Friday, September 18, 2009

What about the Culture?

I am re posting this to answer several comments and emails I have recently received which have referred to us as 'genocidal missionaries'.

These three young people are the children of the Christian pastor in the village. Christianity has not made them any less Ye'kwana.

To gain access into the tribal area, each mission must fulfill many requirements. The first of which is to be INVITED to live there by the tribe and the village. To think that anyone could just walk into a village and be allowed to live there by the indians is very naive. If you are not asked by them, they will remove you. Themselves. Indians are not helpless children in need of anyone to 'protect' them.

I find many people that seem to think WE are some how required to protect the indian from any outside contact. In this day and age, this is already a non- issue in most parts of the world, as contact is nearly universal. I find this attitude to be very arrogant. The indian is a person like anyone else, and with education, is just as capable to determine their own future. Neither is it true that their culture is something so fragile that they will discard it when made aware of another culture.

Recently a Venezuelan Army General learned this from the chief in our village. The military arrived and began to announce their plan to place Cuban doctors in our house. The village did not want this. The General said that the village would no longer need to depend upon the foreign missionary for help.

Yekwanaman with the Chief

The chief, Bertico, responded by saying that Cubans were also foreign. They did not want Cubans living among them. The tribes do not like for single men to move in, as it almost always creates a problem, as they begin to seduce and impregnate their girls.

The General began to make accusations against us. This was done by showing a folder with pictures of our family, even our children as he accused us of atrocities, such as rape, starvation, slavery.The chief, a non- Christian, became very irate! He expressed the same opinion to the General that I have put forth here . Indians are not likely to permit someone to come in and live among them and FORCE them to do anything, and certainly not to abuse them. He actually told the General , " If anyone came in here and did those things to us...well, we are indians, we would just kill them!! So be careful!"

At that point the military decided to leave and has yet to return to the village.

This photo was taken by another missionary in the 60's. This is the chief, Bertico, as a young man. He still weaves baskets and continues to teach the young men the art.

I am often told by academics and government representatives that the culture must remain untouched and that any exposure to something from outside will destroy it. I have a hard time believing this.

Consider the case of the modern day Jew. Although spread around the world, although having had to survive several bouts of genocide, the Jewish culture survives. The Hebrew language was even revived. The Jewish people have certainly been exposed to other cultures and have even taken an active part in many different cultures but has yet managed to retain their ethnic identity, their culture, as well as their religion.

I also point to the fact that tribal cultures co-exist living next door to one another, in some cases for centuries, and yet each tribe manages to keep their ethnicity and language differences. The Ye'kwanas share the same territory with the Sanema ( Yanomamo). Each culture is distinct. Each language is completely different. They interact and have for centuries, but each culture remains, to this day, distinct from one another.

The cultures differ in the most basic human areas. Their spiritual beliefs, their marriage rituals and burials are very different. The Ye'kwana bury their dead, the Yanomamo burn their dead. The tribes do not even inter marry.

A culture that has a strong moral fiber will survive. A culture that does not have this foundation, will not survive. And, frankly, should not survive. Consider the culture of the ancient Aztecs? Should a culture that practices human sacrifices be allowed to continue to do so? Will that lead to a better world? Would you like to live in that culture? The Aztec culture was intent on conquest, slavery, and brutality! I am not saying they were not admirable in many other ways, but it is not a model society nor one in which you or I would enjoy living .

Let us consider the situation of the American Indian of today. The most important factor necessary to maintain a cultural identity is the language. That is the primary factor that will determine if the culture will continue after assimilation by what is referred to as the host culture. The criollo, Latin, culture of Venezuela is the host culture to many tribal cultures. What group of people through out the world is most dedicated to alphabetizing, translating and printing tribal languages?

The missionary! We set out to learn the language, create a written alphabet of the language, but that is not enough. Of what value is a written language if no one knows how to read it? And what is the motivation for the indian to work and learn how to read, if there is nothing available in their language to read?

