“Some of these stories are closer to my own life than others are, but not one of them is as close as people seem to think.” Alice Murno, from the intro to Moons of Jupiter

"Talent hits a target no one else can hit; genius hits a target no one else can see." Arthur Schopenhauer

“Why does everything you know, and everything you’ve learned, confirm you in what you believed before? Whereas in my case, what I grew up with, and what I thought I believed, is chipped away a little and a little, a fragment then a piece and then a piece more. With every month that passes, the corners are knocked off the certainties of this world: and the next world too. Show me where it says, in the Bible, ‘Purgatory.’ Show me where it says ‘relics, monks, nuns.’ Show me where it says ‘Pope.’” –Thomas Cromwell imagines asking Thomas More—Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

My favorite posts to get started: The Self-Righteousness Instinct, Sabbath Says, Encounters, Inc., and What Makes "Wolf Hall" so Great?.

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Confessions of Murder: He Borara Chapter 3.3

(5,902 words. Or Start from the beginning.)

        What I was least prepared for, Lac confides to his field journal, was the lack of privacy. I’m reluctant to use a value-laden term like pushy, but no other word so accurately denotes the characteristic of the Yanomamö that’s most salient to an outsider, at least an outsider from a more technologically advanced society—or from a more mannered society, to use another value-laden term. The men were already easy enough to hear, shouting, making these long, drawn-out howling noises beginning high on the scale and swinging downward, before they even knew Clemens and I were approaching their village again. “Oooooohwwwhhhhoooo,” one would bellow, with another one or two men picking up at various points along the way. But with all the excitement attending our arrival, they became almost deafening.

Lac had sat down outside the hut and begun writing as much to distract the men crowding around him as it was to preserve his earliest impressions, erecting what he hoped would be a shield of purposeful activity to ward off their demands for his trade goods. Sure enough, when he put pen to paper and started scratching some invisible grooves into the humidity-softened sheet, the men went silent, gazing intently at the strange, useless implement. Lac had to shake the pen and turn to some pages nearer the middle of the notebook, kept fresh by the surrounding sheets, before he could get any lines to appear, a feat which brought an immediate end to the hush, as the men cheered, jostled each other, pointed, and clicked their tongues in approval—or in what sounded like approval. 
  
            The women, for the most part, Lac proceeds writing, continue to maintain their distance, though a few of the bolder ones have come close enough to touch my arms and my hair. (My arm and leg hair startles and fascinates them, as their own bodies are nearly hairless.) The men crowd around me, feeling no compunctions about grabbing me or pulling at my clothes. I recall looking at old maps of Venezuela with the region south of the Orinoco labeled “Yababuji.” It seems this is something the Yanomamö say when they want an object in your possession. As Clemens and I carried the plastic totes holding all my supplies from his dugout canoe to the hut, the men would point at just about every tool or container and say, “Yababuji”—or something that sounds like it anyway. Whoever made those early maps must’ve had a sense of humor, turning a demand into a pronouncement of group identity, and a group identity into a place name. Yababuji: Gimme. I’ve marooned myself in the Land of Gimme. 

            Lac looks up to scan the crowd of gawping mystified Indians watching him make chains of tiny inscrutable drawings in his stack of gleaming white rectangular leaves. Hadn’t they ever seen Clemens writing? he briefly wonders before turning back to his journaling. I was worried at first, he writes, that the Yanomamö would be angry at my refusals to hand over my supplies, and that their anger might escalate into violence. When I shared this concern with Clemens, he said, “You have to stand your ground or they’ll clean you out in a day.” Nonetheless, you apparently do have to worry about being labeled stingy, which is why Clemens encouraged me to give some of my madohe (trade goods) to the village headman, a man named Baohikowa. I gave him a machete and a metal cooking pot. He seemed pleased, though in a stoic, understated way. Baohikowa (Clemens’s spelling) exudes an obvious air of quiet authority. The others can demand madohe all they want; I’m under no obligation. Indeed, they seem to accept my refusals after a few stern repetitions—at least until they see something else they want.

            Lac comes to the end of the line he’s writing and feels a sense of completion. As soon as he closes the notebook, he’ll finish sorting his supplies inside Clemens’s mud-and-thatch hut and begin interacting with the Yanomamö, hoping to light on a viable method for learning their language. Along with this thought, however, comes an upwelling of dread, like a bubble of thick tar rising in the back of his throat. His plan to ward off the men surrounding him by affecting deep immersion in the task of writing has succeeded, to a degree, bringing him the closest thing he’s felt to the relief of seclusion since waking up in the Malarialogìa hut across the river this morning. So, despite not having anything more in mind to write, he finds himself moving on to the next line in his notebook.

