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TiL Worldwide

What Indigenous people can teach us

Reading time: 5 minutes

“Coronavirus could wipe out Brazil’s indigenous people”: this phrase appeared on international media and probably left many of us indifferent, as it was one among the tons of information spread during this period of Crisis. Reflecting on it, why is the disappearance of “First people” a serious harm for humanity?

The most remote places in the world seem not to be protected from the danger of the Covid-19 and the risk for populations living there can be even more serious, since this virus may act similarly to the flu during the European colonization of the Americas, harming deeply their weak immunity systems, which are not used to similar diseases and do not have the antibodies for them. In the worst scenario, the consequence of this deficiency could lead to a complete extermination of entire ethnic groups.

Nowadays, there exist hundreds of different autochthonous people who have built an imperative link with their territories. Nonetheless, they remain a minority: only 370 million (5 percent) out of the 7 billion populating our planet. Indeed, United States is for the vast majority inhabited by descendants of colonizers or migrants, while Native Americans, the half-blood included, are only 5 million out of the 328 million. In the near Mexico the situation seems to be better, since the direct successors of Aztecs and Maya represent 15 percent of the country’s inhabitants. Among all the continents, Asia is the one where most of indigenous people live: about 70%, according to IWGIA figures. We know that, of all natives in the world, a part has never had any interaction with the dominant society: studies refer about at least 100 tribes.

Despite being a small part of the whole human community, natives enrich the patrimony of our species in an extraordinary way. For instance, in the world there are 7000 languages, one seventh of which are spoken only in the island of Nuova Guinea, the most diverse place in the world, divided politically between Indonesia and Papua Nuova Guinea. Most of them are at a serious risk of extinction because they are the patrimony of little communities in isolated areas. According to National Geographic, one language disappears on average every two weeks, as the old speakers die, sometimes without transmitting their knowledge to others. Globalization represents a further threat to their ending, since some idioms are spoken more and more, i.e. English, Chinese and Spanish, and substitute the rare ones.

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One quality of these populations is wisdom, which is not directly connected to technological progress and development, contrary to what one may believe. These human beings have key knowledge, needed for the life on our planet. According to the World Bank, thanks to the inextricable connection to their territory, they safeguard 80 percent of the world’s remaining biodiversity in a quarter of the Earth’s surface. They learned how to adapt to hostile territories and difficult climates and have learnt to appreciate lifestyles very different to ours. With their centennial, if not millennial, experience, they now know how to deal with issues like climate changes and natural disasters, which put our societies in serious harm. For example, people of Andaman Islands saved themselves from the devastation of the 2004 Tsunami foresaw the disaster by the retreating waters of the sea and so decided to move to a hill to protect from it.

To praise and to admire is also their competence concerning herbs and their potential benefits for human body. Research has found that their botanical knowledge has been crucial in the invention of half of existing medicines. For example, Aspirin comes from the bark of the white willow, which was used by North American Indians to cure headaches. William Milliken, ethnobotanist at the Royal Botanical Gardens in Kew, London, said that many species of plants used by the natives have not even been classified by western scientists yet. Traditional medicine is an endangered knowledge due to their extreme poverty and the unsustainable exploitation of natural resources.

We can learn a lot from them also on gender equality, since in most of them women are treated better than in modern dominant societies. For instance, among the Chambri in Papua New Guinea it is a tradition that women maintain the family going fishing: in their society there are no weak and dominant sex. Colombian Emberá women can enjoy their topless without having men lamenting a scandal. The Awá women can go hunting like men and can have different husbands without obstacles. On the other hand, men can have roles that in modern societies are still unpopular: Bayaka fathers take care of their children for half a day and can give them a nipple to suck on if the baby is crying and the mother or another woman is not around, while Wodaabes, in Norther Nigeria, organize a men’s beauty pageant, in which they have to wear make-up, jewelry and elegant clothes to impress women.

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Not astonishingly, populations coming from sustainable environments find extremely difficult to adapt to the world how we all know it. While a research found that a group of East African Masai people are happy and satisfied about their life similarly to the 400 wealthiest Americans on the Forbes list, natives who have seen their territories taken away and have been forced to live in cities have unbearably suffered, becoming very vulnerable both physically and mentally. In Australia it was shown that Aborigines resettled in the dominant society had a life expectancy at birth 17-20 years lower than that of other Australians and have been more hit by alcoholism and depression. On the other hand, those living in their ancestral lands proved to live on average 10 years longer than them. 

Indeed, it is shameful that aborigines have always been considered as something different than human beings, treated as if they were beasts and as if they did not have the power of choice. Jared Diamond said in his book Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies that “History followed different courses for different people because of differences among peoples’ environments, not because of biological differences among peoples themselves”. This is to be remembered: even if they are very different than us, natives are human beings and must be protected and preserved.

Fortunately, in front of government’s trials to invoke their alleged backwardness in order to justify the expropriation of their land or their mistreatment, now natives have a legal reference, also at an international level. Indeed, recently the protection of their rights has been at the center of the public debate so that many organizations have started to put effort in the project of keeping them safe and at their ease. For instance, International Indian Treaty Council (IITC) safeguards the rights of Indigenous Peoples from North, Central, South America and the Pacific. Also, the United Nations issued in 2007 a Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), covering various themes, such as culture, access to employment, health, education etc.

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However, now diplomacy may not be enough. National governments are facing serious troubles to defend their citizens from the health and economic crisis, that natives could overshadow. “Although other priorities can be identified in this emergency situation, it would not be reasonable and right to lose sight of our brothers and sisters of the Original Peoples, since for many of their communities, this affects them in a particular way and constitutes another ring of pain and suffering, among many delays and forgetfulness “, was said by the Episcopal Commission for Aboriginal Pastoral Care of the Episcopal Conference of Argentina, in which there are over 40 populations, in a  message recalling the celebration of the Week of Indigenous Peoples, from 19 to 25 April.

Indeed, if we show respect and love for the others, this love will be returned. It is one of the most important precepts of the philosophy of Native Americans, bearers of an incredible wisdom, which should be taken as an example even in difficult times as the current.


Dal cartaceo di maggio 2020

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