Anyone who has taught a child to read knows what hard work it is. Imagine teaching a child to read, and then the child have nothing available in print to read. It would be difficult to motivate the child to bother to learn! More so with the adult indian! They have a lot to do without learning to read for no apparent reason.

The missionary, of course, wants the indian to read for himself. Why? So that he can read the Word of God for himself. And with that knowledge, be exposed to the Laws of God, such as the 10 Commandments, which will only strengthen any culture if it is put into practice.

With the new found knowledge and ability to read and write, the culture can then flourish to a new level. Poetry, music and even science can become available to all. The Indian now has the tool needed to chronicle his own history. This will protect the tribe from falsehoods another culture may choose to purport about them.

Missionaries have written for the Ye'kwana of Venezuela, in their own language, The History of Venezuela, several hygiene pamphlets, a Literacy Primer as well as the New Testament and parts of the Old Testament. We have personally printed and distributed various teaching aids to be used in the area of general education and religious education. We have provided teaching aids and a complete phonics program for literacy classes as well as having trained individuals to implement the program.

Literacy is a powerful tool that should not be denied anyone. An indian that learns how to read is able to progress and progression is not evil. You and I enjoy our modern life. We enjoy the many things that our ancestors were able to learn and teach us. We then build upon that knowledge each and everyday and we all hope to leave the world a better place for our children and grand children.

Who are we to deny the same opportunity to the Indian?

These three Ye'kwana students were taught by missionary Florinda Eddings. The first is now a village head man, the second is a teacher, and the third has been trained as a nurse to work in the village dispensary.

This is the 6th grade graduating class of 2005.
These are the grand children of the men pictured above.

UPDATE! The children are wearing school uniforms provided by the Venezuelan government.( Ministry of Education)
This had nothing to do with the missionaries. The daily clothing of choice would be a T-shirt and shorts as they are much more durable than their loin cloths. The loin cloths are not easily made and are difficult to keep clean. Some tribes, such as the Sanoma , do not wear much clothing, it is a personal choice. The Ye'kwana have always been a people desirous of progress. Also note, there is a 50 year time gap between the two photos.
Do you or your children wear what your grand father wore?


Debbie said...

I am a new follower of you blog, which I enjoy reading very much. I am sorry that someone has chosen to criticize your motives; but as Christians and missionaries, I know you are prepared for this. I so enjoyed reading this post as it was very educational. You made many good and logical points. I believe the biggest critics will be those who have the least amount of experience and vision for what God wants for His people. May God continue to bless your good works among the Indians. My great, great grandmother was a Cherokee Indian. I am so glad I do not have to live as she did.

Ryan said...

Jungle Mom, Have you been giving the natives smallpox blankets again?

Really the idea that peaceful missionaries are committing genocide is preposterous.

Kristen Torres-Toro said...

Wow, Jungle Mom. I had no idea that you were being accused of such things that weren't true. I love how you pointed out that you and your family are there because the Indians want you there, and that if they didn't, they'd remove you. That speaks powerfully to the relationship you have with them, because they obviously do not feel threatened in any way.

Thanks for what you do! And thanks for sharing your life with us!

Lynda said...

I, too, am a new follower of your blog. I have really enjoyed the variety you post. Thanks for the great pictures and updates in today's article. This was like reading one of my favorite biographies and seeing God's Hand at work over the years. Praise God that you let Him use your family to do HIS work today!

The Wallace Family said...

Great post! I enjoy reading your blog. It is very educational! Thanks for sharing!

Kathy said...

I'm so happy to read this post and so sorry you have had criticism. I can only think that they must be jealous because how can they possibly be serious?! I wonder if those people who say those things walk everywhere or ride a horse instead of drive a car??? What's the difference? Anyway, I'm looking forward to meeting those Indians in Heaven and I'm sure they wish you were back there with them!