            They refer to me as a nabah, which I’ll probably transcribe phonetically as nabä—foreigner. Aside from the men of the Malarialogìa, and the Ye’kwana Indians from the north, the Yanomamö never encounter nabäs, though I’m not sure what they call their fellow tribesmen from distant villages. Clemens was the first white man they had ever seen, and many of the people here, he told me, are in fact visiting from a village several days walk southeast of here, so they’d never seen even him. Being the center of such a disturbance is really making it sink in for me how difficult it will be to observe this culture operating in all its dynamic and vital dimensions—what with me being the foreign element responsible for the disruption. And it’s not just the Yanomamö who are distracted; this is only the first day of my fieldwork (though really all I’m doing today falls into the category of logistics) and already my nerves are frazzled.

            He almost writes, I feel like my sanity is hanging by a thread, a very thin one, moment to moment. But he thinks better of it.

            I wrote of the headman Baohikowa, Lac writes instead, about how he projects authority by mere dint of his presence. Even as I wrote that line, though, I wondered if I’d be able to pick Baohikowa from a crowd of these other men. Over the coming days and weeks, as I endeavor to learn the language, I’ll be hoping to catch glimpses of them working these gardens I see on the edge of the forest, embarking on journeys into the jungle to hunt game, communing with their spirits. But before I can even learn their names—assuming I figure out a way to get them to divulge each other’s names—I’ll need to work out how to separate each individual from the mass of naked bodies. They all have the same thick raven-black hair cut in the same pudding-bowl style (cut with what?). All of their lower lips protrude, pushed out by the rolls of green tobacco. Some of them have bands around their upper arms, or belts made of some type of fabric, but mostly all they’re wearing is strings, one around their waists to which they tie the foreskin of their penises, and a couple to support some sort of tube hanging low on their backs. Why they tie their penises to their belts or waist strings I can’t begin to imagine. Maybe it’s simply to keep them from flopping around if they have to run. Or maybe it’s how they keep their penises sheathed within their foreskins—a nod to propriety?

            Meanwhile, the reek and the filth everywhere I turn has me constantly on the verge of succumbing to nausea. Nearly every one of the men crowding around me, jostling me, poking and prodding me—nearly all of them have some sort of sores or lesions on their skin. As I discovered yesterday when I first arrived with Clemens, the Yanomamö approach to hygiene is quite minimal, in the neighborhood of nonexistent. I was unsettled by my own stench after three and half days on the Orinoco; that’s nothing compared to being surrounded by dozens of men who’ve never seen a bar of soap. I estimate there to be between 100 and 150 people living in this village, which it turns out is comprised of two circular enclosures (shabonos), with another one tucked into the jungle beyond the one Clemens and I entered yesterday after following the trail from the river. It seems all these people simply take turns ducking out of the shabono to empty their bowels—and with the looming threat of attacks from neighboring villages they aren’t wont to wander too far beyond the wall. Thankfully, Clemens warned me to watch where I step while I walk back and forth between the hut and the shabono, or between the hut and the river. But the odor of fruity shit pervades the moist air, hovering like a heavy curtain hung at nose height, along with all the other noisome smells.   

            As Lac writes, a fat globule of sweat glints through his eyes’ periphery before smacking dully onto the page, smearing the script and quickly taking on its own inky tinge. A man crouching beside where he sits atop a sectioned log utters an untranscribable word as he leans over the page to examine the miniscule puddle. Lac sits up straight to see what the man will do. Extending his finger, the Indian cautiously reaches toward the notebook, pausing to meet Lac’s eye. Lac gives him what’s intended to be an encouraging nod. Sure enough, the man reaches down and dabs the drop of sweat with his finger. He then lifts it up for closer examination. Lac swipes a hand over his forehead, saying, “Sweat.” Then he takes the pen and scribbles a few swirls, saying, “Ink.”  With surprising nonchalance, the man repeats, “Ink.” He then dabs his own forearm with his wetted finger, looks at the light smudge with an expression of disappointment, and finally turns to look at the pen in Lac’s hand.

“Yababuji,” he says, pointing.

