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 k / o
                                       politics + culture

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

the Nukak-Maku

I post a link to this story by Juan Forero in the NYT without intention of making too much comment on the author or paper's point of view or presentation. You can read it, look at the pictures, and figure out what you think for yourself.

My point in bringing this article to your attention is this: stories like this get more and more rare. The world's indigenous peoples and the ecosystems they live in are daily encroached by...well...us...directly and indirectly. At the same time, stories like that of a group of Nukak-Maku who "decided to leave" (ie. were driven from) their land and way of life have a kind of sad predictability. It's not easy to imagine a satisfactory outcome to the journey these 80 people undertook.

I don't think it's possible to judge, from the position of the comforts of a Western lifestyle, whether it would be preferable to be a hunter/gatherer in the rainforest or, making the choice that these Nukak-Maku have, to live a semi-dependent life with access to a very few modern amenities. Simply put, it seems any statement from distance would presume too much. We can't know.

I do know that we in the West have invested, since Jean-Jaques Rousseau, what we call a "primitive" lifestyle with a kind of romantic, if not philosophical nobility. For our own reasons, we are deeply invested in that image and fail to realize how much that image is a by-product of the needs of our own civilization more than anything else. This romantic vision of "primitive culture"...with both negative and positive aspects...tells us more about ourselves than the people we look out at. And, if we start from this world view, it does seem a "natural" thought to wish that the Nukak-Maku might never have been driven from their land, that they might live undisturbed by "us" into the foreseeable future...to seek neat and reassuring boundaries.

Of course, it's not that simple. Nothing is.

I had the privelege of briefly meeting a group of Baka people who had come to San Francisco to perform with Alonzo King's Lines ballet. From the stories told me by the friend who introduced me to them and who had collaborated with them for the previous two weeks it was clear that a sudden immersion into the modern world was...just no easy thing. Something as simple as a door handle could pose an insurmountable obstacle. A mechanical object as complex as a cheap bicycle could be the occasion of immense novelty and joy. But the most basic experience the Baka seemed to have was one of dislocation. Nothing was easy, except, it seemed, vices. Cigarettes, alcohol, a Western diet full of processed foods...were just as appealling to the Baka as they are to many of us. The group was certainly, from a health perspective, not better off at all in the modern world...at least in their initial visit.

One thing, however, that my friend had told me proved true. The Baka dance troupe would break into song at the drop of a hat...seemingly spontaneously. It seemed that singing was their way of coping and "hanging together." They sang both because they clearly enjoyed it...but also for other reasons that I could only guess. It made me think of how rarely, if ever, you hear anyone sing in our society. And it filled me with a kind of wonder at how dislocated we have become from something that seems so basic and pure: communal song.

Which brings me to my final point.

While my own wonderment and surprise at the singing of the Baka falls directly into the tradition of Rousseauian thinking I mention above: it also, however, highlights my own dislocation from traditions that could hardly be called "primitive" or "indigenous." Like the Baka, my grandparents sang. I know my parents sang in the house when I was a child. In truth, before we became surrounded by machines that sang for us...most all the world sang at different points in the day...together. We have become removed from something that is much closer to us than any "state of nature" in a rainforest.

In fact, we here in "modern civilization" are dislocated not so much from an idealized Eden as we are removed from our various inherited cultures, traditions and histories, from the reality of our ecosystems and, in many ways, from our own bodies which we ply with sugars, medications and stimulants as if its going out of style. In sum we are dislocated from ourselves. That may well be why we invest so much "nobility" into a romantic world we feel we've lost; it's easier to wonder about the Nukak-Maku's world than to examine the fruits of our own.

In this sense, the story of the Nukak-Maku is a mirror. The same choice that, from the comforts of a Western lifestyle, I said was impossible to make for the Nukak-Maku...is one that we ignore in our daily lives, just grossly inverted.

Simply put, our unchecked overconsumption of resources is ruining the world for our children and our grandchildren. (Inconvenient, but true.) Most of us think nothing of getting in our cars and driving, buying a new home appliance and tossing the last one to the curb, purchasing the latest piece of new computer technology, shopping at supermarkets filled to the brim with packaging and the products of non-sustainable agriculture..the list goes on. We have to do these things...just like this group of Nukak Maku used to have to walk long distances and hunt all day. How could we or they do otherwise?

Our Western way of life, however, isn't just destroying the world for the Nukak-Maku, we're destroying the world for everyone, and, frankly, we're so busy doing so that we don't have time to give it much of a second thought.

In this sense, our dislocation is profound...and our sense of "distance" from the Baka or the Nukak-Maku reeks of our own inability to look squarely at ourselves.

If we did, we'd see that we are all in this together. Our situation is more like the Nukak-Maku's than we might think.


  • Last Sunday in church, I found myself thinking: "I do this so I can sing with people." I'm sure I do it for other reasons as well, but the singing with, which I had as a child, is importantly life enhancing for me.

    This is one of those irrefutible posts, k/o.

    By Blogger janinsanfran, at 9:27 AM  

  • k/o I have always been curious and compelled to hear my friends' singing voices, even if they are not singers. I think it must be some human animal instinct. I feel as thought I don't know someone truly unless I hear them sing. I recently had the occasion in a car to sing together (to the iPod) with a longtime friend for the first time -- we made lovely 60s-era harmony -- he did not have a particularly distinctive voice, but it felt like a more companionable and joyful communication than even talking or touching might be. Modern civilization has lost something valuable by not singing together.

    By Blogger girlinthelockerroom, at 9:54 AM  

  • Fascinating post. Reinforces how self-involved and truly ignorant of the world and its' mosiac of cultures we truly are. Thank you for this.

    By Anonymous Intrepid Liberal Journal, at 11:13 AM  

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