Betty W said...

Very very good post!! So many truths there and I hope the right people read it!

Brooke said...

I remember the first time you posted this. It is just as good now as it was then.

Any person that suggests the missionaries are conquering the indians in this day and age is unfathomably ignorant.

Findalis said...

You give the case for education and literacy a very powerful voice.

One of the reasons so-called "experts" want to keep "native peoples" illiterate and primative (to use their expression) is for extra funding for research grants.

Exposing native people to literacy only betters their lives. They retain the parts of their culture that they find the best, adopt parts of cultures they find compatible with their own. Thus they grow as a society.

L'Shana Tova to you and your family. May you be inscribed in the Book of Life.

Amy said...

I would like to think you're posting with good intentions, but you appear to be woefully ignorant on a number of matters. Without wanting to debate on proselytizing (although how would you feel if groups of another religion entered your country to tame the savages, perhaps teach these poor morally corrupt souls the word of Allah?), I would like to call you out on your statements about the Aztecs used to support your flawed arguments.

You consider them to be a culture without a strong moral fiber, which reveals your lack of knowledge in this area. Human sacrifices were indeed used, you view this as a barbaric and bloodthirsty practice. To you, it is. The Aztecs viewed it as a cultural necessity to show respect to their gods and ensure that they would continue to provide the necessities for life – rain, sunshine and so on. Some of the finest warriors were used as offerings, as it was an honour. To them, it was a religious ceremony and the highest form of praise.

Let’s look at the so-called moral fiber of the Spanish invaders: what gave them the right to decimate the native populations by introducing foreign diseases and killing them en masse with disproportionately complex technology? Using native people as slaves or as forced labour? Incidentally, this was done in the name of the same Christianity you are preaching now; but clearly you sleep better at night by ignoring your religion’s role in violent conquests, slavery, and brutality.

So lets sum up: the Aztecs killed people to appease their invisible sky friends. The Spanish killed people to appease their invisible sky friend. Who has the moral high ground?

The fact is, projecting your own morality onto them doesn’t make the Aztecs wrong. It isn’t a valid argument to judge one culture by the morals of another (no doubt the Aztecs would consider you derelict in your duty to continue the survival of your tribe), although this happens all the time.

You might not have enjoyed living as an Aztec, changes are they wouldn’t have enjoyed living as you or I do now… so we’re at a deadlock? Only these days there are no Aztecs around to even proselytize, so nobody is trying to make you live as they did or believe what they believed.

Rita Loca said...

Dear Amy,
Since I live in a country with freedom of religion, I suppose I would have no problem with other religions being taught!And indeed, Islam is proselytizing in the US quite openly and growing rapidly across the world.

You can pretend to think you would enjoy living in an Aztec culture but I have lived in a culture that gang raped girls on their first menses, to prepare them for the rigors of the life of a married woman and to run off all her evil disobedient spirits. I can assure you not one of them enjoyed it.

It is one things to read and romanticize such things. It is another to see the mutilated body of a 10 year old child who has experienced it. Some things are indeed wrong and evil and it matters not the ethnicity or cultural teachings to decided if it is or is not wrong. Religious purposes or not.

The Aztecs also killed their enemies and so they were not all volunteers as you try to imply.
As to the morality of the Spanish invaders, I never defended them. Neither am I a follower of their same religion as you assume. Much abuse was inflicted and their religion at times was forced upon the natives. This would make it no conversion at all, as true faith is a personal choice and not one that can be forced upon anyone.

Everyone has the right to hear and make that choice for themselves. You certainly do not have the right to decide whether a group of people may or may not take advantage of teachings and progress in order to make an informed decision of their own.