“No,” Lac replies. “I’m sorry but I’m using it.”

A brief clamor ensues.

Sighing, Lac lowers his head and writes, I’m trying to figure out if I’ve ever in my life felt as forlorn as I did watching Clemens make his way along the path back to the Orinoco River. I’m completely stranded here, awaiting his next visit in two weeks—give or take. I’ve decided I need to buy a dugout canoe of my own, since I’d rather avoid having to rely on Chuck, who has his own projects to attend to. Maybe the priest I spoke to at Platanal will let me use his shortwave radio to talk to Laura in Caracas; I imagine they’d have a radio at IVIC as well. She and I discussed her bringing the kids to join me in a couple of weeks, after I’ve had a chance to build our own hut and establish safe access to all our basic necessities. How clueless I was! If they were anywhere near this place now, my first order of business would be to get them the hell out. But I’d give anything to hear her voice, and I anticipate that the fulfillment of this particular need will be a critical ingredient of my emotional sustenance over the coming months. 

  Lost in thought now, Lac sits upright, touching the end of his pen to his lower lip. First, it’s the men who are struck by the gesture’s obscenity—ripples of laughter radiate outward through the half circle they form around him—and then it’s the children, who hold up their index fingers to mock him. He finds himself smiling. It really is a funny thing to do, looking off sightlessly into the distance, holding your writing implement to your mouth, as if silently filling it with the words you have yet to formulate.

Prior to Clemens’s departure, Lac futilely scratches on the dampened page before turning over several sheets to find a fresher one to begin again—and at this rate, he wonders, how long before I exhaust my supply of field journals? Until watching Clemens make his way along the trail back to the river, back to the canoe, and back to Tama Tama, which may as well be on another planet for all the ease I’d have of reaching it from here—until then the most desolated I’d ever felt was on the day I moved to campus. Not Sault St. Marie; that was only a couple of hours from home, and it represented a coming to fruition of family expectations. No, moving to Ann Arbor, to the University of Michigan, that was the rough one.

Lac halts in his writing. That was also when he found out that not only had Bess—his lone confidante and co-conspirator, his closest companion and most trusted sidekick, with whom, among all of his siblings, he shared by far the greatest intimacy, his beloved Bess—not only had she been present and participated in the nighttime raid with the wet socks; she’d been the one who’d improvised a solution to the problem posed by his unbound legs.

He has a desperate urge to stand up from the log and wander away from the gathering of filthy obtrusive Indians. Motoring up the Orinoco, he’d felt as though an anchor were attached to his neck, its drag pulling at him with greater weight the farther he traveled away from civilization, away from Laura and the kids. An anchor bound to his neck by a noose, he remembers thinking. Standing in the hut, watching the beige of Chuck’s shirt vanish into the undergrowth, surrounded by reeking naked bodies—men and children—with whom he had practically no chance of communicating in any significant way—beyond watching and demanding and mocking—standing there, he’d felt that invisible anchor swing dramatically downward, until it depended along his spine, vacillating like a clock’s pendulum beneath his feet, still tightening about his neck, but now weighing him down, making him feel that at any moment he could surrender and sink into the earth.

That first week in the dorm at U of M, Lac had realized that, while before the incident of the wet socks he had been closer to his sister Bess than to perhaps any other person in the world, it was only afterward that she began to encourage his flights of fancy in real earnest. He can’t quite recapture what he went through that day, after they’d moved all of his belongings from the truck into the dorm room. What he remembers is that it was all that time later and Bess still had tears in her eyes when she told him she knew how much he’d been hurt by his siblings’ betrayal. He couldn’t help wanting to explain why he’d felt it was such a great injustice, why the helplessness of knowing he could never get through to any of them that he hadn’t meant, in any literal sense, any of what he wrote was worse than the helplessness of being held immobile for the duration of the beating. Over the years, he’d rehearsed in his mind a multitude of ways he could explain it to them, but he’d never actually said any of it to anyone.

“Connor read to us what you wrote,” Bess said as she sat on the edge of his bed, the lone piece of furniture in the tiny room. “It’s so long ago now, but I remember feeling like it wasn’t really about any of us—it was more of a story, like fiction, but sort of involving us, or versions of us. But as Connor went on reading, David got more and more angry. They talked about how you thought you were better than the rest of us, smarter, destined for some kind of fame. I really don’t even know why I started getting angry too. It was almost like I had to if everybody else was, like I knew what I’d thought at first, but I was just a kid who didn’t understand anything. If Connor and David—and then Aileen and Shawna, and then all of them—if they were all mad, then maybe I should be too. And suddenly I was. You were on your way to bigger and better things and we were stuck in Port goddamned Austin forever.”

