Strategies For Survival: The Psychology of Cultural Resilience in Ethnic MinoritiesNov 15th, 1992 | By phoward | Category: 4-3: Indian Research, Media Reviews
by Peter Elsass, translated by Fran Hopenwasser
New York University Press, 1992.
Review by Phyllis Howard
The Psychology of Survival
Can a society survive and remain healthy even when threatened with extinction? For the Arhuaco Indians of Columbia, the answer is yes. Even hundreds of years after European colonization, they remain in control of their community and culture.
But for the Motilon Indians of nearby Venezuela, the answer may be no. The Catholic church and oil companies have seriously, perhaps permanently, weakened their authority and culture.
Wondering what allows one culture to survive while others succumb, Peter Elsass, a psychologist from Denmark, spent close to fifteen years studying five distinct societies in South America, including the Arhuaco and Motilon. He also visited the now infamous Jonestown colony just eleven days before that group self destructed through mass suicide.
Survival, Elsass reports, is dependent on external forces, such as geographic location, the amount of colonization in the area, and the presence of illnesses that result from outside contact. But he also argues that successful societies foster a “psychology of survival.” They have a system of values that reinforce, against outside pressure, the importance of independence, empowerment, and cultural continuity.
The Motilon Indians of Venezuela illustrate how white civilization can gain a foothold in both the physical and psychological boundaries of an indigenous society. For them, long held cultural values remain. Even after several hundred years of colonization, the Motilon are still viewed as a counterculture and live as a negation of western society. They take pride in not obeying commands from white outsiders and retain a different concept of time.
But they are not immune from outside forces. Today the Catholic church, through its mission and school, is disturbing the community’s governing structure and weakening its cultural identity. The presence of drilling by oil companies exposes them further.
Children, especially, are victims. They attend the mission school, but only for four years and leave with no skills with which they can support themselves. If they move to other communities they end up in ghetto districts. But they also face hostility within their own village from adults who view their education with suspicion and believe they are no longer Indian.
Elsass sees this process as a form of cultural genocide by the church, one that has no logical motive other than to control the local labor force.
The Motilon hang in the balance. But the Arhuaco Indians of Columbia offer evidence that local control can be regained. While they, too, face outside pressures, this society made a crucial decision that has allowed them to keep control of their community and cultural identity.
Elsass states that the missionaries who broke down the Motilon culture tried to do the same to the Arhuaco. They built Catholic missions and started schools. Children in these schools were forbidden to talk their own language and were expected to dress like westerners and wear their hair short. All instruction was in Spanish.
But the Arhuaco leaders decided to throw out the missionaries. Wanting an educational system that supported and preserved their own society and its values, they organized a strike and forced out the Catholic educators.
This action started a new movement for self-determination throughout their society. The Arhuaco now manage their own education system that employs Indian teachers. Students frequently continue their education in larger cities, but return as dentists, nurses, mechanics and lawyers. Indian entrepreneurship also emerged and shop owners formed a tradesmen group to assist each other. All of this is supported by a highly organized, hierarchical system of government.
Through these actions, which were based on a principle of local control, the Arhuaco have created institutions that reflect and reinforce the necessary psychology of survival.
Elsass also looks at a Columbian village where the indigenous population has lost nearly all of its identity and retains no local authority. It is, he says, a community on the edge of collapse. He also describes the Maroon, descendants of slaves in Surinam who have survived as an ethnic minority and even gained political representation. Finally, he describes the Jonestown colony as an example of a society living in total isolation where member regressed to an earlier psychological stage of development.
Each community has its unique story of loss or survival. But can other cultures learn from these experiences? Can a psychology of survival be taught?
The experiences of indigenous cultures in North America suggest that it can. The stories told by Elsass parallels the early assimilation and annihilation policies of the American government, a struggle that still continues in less obvious ways. But after near destruction, these groups are rebuilding their cultures, establishing, like the Arhuaco, their own educational institutions, and reinforcing the value of a strong cultural identity. These connections make the book worthwhile reading.
But Elsass also stresses what many North American communities and tribal colleges also know to be true: that a culture cannot exist in complete isolation. While it must have its own cultural context for nourishment, it will eventually become incestuous and cultureless if it only feeds on itself. Culture lies in communication, where the partner in dialogue is the larger society. Knowledge is power, and if the smaller community gives away too much of its knowledge, it loses power. But if it gives away too little, it become incestuous.
As the Maroons say, “There are a few songs that if you sing them, you will die; and yet people will have to sing them.”
Phyllis Howard, director of the Navajo Community College Foundation in Tsaile, Arizona, is book review editor for the Tribal College journal.