CONTACTS WITH AMERINDIAN
There remains very few pure hunters/gatherers,
that is, speaking anthropologically, non-sedentary populations living
exclusively from hunting, fishing and the gathering of wild fruit and
plants growing in the forest.
For the great majority of Indians,
food is provided basically by agriculture, the remainder coming from
hunting and fishing.
American Indians cultivate small areas taken from the forest by slash
and burn method: during the dry season, a portion of the forest is cleared
then burnt, the seeded plants developing when the rainy season starts.
Why burn ?
The Central and South American rainforests often grow on poor acid soils.
Through burning, the necessary basic elements are brought to the soil.
- Manioc (manihot esculata) is particularly adapted to poor acid soils.
The poorer the soil, the more prussic acid containing cyanide is found
in the plant.
The juice of the manioc is very toxic and must be extracted before it
can be eaten. As I already mentioned above while speaking about white
soils, plant life is more difficult and they protect themselves more
Poor soils get exhausted rapidly.
A study has shown that the yield per hectare after the third year represents
only 45% of the first year's yield.
New fields thus must continuously
Populations being traditionally not dense, the impact on the rainforest
is negligible but Indians have to move their villages from place to
place often, which explains their semi-nomadic way of life.
Indian villages are usually composed
of few families. A community composed of 50 people is considered large.
However, thanks to medical aid, their population increases sharply in
certain zones. The pressure on hunting and fishing is more and more
important. Indians sometimes have to travel far by dug-out canoes in
order to find game.
They often overuse the "nivraie",
a creeper which contains chemicals that prevent fish from breathing,
forcing them to go up to the surface where they can easily be "picked".
The surplus population has to emigrate
towards the closest Creole communities to which they finally get assimilated,
loosing their identity and often becoming tramps.
The increase in population density
in the rainforest breaks the equilibrium that maintained the traditional
slash and burn cultivation method. More and more areas have to be cleared,
on larger and larger surfaces.
On the poorest soils, if the vegetation
is eliminated on a large scale, the rains soon wash away the fertile
layer and a barren base remains on which only grasses and scraggy bushes
Rain and heat facilitate the formation
of iron and aluminium oxides, giving these soils the characteristic
red colour of laterite.
Don't expect to meet populations
who have never had access to the outside world, especially during a
hike that lasts but a few days. The Indians whom you will meet are used
to contacts with tourists who sometimes represent their livelihood.
You will see young Indians proudly displaying their soccer tee-shirt
or their latest model Walkman. The adults possess motor dug-out canoes
and hunt with rifles. But apart from these small details, their way
of life has remained the same. And this is what counts for the preservation
of their culture.
Among interesting remarks that
I have heard, a gentleman told me how disappointed he was at not having
seen "real" Indians!!! Does a true Frenchman always wear a
beret and an Englishman a bowler hat?
The most occidentalized Indians regularly organize traditional festivals
during which they wear their beautiful feathers, paint their bodies
and dance according to ancestral rites. Foreigners are usually not invited,
but sometimes you can be lucky.
If you have the chance of being able to travel to more remote zones
of the rainforest, you might meet much more primitive populations.
Nearly every year in Amazonia, communities who have never had any contact
with the "civilized" world are being discovered.
They are extremely vulnerable and, as far as I am concerned, they should
be systematically protected and their access be either severely limited
Even with American Indians
used to contacts with tourists, there are rules of good behaviour to be followed
First of all, according to my thinking,
nothing is worse than condescendence ("oh, the poor things!").
Some people have the tendency to confuse happiness with material riches.
If Indians usually possess hardly anything, nothing allows us to state that
they are not happy. Life is good in the forest, food is abundant, freedom
is extraordinary, and stress is unknown. Indians are indeed materially poor,
but they are certainly less miserable than the people who live in shantytowns
or other "favellas" of the large sprawling cities.
I was once with a group in a Ye'Kwana
village of South Venezuela when we chanced upon a French missionary
who had been living with Indians for the past 37 years.
When a lady asked him: "Father, what do you feel when you return
He answered with a smile: "Madame, the word civilization is a plural,
not a singular word".
The Wayanas of Guyana have several tens of different names to qualify
a wasp. I personally know a Ye'Kwana chief of Venezuela who is capable
of identifying in his language more than 350 tree and plant species.
A botanist friend who worked at length with him was full of wonder.
That too is culture
The more primitive, structured
and hierarchical the civilization, the more it imposes on its members
strict rules of behaviour. Even though Indians are very conscious that
these rules do not apply to foreigners, it is advisable to avoid behaviour
that could put them ill at ease or shock them :
American Indians are usually calm, silent and rather introverted. They
can perceive a loud or exuberant behaviour as an invasion.
They hate to have to take decisions hurriedly or abruptly. The decision
taking process is for them slow and involves wide consultations. If
someone tells you "no", don't keep on insisting.
You can commit a blunder unknowingly. For example, in certain tribes,
to ask to speak directly to the chief or have a conversation with the
sorcerer can be against protocol, especially for a woman.
excentricities and familiar behaviour, and don't bathe half or completely
naked in front of them (furthermore, the eventual presence of the candiru
is a good excuse not to do so!). The American Indians are extremely
modest. Don't ask questions about their intimate lives.
put them in situations where they can loose face, even as a joke. That
is not how you will gain friends
Taking pictures is a delicate question:
you always have to ask permission to the villagers, even if you don't
photograph people directly. If they refuse, don't take pictures behind
(I seem to give obvious advice, but my experience
has shown me that it is not so obvious, unfortunately!). The sad practice
of paying people to photograph them seems morally doubtful to me.