Lac, back in that cramped dorm room, didn’t feel the sting of betrayal in the present tense; instead, he looked back at the dreamy kid he was all those years back and knew how devastated he would have been by the revelation. His hurt was more like sympathy, sympathy for that lost little kid.

“You know, some of the stuff you wrote was just wild,” Bess picked up again after pausing long enough to calm herself. “About how you thought there were wizards or shamans living in those houses along Vine Street. And how they’d take you under their wing someday and start teaching you how to travel to other worlds. God, you were imaginative.”

“I was fourteen.”

“I never wrote anything like that when I was fourteen. Or fifteen. Or Sixteen. Connor and David never wrote anything like that. And I think that’s what really got to them—it was kind of what got to me. For all the ghosts and shadow warriors and secret missions and journeys of exploration to otherworldly spheres, what you said about us being stuck in Port Austin was true. I don’t know about the others, but I barely ever even thought about the world outside of Michigan back then.”

“We were just kids. I was off in La-La Land all the time, and you were busy doing normal kid stuff.”

“But until then I hadn’t realized just how normal I was.”

“Part of that was your age; you were old enough to start becoming aware of the wider world. You would’ve been more conscious of where you stood in relation to other people—how small a role you played in the grand scheme.”

“That’s true. But I guess my point is that everyone was angry, and I felt bad. So I thought maybe you deserved having us all angry at you. Maybe I should be angry too. And so I was.”

By the time he and Bess were having this conversation, Lac was already beginning to doubt his faith. Over the coming school year, he would go on to lose it altogether. The only one in his family who would know about these doubts, the only one he trusted to understand what he was going through, the only one he could talk to about it without fear of judgment was Bess. Amid the sympathy and resentment he was harboring on behalf of that teenage boy he once was, he still had an urge to justify what Bess had done as the preteen girl she had once been. Still, when she left, as he stood watching her pull away in their father’s truck through the dorm room window, he was bereft. He felt that same heavy downward pull of despair. Bess hadn’t truly ever turned against him; she’d simply made a bad decision. Yet he couldn’t help sensing that the us-against-the-world bond he shared with her had been avulsed. As thrilling as it had been squaring off against everyone and everything with Bess at his side, without her, he sunk beneath the weight of such profound loneliness that all the sturdiness went out of his limbs. He collapsed onto the bed and considered leaving U of M at the earliest opportunity, wandering off to—to where? Where could he possibly go to escape this?

Today, he couldn’t even say how long that feeling had lasted; all he knows is that the sight of Bess driving away as he stood by the window, Bess who was no longer the same Bess she’d been just an hour earlier, no longer his comrade at arms, no longer his partner in crime, that scene had forever seared itself into his mind. But what he experienced watching Clemens vanish into the jungle, on his way back to the dugout canoe, on his way back up the river to the mission outpost he himself had next to no chance of reaching by foot—that feeling was quite possibly worse. And he has yet to even begin recovering from it.

Having stood up without deciding it was time, Lac scans his surroundings for a flat surface on which he can continue writing. The men are gradually dispersing, opening the way for the kids to take up the task of harassing him. This changing of the guard comes as a relief; at least with the kids he understands that the game is about annoying the nabä—not about inventorying his possessions and deciding whether procuring them would be worth incurring the wrath of his kinfolk and provoking whatever retaliatory spells the whites may cast if they killed him. At least the children (nearly all boys) are coming to him in a spirit of play, a youthful innocence no one could mistake the adult men for being endowed with. At least the kids, though they point and say “Yababuji” just as frequently as the men, say it with smiles on their faces. This could very well be something they remember for the rest of their lives, he thinks, the day the nabä Shackley came to live among them. But though I may be the first white man these kids have seen, I certainly won’t be the last.

