Here is something I wrote for some friends of mine who wanted to know my thoughts about the challenge of westerners interacting with an indigenous culture they value when that culture may be changed or destroyed by that interaction. I just let my thoughts flow out onto the page. In rereading it I think I might sound pretentious, and awkward at times, but I really just want to share it as it came out.
Western society is in a car speeding towards a cliff. We are sitting in the back seat playing and fighting over our toys. When the car goes off the edge no amount of saying we are sorry, or trying to fix the situation, will make any difference. And we will take much of what is beautiful and precious about the world with us.
We in the west have all the technology and information we need to head toward a beautiful future for this planet, not just for us but for the rest of life as well. We lack the heart to do so. The indigenous people of Peru, and probably many other indigenous cultures, have the heart.
Every culture is build upon a set of assumptions about the nature of reality, these assumptions make it possible for the culture to excel at some things and make it hard for the culture to excel at other things. The assumptions of western culture make it easy for us to excel at technology and these same assumptions make it difficult for us directly experience our connection with the rest of nature and the Cosmos. The assumptions of the Andean culture, the ‘Andean Cosmovision’, deeply nourish their sense of connection with nature and the Cosmos. The nature of these assumptions, however, make it unlikely that they would have ever invented the internal combustion engine. What we need as a species to head toward a future of greater beauty, rather than toward one of greater environmental destruction and misery, is to integrate these two world views. It is likely that this could not have been done earlier in our history, for it is only recently that the two cultures have interacted in a way that could have made this integration possible.
Western culture is like a tsunami, sweeping up the slopes of the Andes. On the positive side it is putting westerners into contact with the keepers of the Andean Cosmovision, westerners who value what the Andeans have and who have the technology to spread it across the globe. The tsunami, however, is also destructive, and is today–like it always has–destroying the culture it is sweeping over. Mining interests and evangelical Christians are flowing into previously isolated villages in the high Andes. The mining interests are promising the people that strip mining won’t hurt their environment, and then getting them drunk and then getting them to sign away the mineral rights to their land. The evangelical Christians are telling the people that their ancient ways are evil, and the Christians surround the Andeans as they perform their sacred rites, playing loud music to disrupt the ancient ceremonies. But it is not just these two forces that are destroying the old ways, the destruction would occur without them. The lure of the material western culture is very strong.
I have walked with Andean people to extremely remote areas in the mountains to participate in their sacred rituals. As we walk the young men have asked me about my shoes and how much they cost, they ask me about my watch and how much it costs. They sigh deeply when I tell them.
We, the whole planet, desperately need what these people have. My first reaction was a desire to build a wall around their culture to keep the west out, and that is so unfair. It is saying to them ‘what you have is so precious, we need it so badly and you will miss it desperately if you lose it, so please keep living without all of the material benefits of western society, I’ll go back to my house with its central heating and refrigerator and medicine and internet, and then I’ll come visit you’.
A village in the Andes that I know did not until fairly recently have electricity. Now it does, and now for the first time, the villagers need money like they never have before to pay the electric bill. It is changing their lives and their society at a fundamental level.
Here is what I think we need:
1) A program to help the Andean people gain the benefits of moving into a more materialistic-rich lifestyle without leaving their Cosmovision behind. I don’t think this will happen on its own. It is going to have to be created, invented. At the least it will have to have at its core the assumption that their Cosmovision is absolutely precious and fundamental, and the assumption that they have every right to the material benefits of the west. By this I don’t mean just giving them money in exchange for keeping their Cosmovision, I mean helping them be participants in the western world while maintaining their unique way. I sincerely dabbled in this for a while and then withdrew as it was beyond the scope of what I had the time and energy and wisdom to accomplish.
2) A movement to incorporate the Andean Cosmovision into western culture. This is where I, and many other people, step in. I have spent 20 years learning the Andean Cosmovision, endeavoring to incorporate it into my life, and sharing it with other people in my culture. This too is a creative act. The Andean people can teach us the Cosmovision but they can’t help us figure out how to integrate it into western culture, that is up to us. It is a great challenge but one that is worthy of the gift of being alive.
I don’t know if these two endeavors, one from Peru heading towards the west and one from the west heading towards Peru, will meet in the middle. Perhaps instead we will end up with the Peruvian people being a third of the way toward the west and us being a third of the way toward Peru. As I understand it from the anthropologist Gregory Bateson the most generative evolution happens when you have separate colonies each undergoing their own evolution, that then occasionally interact to share their genes. So the best approach might be to have two separate processes going on that share information with each other without dissolving the differences between them.
Just like the glaciers are disappearing from the Andes, the culture I first met 20 years ago is changing rapidly as well. I really don’t know if we can ‘save’ them, and by saving I mean option 1 above where we help them move into western culture without losing their Cosmovision. When I first started on this path I was told that for the first time in history the paqos (mystics/shamans) of the Andes were opening up their Cosmovision to share it with the west. I believe this is because for the first time westerners were approaching them to learn from them rather than to belittle them. I was told that the paqos were willing to do this because they knew our species is entering a pachacuti, a time of great transformation and time of great peril where if we don’t get our act together we will face dire consequences, and that the paqos were opening up to the west because the Andean Cosmovision had an important piece of the solution. Not the whole solution, just a piece. I was also told that the paqos knew that by opening up to us that they may be dooming their own culture. It is just a story, there are many stories, some made up from whole cloth by westerners and some come directly from the heart of the Andean people.
The words of my friend Oscar arise in my thoughts. ‘Perhaps it is too late, perhaps we won’t be able to help the Andean people keep their Cosmovision. If that happens then our task will be to pick up their torch and carry it forward.’ Either way, the path ahead is clear for those who wish to walk it.