I do thank you for at least attempting to rebuke me without resulting to use profanity as so many choose to do. But I must say that you are making claims and statements based on things you have read and really have no first hand knowledge of which you speak.
Or, have you seen twins abandoned to be eaten by ants in the jungle? Have you seen girls literally torn apart by two villages trying to claim her? Have you seen husbands beat their wives with machetes? Have you been given to visiting males to have sex with you as often as they wish, wherever they wish? Have you been denied food for not working hard enough for your husband or father?
Do you really mean to tell me that woman today have no rights? That the fact that I, and you, happened to have been born in one place allows me, and you, to have more human rights than another female who was born in a tribe?
If you truly feel this way, my dear, please feel free go there and live as one of them.

Erik said...

To Amy,

It is true. The Conquistadors were brutal men who used Christianity as a "cause" for their acts. They had far more in common with the Jihadists of extremist Islam than they do with Rita and her family.

Rita, Clint and the kids lived among the Yekwana. They cared for their sick, birthed their children, and mourned their dead. The Yekwana were as much their neighbors as the people who live in your neighborhood are your neighbors.

And while the Conquistadors would have used violence and war to meet the Aztecs' own violence and war, Rita and the Vernoys met everything they faced in Venezuela with peace and hope.

Yes, there are terrible people who exploit "primitives" in the name of religion and ideology. No, those people are NOT followers of Christ. The Vernoys loved the Yekwana - first and foremost - and leaving the jungle was heart-wrenching because they left their friends and loved ones.

Amy said...

Firstly, I also want to thank you for publishing my comment, despite the fact that much of what I said is objectionable to you. I also disagree with many of your points, but as it is not my blog, that’s neither here nor there. However I do appreciate that we can engage in a debate without resorting to profanities, which is not only obnoxious, it does nothing to further either side’s arguments.

I also commend you for supporting the freedom of religion. Whilst I personally also believe in freedom from religion, I can in no way fault you for being a hypocrite if as you say, you have no problem with other religions being taught. I am curious to know if you taught your community about Islam, Sikhism, Hinduism and the many other possible paths to a deity, or even about atheism… but perhaps that would be difficult to reconcile with the religion you are proselytising. (Apologies as well if I mistakenly implied you belong to the same denomination of Christianity as the Iberians, my intention was to show that it falls somewhere under that same umbrella, as opposed to an entirely different religion).

Moving back to our friends the Aztecs, I made no claim that I would enjoy living in their culture. I believe in many of the same universal human rights which you probably also believe in. I am way too influenced by my modern Western moral framework, part of which, for example, draws on scientific knowledge of the environment and not rain gods, so personally I feel no need for society to sacrifice prisoners of war or warriors to ensure the water cycle continues. Nor did I say anywhere that women have no rights… I don’t quite know where you got that from. Are you referring to Aztec, Spanish or 21st century women?

All I am trying to say, and what you still appear to be missing, is that in many cases, when two entirely different moral frameworks clash, both sides usually do what, to them, is a moral necessity. Not all people within either side share every detail within that belief system (as in the sad cases of the abandoned twins or the raped girls you mention). It is likely that some Aztecs didn’t want to be sacrificed, but equally likely that many did and saw it as an honour. There is much anthropological evidence and research to back this up.

You assume the Aztecs had the same moral framework as you. They don’t, otherwise they wouldn’t have practiced human sacrifice. As such, it’s difficult to say an empire with no knowledge or understanding or European Catholic morals was doing something evil. This is not ‘romanticising’ either culture, but recognising the invalidity of judging one culture by the moral code of another. The Aztecs’ sacrifices fulfilled their moral code, although clearly it violated that of the Spanish invaders. But to condemn the Aztecs as barbaric shows a lack of higher understanding and ethnocentric bias.

Erik – I agree that fundamentalism and extremism are highly distasteful (there goes -my- modern Western belief system rearing its head again!) and it is not my intent to compare them to Rita and her family.

Unknown said...

The fact is, no matter WHAT culture you are in, there are things that are absolutely right, and some that are absolutely wrong. It is written on our human hearts, even if it is not written in our laws.

Rita Loca said...