When Lac finally gives up his search for something flat to brace his notebook on and decides to sit on the mostly even ground beside Clemens’s hut, a couple of the kids following him utter what sounds like the same sentence or phrase. He considers trying to write it down, assuming it means something like “sitting down on the ground,” but then he realizes he hasn’t really caught enough of the utterance to bother. Hunching over his folded legs—Indian-style, he thinks, laughing silently to himself—he writes: 7 o’clock and several hours into my sojourn, and the men are finally starting to habituate to my presence. Or maybe they’re just losing interest. I still count six adult males milling about, keeping a weather eye on me (and my madohe), but the only Yanomamö currently trying to engage with me are young boys. Outwardly, these boys enact the same behaviors as the men, but it seems like for them demanding things of me is a joke instead of a deadly earnest quest to acquire my belongings. I’m getting the impression that as I try to learn basic elements of the lifestyle and language, the children are going to be of far more help than the adults. Whereas the men get frustrated by my lack of comprehension and, assuming I must be hard of hearing, keep increasing the vehemence of their demands, shouting the same meaningless words they spoke to me a moment before but at higher volume, the kids seem to intuit that I’m not recognizing the words they’re using. Or maybe it’s that I do a better job of nonverbally communicating to them that I hear but don’t understand—seeing as how I find them so much less imposing.

When Darwin first formulated the theory of natural selection, he right away saw through to the most disquieting of its ramifications; he was supplanting the long-established religious answer to the question of our origins with a far more prosaic explanation. Accounting for his years of balking at the prospect of going public with his revolutionary idea—until he was finally spurred to write Origin of Species by the threat of being scooped by Alfred Russel Wallace—he compared it to confessing to a murder. Indeed, Darwin himself went through the rest of his life as an agnostic, though his wife Emma remained devout.

When Lac decided, after a year at U of M, to switch his major to anthropology, he soon began to feel a similar sense of having traversed some boundary into a realm of dangerous and forbidden knowledge. And he had a similar sense that his transgression hadn’t been strictly voluntary. But there was Bess, through it all, the only one who reassured him that no matter how far astray he traveled in his intellectual pursuits, he was always welcome home. The only one who gave him the benefit of the doubt and didn’t assume that any unfamiliar belief he espoused rendered him unworthy of the designation of decent human being.

“What would I have been, like twelve?” Bess asked that day in his dorm. “You were the second-born, the rebel, always the defiant one, always going your own way, making it hard on yourself, like you just had to be different. Connor meanwhile acted like we were this tight-knit band of soldiers, with him of course the self-appointed captain. At the time, teasing you and playing for the home team was mostly a game for me—I think for most of us. I didn’t see then that in marshalling his forces like that, Connor wasn’t serving us; he was serving himself. He probably wouldn’t have bothered with any of the go-team nonsense if he wasn’t the leader. I swear, Lachlan, when I rolled up that sheet and tied it around your legs”—this was the instant Lac learned that Bess had been responsible, though she seemed to believe he already knew—“I thought we were still playing around, that it was just a game, like a prank. I bet even Connor was shocked by how out-of-hand it got. And it wasn’t hatred or anger even at that point. Yeah, we were mad that you’d put us down and we thought you deserved to be knocked down a peg after being so snooty and grandiose. But most of it was like—I don’t know. It was like the situation took over, like the thrill overtook us, and we got carried away. I started feeling horrible even before it was over.”

That night, Bess explained, represented a major transition for her. Young as she was, she’d never really considered where she came down on an issue like where she ought to stand in relation to her family’s attitudes about conformity and virtuous industry; she’d never thought much about which side she’d take should the family break into factions. Sure, she was closer to Lachlan already at the time, but she also understood why he was held in suspicion by the other siblings: his aloofness, his quietness, his supercilious airs, his vacantness, his utter lack of interest in their silly games. “After the wet sock incident”—so that’s what they were beating me with, he thought—“my perception of all your quirks changed somehow.”

Lac had listened, amazed, too dumbfounded to absorb the information about this horrific betrayal, which Bess went on to claim had ultimately served to solidify her loyalty. Over the coming days and weeks, his first at U of M, he realized that Connor and the others had had plenty of cause for what they’d done to him; he really had looked down his nose at them, thought them ever so boringly complacent in their blithe acceptance of the life that had been lain out before them, like an outfit chosen by a doting mother on the first day of school. Whereas when he closed his eyes he could gaze into a magically complicated cosmos the likes of which no one on earth had ever before glimpsed, when he looked into Connor’s eyes, or David’s eyes, or Aileen’s eyes, he couldn’t imagine anything going on there beyond the most basic stimulus and response, clever as those responses sometimes were.

