"What You Don't Know, Won't Hurt You."

Author

There is an old saying, "What you don't know, won't hurt you." Too often, it has been proven false.

When the Brazilian National Indian Protection Service (the SPI, later changed to National Indian Foundation - FUNAI) first began to market native Brazilian art and handicrafts in the late 1960s, one might have supposed that its motives were to preserve Indians in isolation from the corrupting influences of the nation, and to persuade Brazilian and foreign travellers of the value of Indian people and their culture. The marketing of material culture kept tourists away from the Indians by bringing what the tourists wanted to airports, bus terminals, and other touristic spots. In this way, tourists and Indians would both get most of what they wanted from the other - tourists could buy trinkets to take home and Indians could use the proceeds to buy machetes, matches, sewing machines, or flashlights - without tourists bringing diseases, new values, and disrespect or disruption to the life of the native peoples. What the Indians wouldn't know about Western culture therefore couldn't hurt them(1).

INDIRECT TOURISM

What has happened, however, is another story. Even this "indirect tourism" has produced some severe long-term effects for the Indian peoples involved.

In the first place, the Indians did not exist in a state of pristine peace and harmony, from which the tourists' invasion would supposedly have wrenched them. By the late 1960s, most of Brazil's Indian peoples had already been in brutal, decimating contact with the national society for many years. The number of "pristine" tribes, naked and alone in their beauty, which tourists might have endangered, were proportionally small and in such isolated areas that it would have been highly unlikely that they would have been reached anyway. Furthermore, most isolated groups were still openly hostile to outsiders. They probably would have eliminated any tourists before such problems arose.

Rather, by the 1960s, most of the Indian peoples of Brazil had been reduced greatly in numbers through conquest and disease, and lived in areas of moderate accessibility from which they regularly emerged to sell their labor for a pittance in order to obtain manufactured goods which they deemed necessities. They were malnourished and exploited and generally laughed at rather than admired by their Brazilian neighbors. Instead of pristine splendor, they lived (and still live) in poverty and desperation, ill-health and exploitation. This is what the SPI/FUNAI would "protect;" this is what the tourists would have seen but which the SPI/FUNAI may not have wished them to see. This policy of "indirect tourism" served mostly to protect, not the Indians from the tourists nor the tourists from the Indians, but the SPI/FUNAI from a critical and informed national and international opinion which it would have proven difficult to refute. Thus, national and international voices in favor of the Indian can always be labeled uninformed, the truth must always rest with the SPI/FUNAI, and what anybody else doesn't know won't hurt them.

TOURISTS AND CULTURE CHANGE

Secondly, it could not be assumed that regulating contact between Indians and tourists would eliminate or even ameliorate the interaction of Indian and Western cultures. After all, tourists are only one source of contact with Western culture. The SPI/FUNAI agents are others. Surrounding colonists and farmers, passing truck drivers and army or air force patrols, construction workers surveying or constructing new highways and dams, reporters, TV producers and actors, visiting dignitaries, and Indian individuals who themselves seek the outside world, often for work, are all agents for the transmission of cultural patterns and values, ideas and objects. Given the fact that tourists are usually better educated, wealthier and a more articulate segment of the population, they might have been seen more as a useful vehicle for the communication of the Indian situation to the outside world than as a uniquely dangerous source of contamination to Indians. Certainly, if the SPI/FUNAI wanted to reduce the contaminating effects of the Western world upon indigenous peoples, they could have found more important sources to attack than tourists. This is not to say that the tourists should have been left to interact with the Indians at will, merely that as a category of influence, they were not the most important then, nor would they probably be the most important now (although, in Xingu National Park, they might have become a nuisance).

LOCAL RESPONSE

Lastly, most of the Indian peoples in question were not interested in producing solely for the SPI/FUNAI market. Other opportunities were open to them. Some tourists managed to find even remote reservations; other Indian areas were close to metropolitan areas or major transportation routes, making it easy for the Indians to go to the "tourists" or for the tourists to come to them, avoiding SPI/FUNAI trading regulations. Since the SPI/FUNAI demand was limited, the appearance of any additional trading possibilities could only be seen by the Indians as an extension of an already good thing: they could unload excess craftwork or objects of superior or inferior quality and obtain items which were unobtainable from the SPI/FUNAI. The SPI/FUNAI market was subject to widely seasonal variations. For these reasons, Indian peoples often circumvented the SPI/FUNAI plan and made other tourist contacts. What the SPI/FUNAI didn't know wouldn't hurt it.

Thus, in spite of government policy, cultural change and tourists have affected the Indians. Outsiders other than tourists have brought new diseases. The commercialization of Indian crafts has furthered individualization of the social ethic (benefits are shared less often, leading to growing differences in material and social position within previously egalitarian groups). Political dependence on the SPI/FUNAI has altered political organization within many Indian groups, with those who speak Portuguese best, or who best cater to the SPI/FUNAI's demands, displacing traditional leadership. Many Indian groups have been fragmented physically, their lands taken (often with the assistance of the SPI/FUNAI) and members enticed to seek employment from local farmers or in far-away cities. Indian religions have been under siege by missionaries, the Brazilian value system and the failure of traditional religions to secure redress from the many problems their members face. Even the SPI/FUNAI's standardization of arts and crafts has affected cultural development, as its ideas of what will sell conflict with the way that items have "traditionally" been made. In all of these areas, therefore, grave questions arise regarding the Brazilian Indians' cultural survival.

The SPI/FUNAI policy of "indirect tourism" certainly has not solved this problem. Once again, as with most of its policies, the Indians are not allowed to decide their own destinies, to participate in the decisions affecting their present and future well-being. The SPI/FUNAI intrudes into every aspect of Indian life from which some financial or political benefit may be wrung - first it "regulated" (i.e., received compensation for) Indian labor for outsiders and the sale of Indian resources such as timber, farm products, or energy sources; it regulates the sale of Indian artifacts and retains a high percentage of the profits. All, of course, supposedly for the benefit of the Indian people; all, by law, for their own good. After all these years (the SPI was founded in the early 1900s), after all this regulation and after all this concern for the good of the Indian, why do the Indians have less land on which to live, less food to eat, more internal conflict and disruption, more social disorganization and anomie?

The control of Indian-tourist interaction is only one piece in the total picture of control which the Brazilian government has effected over the Indians. Ultimately, the survival of Indian cultures in Brazil will depend on the degree that they can free themselves from the strangulation of this all-pervasive, alien bureaucracy, dedicated to making them into something other than what they themselves may want to be. The benefits to the Indians of controlling Indian-tourist interaction in Brazil have been relatively few. For most Indian groups, its costs have certainly outweighed them. But, again, that is typical of the Brazilian Indian story. Don't let the tourists find out; they think they are helping the Indians. But, after all, what they don't know won't hurt them.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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