My Meeting With Amazonian Indigenous Chief Alfredo

February 27, 2017

"How can there be peace without people understanding each other, and how can this be if they don't know each other?"   Lester B Pearson

                                Image: Pixabay


Nova Esperanca is a small community of the indigenous Yanomami tribes.  Located in Northern Brazil, just South of the Venezuelan border. It lies on the fringes of the Amazon rainforest.  Of the 200 some indigenous tribes in Brazil, the Yanomami are rare in that the language they speak, Yanomamo, is an isolate, unrelated to any other language in the world.  Different even from the languages of the other indigenous communities near them, such as the Wapixana (of which some members of Nova Esperanca are) or the Pemon (a community in Venezuela I had also worked with). 


Indigenous tribes all around the world are facing an evermore complex livelihood with challenges to maintain local traditions and identity while still engaging in developmental practices.  In Nova Esperanca, as community members increasingly relate to their larger more universal identities of Brazilian and "indigenous", it's important to promote what is specifically and uniquely "Wapixana" and "Yanomami." 


A common reaction is a defensive, closed-off, stance, clinging to how things are and eliminating connections to the outside world.  However, the leaders we met are aware and inspired by the diversity and beauty of all humanity and know that learning about others and expanding our own identities does not mean losing their essence.  Furthermore, they are adamant about utilizing a global world for development by connecting with other indigenous communities and learning from them. 


This intersection of identity and development is why I was there.  To lead a series of introspection workshops to examine what "identity" and "development" mean to this community and to draft a culturally inclusive community development mission statement.  I was doing this through the NGO that I founded and co-ran, Trail of Seeds.  


The chief of the village was named Alfredo, and we had been communicating with him for a couple months before we arrived.  I knew that he was intricately involved not only in Nova Esperanca, but that he had a national role within the indigenous peoples of Brazil and was keen to learn more about indigenous tribes all around the world.  I was eager to meet him.




When we arrived, we were greeted like visiting dignitaries.  We were marked with face paint in a large welcoming ceremony as children danced around us.  I had a protective necklace placed on my neck, and as the "President" of the organization, was given a small woven reed crown. Chief Alfredo and I took stereotypical handshake photos and sat at the head of the table, giving short speeches and having a small feast.  The whole process for me was aided by a teammate who acted as a one-way translator as I could mostly understand the Portuguese, but couldn't speak it.


Chief Alfredo was a short, round, smiley man.  He was, rightfully so, incredibly proud.  He knew everyone by name and everyone seemed to love him and bask in his presence.  He was like something between Santa Claus and Gandhi; a calming and reflective figure, but jolly nonetheless.  A magazine I recently saw online referred to him as "A Big Chief Sitting Bull." I was instantly a fan, feeling like he epitomized a community leader not only in his attitude towards the community, but also through his vision for making their lives better.  He accepted and relished in the fact that each and everyone in this world is becoming more diverse, that we are more connected, see more, know more, and are more.


We spent this first day touring the community, trying various food and drinks, and talking endlessly.  We quickly formed a teasing rapport and laughed more than I would have ever expected.  The conversation though was heavy, and through the challenges he explained, I saw the importance of our being there to guide these discussions.  


Chief Alfredo talked of how their lives were changing fast.  That there are huge generational divides as the children relate more and more to being Brazilian than to being indigenous.  This becomes especially true as they leave the community to go to secondary school or university.  At the same time though, the Chief accepts the necessity and importance of education.  He knows it will help the tribes lead and serve themselves.  For example, all the doctors in the area are white Brazilians from the larger cities of Rio De Janeiro and Sao Paolo.  Having so many of the people of power and importance being "others" creates an inferiority complex.  Pointing to various children he said, "she will be our first doctor!"


As he represents his tribes on regional and national indigenous councils and in various other forums, he's aware of the identity shifts this causes.  How on a political stage, to fight for indigenous rights, they feel like they must homogenize, to present themselves not as 200 very different cultures, but as one thing-  "indigenous".  The meaning of this can become even more ambiguous on the international stage where communities from Australia, the United States, South America, and others are all united under the term "indigenous." It's beneficial to have a louder voice and to learn from others, but he wants his community to feel the meaning of being "Wapixana" and "Yanomami".


He finds pride in the tribal specificities and worries that the "identity" of being indigenous is too tied to negativity and outsider status.  However, these specificities are incredibly endangered.  There are less than 8,000 Wapixana and fewer than 35,000 Yanomami.  He explained to me how he struggles with marriages between tribes, seeing it as a beautiful and diverse union, but nervous that the couple and their children may struggle to maintain aspects of each culture.


Of course, he admits, culture is dynamic and is always changing.  He gave a poetic speech comparing the changes in culture to those in nature.  Many things die and many things are born, they take different forms within different realms and must adapt overtime as situations adjust.  But just like how systems of external power are ripping away the trees of the Amazon rainforest, so are they destroying the tribes within it. Chief Alfredo wants to be at the helm of the change, to understand it and to guide it, to be able to critically think about what must be maintained and what is a positive adaptation.  For example, he says that marrying later and leaving the parent's home is an acceptable result in order to have those girls be the community's first doctors.


Facilitating this type of thought process is why I was there.  I do not know the cultural specifics and absolutely have none of the right answers, but I can ask the right questions to help Chief Alfredo and his community to reflect on what matters most to them.  I hope that I opened the door the tiniest bit for these things to continue being on their minds in actionable ways, and through the micro-grants that we later gave to promote agricultural production for community school lunches, I think that they were.


On the night of that first day in Nova Esperanca we all laid in our hammocks in the Chief's hut.  It is customary for guests to sleep in the room with the Chief, to continue the discourse of the day.   Exhausted after the long hours of my mind racing all over the place and our legs doing the same, I could hardly keep my eyes open as Chief Alfredo told us story after story and insight after insight.  At the end of each, I would respond, to show I had been respectful and listening. Quickly though, my responses became shorter and slower, and the time between me saying it and the translator passing it on longer and longer.  "Interesting" I'd say halfway to dreamland. 


In the morning the Chief told me he was very tired because we had kept him up.  Surprised, thinking he had been the one to do so, I gave a questioning look to the translator.  He then explained that it is customary for the Chief to have the last word of the night, so all of my "interestings" were equivalent to saying, "tell me more!"   Looking back now, I would stay awake for days to know more!


Until next time,

Sal Lavallo


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