Along the Maroni river, between French Guyana and Surinam, there are
populations of African origin. They are what is called "marrons",
that is descendants of former slaves who escaped from plantations of
what used to be Dutch Guyana at the beginning of the 19th century. They
have kept many ancestral characteristics. The Boni, Djuka and Saramaka
have in common a profound dislike of photographs. They even put up signs
to tell tourists not to take any. Be careful, they are built like Hercules!
I once saw a transgressor receiving a good thrashing
When you arrive in an Amerindian
community, you might be offered the "cachiri", a weak beverage
made of fermented manioc or other ground root. It looks yellowish, lumpy
and not very appetizing. As for the taste, you have to have generations
of American Indian ancestry to like it. Furthermore, in certain tribes
(not all happily), women spit in the preparation to speed fermentation.
However, it is rude to refuse. You can ask however to be served only
a small quantity of it. Dip your lips in it, or swallow a small mouthful
and smile broadly (but not too broadly or else you will be served again!).
If they offer you to share their meal
(a rare thing) don't expect an unforgettable gastronomical experience. Indians
only like nearly burnt meat and will not hesitate to boil together a fish
and some game. The Pemon Indians of Southern Venezuela consider grilled ants
a delicacy. These ants are the large winged stud Atta species, the leaf-cutting
ant. As a matter of fact, it is not bad, leaving a peanut aftertaste.
BE CAREFUL OF THE ALCOHOL THAT
YOU BRING INTO THE VILLAGES! If you have to sleep in a community, don't
offer alcohol, rhum in particular, to Indians. The sweetest Amerindian
becomes hard to bear and often violent under alcohol (they are not the
). Don't drink ostensibly and don't leave the bottles
conspicuously. This is also true in Creole villages.
Giving presents is another delicate subject.
I have seen people arriving with bags full of old clothes and distributing
them to Indians.
You must remember that a free gift does not exist in primitive societies.
It always must be accompanied by a gift in return, there has to be a counterpart
or else there is no equilibrium in the transaction. Don't think that Indians
will be grateful or have some regard towards you if you act that way: they
often consider that your gift is what you owe them as a consequence of some
virtual obligation you might have towards them.
Once I wanted to please a dug-out canoe driver who had worked well and I offered
him my forehead lamp. He was furious.
He wanted the lamp AND the fishing equipment!
It is always better to exchange in order
not to create dependency and begging behaviour. There are always interesting
things to exchange in villages: crafts, bows, blow-pipes, etc. But always
choose things they like, not remains
Indians in general love things
like knives, lamps and everything pertaining to fishing and hunting. The great
majority of Amerindians use money to buy fuel, cartridges, etc
A good way to help them is to buy their crafts if they sell some. You can
of course bring candy for the children but choose some without paper wrapping
or else you will find all the wrappings scattered throughout the village!
Don't expect the impossible from
contacts with Indians. Some agencies use "meeting others"
as a marketing device
It is rather naïve if not foolish when applied to Amerindians.
They are fascinating but secret
and introverted and will certainly not talk about their lives to a tourist
spending two hours in their village.
It takes years for them to accept
The missionary whom I mentioned
above told me that when he arrived with other members of his congregation,
they settled outside the village and studied Indians for 5 years before
starting their mission
It seems to me that we have passed
from the excesses of civilizing and evangelising missions to the excesses
of humanitarian missions!
Culture loss phenomena must be
analysed in the middle and long term
For example, you will have the impression that you are doing a good
deed by bringing medicine to Indians.
But you must realize that the result of the accumulation of this type
of action leads Indians to abandon and finally forget their traditional
medicine, which is often very efficient.
It is much easier for them to ask for a drug at the dispensary than
to pass long hours in the forest looking for a certain root, for example
if the dispensary disappears, they will be unable to cure themselves.
It is possible to bring help on the short term but to destroy in the
long run, I suppose that it is a moral problem which each one of us
must solve according to one's conscience.
Personally, I always take great
pleasure being with Amerindians. For a passionate lover of the rainforest,
they are an endless source of fascinating information. I have true friends
But if I have the choice, I prefer not to stay overnight in villages.
I think that it is always better to camp in the forest, a little aside.
The nightly concert of barking dogs is followed at dawn by that of roosters
and other domestic animals.
Their conception of hygiene is often quite different from ours, that
is the least one can say. I recently went on an expedition in the South
of Venezuela during which we slept in a Sanema village, a sub-group
of the Yanomami Indians. As in most tribes, there is a communal central
hut where visitors are welcomed, it is also used for festivals and other
tribal meetings. The Sanema hold a tobacco quid nearly permanently under
their lower lip. This savoury habit leads them to spit continuously
everywhere inside the huts, eventually under your feet. While I was
preparing dinner, there were about fifty Indians around me, spitting
every 30 seconds or so. I must say that it somewhat cut our appetite
Furthermore, Sanemas very often suffer from tuberculosis.
Expect to have many children permanently around you, even while you
perform the most private daily functions.
Finally, I have always been personally embarrassed by all the unpacking
of equipment and food in front of people who possess nearly nothing
In communities that regularly welcome
tourists, the Indians, who are conscious of these small annoyances,
often build aside a special hut for foreign visitors.