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A response to Behold the Black Caiman:

Throughout Behold the Black Caiman, I kept returning to the important


distinction that indigenous peoples are not merely us in the past; they
exist in the same spatial-temporal landscape that we do (even if
interpretations may vary). I was especially struck by this thought when
reading the poem that opened chapter one, which originally appeared
in the Paraguayan newspaper Ultima Hora. The poem celebrates the
innocence and simple lessons of the Ayoreo, suggesting that they
[transport] us to another dimension. The removal of the Ayoreo from
the modernity that they inhabit is intimately tied to the fetishization of
tradition. It also allows the observer to regard them as a collection of
traditions and idiosyncrasies, rather than a dynamic, vital group of
human beings.
What I also found troubling was that the search of the abuj for certain
aspects such as violence, or specific myth based traditions can be
another way of naturalizing power structures leaving indigenous
peoples disempowered. Observers (including some anthropologists)
may justify their search by claiming (and truly believing) that they are
preserving the people of the past, as if in amber, and making a claim
for their wider preservation in the landscape of modern life. However,
their primitivization of indigenous peoples can also be used be the new
imperialism, that of corporations, as a reason to save their souls as
the missionaries did before, with refinery and mining jobs, thereby
bringing them into a present that they already inhabit. It can also be
used as an argument to displace indigenous peoples; if they are so
violent and primitive, then they are less than; how could they have
equal claim over the land resources? As certain types of knowledge
and storytelling become privileged, they have been commoditized and
parlayed into a form of performance by some of the Ayoreo. There is
some criticism of this, but I think it speaks to their ability to adapt to a
changing economy and a changing world.
I found myself very engaged by the descriptions of Ayoreo myth
intermingled with Judeo-Christian myth. The two were not separated
but existed in the same forms of storytelling. I do not know if the
missionaries initially attempted to integrate Christianity into the native
format of Ayoreo myth, but my instinct is that they did not (based on
the extreme dogmatism that permeated many mission sites and the
association of indigenous myth with the Satanic and the profane).
However, it made me think of the play The Book of Mormon, which is
humorous in its combination of science fiction, the struggles of Africa,
Mormon myth and Christian divinity. However, the missionary who was

able to blend all of these aspects into a way that made sense was the
most effective. However, the most profound moment was when the
immense grasp of metaphor and deeper philosophical meaning that
the indigenous people of Africa possessed was revealed, which the
missionaries never gave them credit for. I returned to that same idea
of the primitiveness of indigenous peoples. When the myths of
indigenous peoples are discussed, there is often an assumption that
myth is regarded as wholly literal and true; there is not an
understanding of subtlety or metaphor ascribed to the less
developed world. That seems to be the idea that some of the
anthropologists and observers were chasing. However, the ability to
integrate new deities and divinities into narrative structures
demonstrates a malleability and appreciation of moral storytelling.