Indian Givers

Among the books and periodicals I have hoarded here at home are quite a few old issues of National Geographic: I’ve been a subscriber since the early 80’s, and don’t throw them away. I’ll often pull out an old copy in an idle moment, and yesterday I was looking at one from December 1988. The theme was Our Endangered Earth, and one of the stories was about the Urueu-Wau-Wau, an isolated tribe from the western Brazilian rain forest.

They live the customary “Noble Savage” existence: naked in the jungle, they hunt and gather food, are experts on the local flora and fauna, and are inclined to kill strangers. Their corner of the forest is an area called Rondônia, and it is rich in resources: rubber, ore, and plants of medicinal value. These assets, once they became known to outsiders, attracted prospectors of various sorts — some of whom were killed, but more have come. The government restricts access to the area, but realizes that wider contact is inevitable, and has set up “attraction” stations in the bush to offer gifts in an attempt to convince the natives that no harm is intended, and to disincline them to kill outsiders on sight.

The author makes no secret of his admiration for the Urueu-Wau-Wau. It is a paternalistic affection, however, and I very much doubt that he or any of the rest of us would like to join their dwindling band, however noble it may seem as an anthropological curiosity. He quotes a local agent, who says, describing the gift-giving (which was, of course, gratefully appreciated by the natives, who had no steel tools, and wanted them): “I felt suadade, heartache; each time Indians come for presents or medicines, a little of their freedom slips away.”

This is an interesting remark. The forest people live in a tightly constrained world: a few square miles of steaming jungle in one of the remotest corners of the globe. They know their forest well, but they do not know that the species to which they belong has billions of members, has learned the true story of the Earth’s origins, and has sent its exploratory craft to the outermost reaches of the solar system. They cannot read or write; they know nothing of mathematics, metallurgy, masonry, or modern medicine (there is a photograph of a young boy extracting a tooth from his naked sister’s mouth as she writhes in pain in the dirt). Were they to learn about these things, they might still make an informed choice to reject them (although aboriginal societies never do, as the products of the modern world are simply too useful), but is it right to imagine that exposing them to these facts — facts of which nearly everyone else on Earth is in possession — diminishes their freedom?

Imagine, if we may borrow the notion from Plato, someone who has lived his life in a cave, with no idea that there is a tunnel nearby that leads to the surface. He may be well adjusted to his subterreanean existence — he knows where the fish are, etc., and how to catch them — and he may even be fairly content with his lot. But, in his ignorance, it is certainly the case that he is not in any meaningful sense free to leave the cave, whereas as soon as he learns of the tunnel his range of options increases dramatically. Do we preserve the “freedom” of isolated, fossilized Stone Age cultures by willfully perpetuating their ignorance?

Daniel Dennett, in considering whether the state might have any duty to protect children from being indoctrinated with extremist religious views, takes up this point in his book Breaking the Spell: Religion As A Natural Phenomenon [pp. 324-5]:

The resolution of these dilemmas is not (yet) obvious, to say the least. Compare it with the closely related issue of what we, on the outside, should do about the Sentinalese and the Jarawas and the other peoples who still live a stone-age existence on the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, far out in the Indian Ocean. These people have managed to keep even the most intrepid explorers and traders at bay for centuries by their ferocious bow-and-arrow defense of their island territories, so little is known about them, and for some time now the government of India, of which the islands form a distant part, has prohibited all contact with them. Now that they have been drawn to the world’s attention in the wake of the great tsunami of December 2004, it is hard to imagine that this isolation can be maintained, but even if it could be, should it be? Who has the right to decide the matter? Certainly not the anthropologists, although they have worked hard to protect these people from contact — even with themselves — for decades. Who are they to “protect” these human beings? The anthropologists do not own them as if they were laboratory specimens carefully gathered and shielded from contamination, and the idea that these islands should be treated as a human zoo is offensive — even when we consider the even more offensive alternative of opening the doors to missionaries of all faiths, who would no doubt eagerly rush in to save their souls.

It is tempting, but illusory, to think that they have solved the ethical problem for us, by their adult decison to drive away outsiders without asking if they are protectors, exploiters, investigators, or soul-savers. They clearly want to be left alone, so we should leave them alone! There are two problems with this convenient proposal: Their decision is so manifestly ill informed that if we let it trump all other considerations are we not as culpable as somebody who lets a person drink a poisoned cocktail “of his own free will” without deigning to warn him? And in any case, although the adults may have reached the age of consent, are their children not being victimized by the ignorance of their parents? We would never permit a neighbor’s child to be kept so deluded, so shouldn’t we cross the ocean and step in to rescue these children, however painful the shock?

Do you feel a slight adrenaline surge at this moment?

This question bring two powerful motives into collision: the desire of any civilized society to prevent harm to children, and the instinctive feeling that the sanctity of the parent-child relationship should be inviolate. “Harm” can take many forms, however. Forcing a child to live her life in near-total ignorance of the very existence of the civilized world can reasonably be thought of as a form of abuse, however well-intentioned. What about ignorance of the facts of human origins?

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  1. bob koepp says

    “…each time Indians come for presents or medicines, a little of their freedom slips away.” Yes, their freedom to work twice as hard to accomplish simple tasks, and their freedom to die from easily treatable diseases. Freedom is about self-determination, not self-sufficiency — BIG DIFFERENCE.

    As for indoctrination, I think it usually doesn’t rise to the level of child abuse. The “abusers” would have to be willfully negligent — and that usually won’t stick if they actually believe the “doctrine” they promulgate. We might eventually get to a point where we can say that no reasonable person would believe such things. But we’re still a long way from that point.

    Posted June 18, 2007 at 12:21 pm | Permalink
  2. Malcolm says

    Hi Bob,

    I certainly agree with your first paragraph.

    I’m not at all sure that I understand what you mean that the abusers would have to be “willfully negligent” or that such an accusation “won’t stick” if the parents actually believe the doctrine they promulgate. What about, say, a pair of Christian Scientist parents who, in their pious confidence that God will get the job done, refuse to provide necessary medical treatment for an ailing child?

    Why should sincere belief in a pernicious doctrine ameliorate the abuse? The harm done to the child is the same either way.

    Obviously there are degrees: brainwashing a child to deny the facts of human origins, and to reject rational inquiry in favor of mental enslavement to Iron Age mythology, while a horrible thing to do, is arguably a lesser offense than depriving her of medical care. But the principle is the same.

    Posted June 18, 2007 at 12:45 pm | Permalink
  3. bob koepp says

    Hi Malcolm – My point in the second paragraph concerned the difficulty of establishing the “culpability” of parents who indoctrinate their children with false beliefs. The parents might well harm their children — but if the parents themselves don’t know better, and can’t be faulted for their ignorance, calling the indoctrination ‘abuse’ is unwarranted.

    Posted June 18, 2007 at 1:52 pm | Permalink
  4. Malcolm says

    Hi Bob,

    Oh, I see what you mean, I think: yes, “abuse” does often imply a positive intent to do harm, I suppose (though it can also simply connote a reckless indifference).

    But sure, we can pick a less pejorative term, if you like, although if society ever gets to the point where indoctrinating children with mythological, factually incorrect mumbo-jumbo is explicitly proscribed (and Heaven knows that isn’t in the cards anytime soon), by that point the parents who do so will be acting in full knowledge that they are breaking the law.

    Posted June 18, 2007 at 3:12 pm | Permalink