You said,"This is not ‘romanticising’ either culture, but recognising the invalidity of judging one culture by the moral code of another."
I completely disagree with you. It is illogical and in
fact impossible for two opposing ideas to be equally correct.

You also said,"But to condemn the Aztecs as barbaric shows a lack of higher understanding and ethnocentric bias."
Which in effect shows that you, with your assumed 'higher understanding' are judging me, and trying to proselytize me to act and believe according to you own belief system. This is in direct violation to what you proclaim to preach.

I beleive in freedom of religion, anyone may believe as they choose, that does not mean I will teach other religions. I will teach what I believe, I will teach the people to read and provide a way for them to learn so that they may educate themselves and not be dependent upon the necessity of another person telling them what is and is not true.

I brought up women's rights, human rights, because, you can not have it both ways. Either their belief system is flawed and allows for abuse of the weak, and needs to be changed or it is flawless and must be left intact. The Catholic church learned this and no longer practices the same behavior.

Any belief system may be abused by its followers and must be judged by it's teachings and not the incorrect interpretations of those teachings. But according to your philosophy, you and I have no more right to judge the poor misguided Spaniards than we do the Aztecs. Did you not say it was invalid to judge one culture by the moral code of another?

This would make you a hypocrite, would it not? Not only are you judging me and my beliefs, you are also judging the medieval ignorant Spaniard, and indeed all religion while proclaiming your own moral code and belief system to be superior to us all.

Anonymous said...

Cultural relativism is a crock of sh*t (pardon my French). There is one ultimate arbiter that decides which moral code is better than another... and that is the degree to which it's followers are able to survive, adapt, spread and for the majority of its' adherents to majority prosper.

And let's face it, the reason why many indigenous cultures fail to pass this fundamental natural test is that their culture is only suitable if lived in geographical isolation (hostile to neighbors) or if peaceful, under certain protected environmental and resource conditions. And if these cultures wish to preserve what is best in them and survive, they's best learn the ways of their neighbors, hence tribes like the Yekwana will accept as missionaries those whose ways are most amenable and beneficial to their survival and successful adaptation (not Cuban soldiers, FARC militants, drug growers, or representatives of the Venezuelan government... but rather Christian missionaries that do not use force in anything and help them develop the means of preserving their own language and what's best from their culture in the writing skills learned from them).

And I want to clear up a misconception here about the Aztecs and Spanish. The so-called slavery system the Spanish implemented (encomienda) was a hold-over from Aztec and Inca practices, as growing seasons were rather limited and resulting in a surplus of labor available to perform public projects. In other words, the so-called enslavement by the Spanish of the indigenous populations was largely a Spanish adaptation of an existing cultural system. I'd like to point out that it was the morals of the church that lead to the encomienda system's abolition in the 1700's, as the Christian Dominican influence in the Americas expanded.

Anonymous said...

As Heraclitus one said, "you can't step into the same river twice." All cultures are constantly changing, adapting and morphing into something new. That process never stops. To lament the demise of indigenous cultures is only something that a civilization tired of it's own inherent natural success and resulting the homogenuity of values could object to...

So please, Amy, go commit cultural suicide someplace else.

dee street said...

Not being in your faith i can't understand the need for missionaries but neither can i understand some of the comments doubting your intent. there always has to be a balance for a culture to truly be strong. war or peace too much of either and the culture changes for a generation. religion is meant to enrich and be helpful to it's families, communities, and cities. there are plenty of good and bad examples through out history to keep both side arguing but my point is why. it's not what you did but what you do.
i personally find it very arrogant that anyone would assume what GOD wants us to do or say in his/her behalf. if you are doing good not just for yourself but impacting a whole community in a good way then who are we to say anything not having ever been there.
don't let others determine your path.... Dee

Rita Loca said...

Dee, thank you for your comment. I merely think the indians have the right to an education in order to learn and make their own informed choices.