including the kapiwaya song and dance tradition, the preparation of ritual hallucinogens, the fabrication and use of blowguns and dart-poison for hunting, and aspects of Hup cosmology. Only a few groups still regularly practice the Jurupari ceremonies, which are nearly absent now among the River Indian peoples in the same region.
Despite these problems, there is little likelihood that the Hupd’äh will at this point abandon the mission villages. They are kept there by a variety of factors, including their fear of reprisal sorcery on the part of both the priests and the River Indians (cf. op. cit. 314); their dependence on trade goods and occasional access to medical care; their unwillingness to leave their relatives behind and to lead a more isolated life;
and Mnally – as in the case of the River Indians – their gradual identiMcation of some aspects of their traditional life, such as a lack of western clothes and schooling of some kind, as “primitive” and therefore humiliating. At present, the Hupd’äh – who to a large extent escaped the enforced schooling in mission villages – have suffered no loss of their language, which is currently learned by all Hup children. However, given the cultural changes they are undergoing, it is not unlikely that a shift to Tukano – and thence even to Portuguese – may await them within a couple of generations.
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4. Protestant missionaries Evangelization among most of the Rio Negro region’s native inhabitants has until recently been almost completely monopolized by the Catholics. Nevertheless, particularly since the 1940s, Protestant missionaries have also been a strong force in certain areas, particularly among the Baniwa Indians of the Içana River – as they have been in many other regions of Amazonia. The Protestant missionaries have tended to be even more active than the Catholics in wiping out native beliefs and practices. While the Catholics in general – particularly those present in the region today – tolerate the drinking of manioc beer, dancing, and even a certain amount of syncretism between Catholicism and local beliefs, many Protestant missionaries frown on these activities and do their best to put an end to them.
The most powerful Protestant organizations that have worked in Amazonia over the past few decades are the New Tribes Mission and SIL, both North American evangelical groups, which have fostered countless local offshoots. Endowed with vast sums of American and European money, missionaries from these groups and others have developed a tremendous infrastructure in Amazonia, as in virtually all other parts of the world, complete with their own planes, boats, and regional headquarters and support teams. This entire infrastructure is devoted to the primary objective of evangelizing indigenous peoples. The New Tribes Mission, for example, is quite explicit in its own literature about
its reason for existing, as reported by HEMMING (2003: 259):
“The New Tribes Mission is a fundamental, non-denominational-faith missionary society, composed of born-again believers, and dedicated to the evangelization of unreached tribal peoples; in their own tongue the translation of Scripture; and the planting of indigenous New Testament churches.” The Summer Institute of Linguistics, now known by its acronym SIL, is somewhat more sensitive in its approach than is the NTM – in particular, it presents its members to the public as ‘linguistic investigators’ rather than missionaries. Nevertheless, the primary goal of SIL activities, as of those of its more openly evangelical arm, the Wycliffe Bible
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Translators, is incontestably the evangelization of native peoples. According to LEWIS (1988: 106), the linguistic front put forward by the SIL and the Wycliffe Bible Translators was perceived even by some of
its own early members as duplicitous, leading the Wycliffe founder William Cameron Townsend to provide the following argument in its defense:
There is a Biblical precedent for [such subterfuge]. Namely, just as Jesus came out of Nazereth disguised very effectively as a carpenter, Wycliffe missionaries go into the Meld as linguists... Was it honest for the son of God to come down to earth and live among men without revealing who he was?
As one might expect under the circumstances, the quality of the academic linguistic contributions of SIL missionaries varies widely. While some missionaries do produce sound linguistic documentation, as well as useful orthographies and materials for native-language literacy programs, there are clearly many who do not.
The tactics used by Protestant missionaries in their efforts to save the souls of Amazonian Indians have been generally questionable — at best. The NTM in particular has been known to resort to force and intimidation. LEWIS (1988) describes a litany of events that took place in the 1970s and ’80s and in some cases were no less than atrocities, including mission-sponsored hunts for ‘wild’ Indians in the forest (usually with converted Indians as the hunters). Brought to mission camps at gunpoint, sometimes injured or killed in the process, large numbers of intended converts would die of disease and despair — but as long as their souls had been saved, many missionaries considered this to be of little importance. LEWIS (1988: 231) quotes a NTM missionary in Venezuela as saying, “they say that all’s fair in war, and for us this is a war for souls.” In many other cases, missionaries have focused on persuasion of the psychological variety. For example, CHAGNON (1967) reports a Protestant missionary terrifying the Yanomami [wca] with the prospect of Hell by showing them lifelike paintings of Yanomami-like people burning in agony in pits of Mre — apparently quite aware that the Yanomami did not differentiate between a painting and a photograph.
LEWIS (op. cit., 203) gives a Venezuelan Ye’cuana [mch] Indian’s report
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of the “psychological terror” by which the local missionaries brought
about his people’s conversion:
In particular he cited the appearance of a comet, described by the chief missionary in the area as heralding the end of the world. The missionary had gather the Ye’cuana together and given them three days, on pain of suffering a Mery extinction, to break with their wicked past.
The missionaries among the Panare [pbh] Indians, also in Venezuela, “went so far as to encourage the belief that they were in regular radio contact with God” (op. cit., 207).
Many other missionaries use gentler tactics — simply coming to live among the people and talk to them on a personal level about religion.
In fact, however, coercion is virtually never really absent, because of the missionaries’ status as supremely powerful outsiders, equipped with planes, boats, and a seemingly endless supply of material wealth.
Moreover, the indigenous peoples with whom the missionaries come to live – such as those in the Rio Negro region – have in many cases already suffered brutality, intimidation, or at least discrimination at the hands of non-Indians for generations. Many of these people have grown up with an ingrained sense of insecurity and awareness of their disempowered status — or their social structure is already compromised by disease, alcoholism, and loss of land and livelihood. Whether intimidated or desperate people are really in a position to make free and informed choices is questionable.
In many cases, the effects of the Protestant missionaries’ intervention on local culture are even more extreme than those of the Catholics. The Baniwa [bwi] of the Içana River in the Upper Rio Negro region, for example – unlike most of their Catholicized neighbors – have given up drinking manioc beer and have renounced many of their native rituals and dances. LEWIS (op. cit., 101) describes the outcome of many Protestant missionaries’ involvement as […] the banning by the missionaries of Indian ceremonies of all kinds, of Indian dances, of the playing of native instruments, of the self-treatment of Indians by their own medicinal remedies, of self-decoration in any form...
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