All kids must feel the same way around that age, though—or a lot of kids anyway, probably the same ones who have such a difficult time seeing how much of a disruption their opting out of all the family’s traditions and enthusiasms causes, the same ones who have such a difficult time appreciating the dilemma their wayward viewpoints pose for their closest allies. You thought you had so much going on in that special head of yours, he thinks now as he paces alongside the mud-and-thatch hut, doing his best to ignore all the kids following him, mocking him in the weird spectacle of his peripatetic writing. He’s bracing his notebook against his open palm, holding it in place with the same hand scribbling out the letters. But you never had enough space in there to consider what was going on in other people’s heads.  

Factions within families, he writes, prepare us for factions at school and at work; every institution must form them. But families have the advantage of kinship ties, and yet they seem to exhibit the same inclination toward fractiousness. What holds them together? What holds any institution together for that matter? How do the more than a hundred Indians in this village get along without breaking into separate groups? Hunter-gather bands tend to have under fifty people in them, according to Professor Service. How do you get from a few dozen people wandering around together in search of food to this, well over a hundred people hunkering down to hide from enemies while tending to their gardens?

No sooner had Lac become enthralled with the lectures of Dr. White, his first anthropology professor, than he started picking up on all the fault lines separating scholars throughout the discipline. Professor White’s lectures inspired him to change his major, a final turning away from the brute practicality at the heart of his father’s legacy. But whatever naïve preconceptions he had of a field with commonly accepted methods and goals and mores and foundational theories were dashed before it was even time for finals that same semester.

Professor White holds the view that cultures, not just biological organisms, evolve over time with the growing complexity of their technology. Hundreds of thousands of years ago, our ancestors were essentially like us, fully modern in their anatomy. But until around thirteen thousand years ago every human on earth lived the life of a hunter or forager. Another of his mentors, Dr. Service, has lain out the steps between that type of lifestyle and the one we’re more familiar with today. Bands consist of a few dozen hunter-gatherers who live nomadically. Tribes, like this group of Yanomamö, are able to sustain larger populations because they’ve learned to cultivate gardens. They tend to be more sedentary and encompass two or more competing clans or lineages. The next stage, chiefdoms, is probably what most of us think of when we conjure an image of Indians. These are much larger groups, and as such require more organization; the chief sits atop a hierarchy, often collecting tributes from his subjects. Since the food demands are more intense, chiefdoms also take part in trade networks. And they rely on fully developed agriculture. Service’s final stage is the state, which all of us Westerners are familiar with, having grown up in one.

Then there’s Professor Sahlins, who’s fond of pointing out that hunter-gathers, in many ways, are better off than those of us living in advanced civilizations. Band-level societies are egalitarian and democratic (at least as far as the adult males are concerned); their economies are based on cooperation and sharing. Since their nomadism precludes the accumulation of possessions or wealth, it’s thought that bands have low homicide rates and are almost entirely innocent of organized conflict—why risk a fight unless you hope to acquire access to strategic territory or resources? Though it must be admitted the evidence for such exceptional peacefulness is mixed. But a lack of possessions apparently strikes Dr. Sahlins as a major boon in its own right.

Quite a few anthropologists go even further, though, insisting that White’s and Service’s theory about cultures progressing through stereotyped stages along a path toward greater complexity all too closely resembles the Social Darwinism originally put forth by Herbert Spencer (which Darwin himself, ironically enough, rejected). The Boasians, for instance, believe that Service’s demarcation of stages is mostly arbitrary, because every society develops along its own unique historical trajectory. For them, it’s this uniqueness, not any generalized commonalities, that are the proper focus of our inquiries. Of course, Boas came onto the scene in the early twentieth century, at the time of anthropometrics, when researchers would show up in villages and start measuring skulls so they could provide supporting evidence for their preformed theory that people from less advanced cultures had smaller brains, and hence were less intelligent.

What’s today sometimes called scientific racism grew out of the impressions of European explorers who encountered indigenous peoples from all over the globe who went about wearing little more than dyes and paints, who knew nothing of steel or crops or architecture, and who seemed primitive in every other way imaginable. Lac now realizes that it would’ve been an entirely reasonable deduction that the natives’ inferior intellects must lay behind their failure to develop more technologically advanced cultures. There was obviously something separating you from the naked Indians you ran into on your journeys. Wouldn’t everyone assume these people’s minds must be as primitive as their material cultures? Yababuji indeed.

Of course, today, in the modern age of desegregation and civil rights, we know better. Images of the president’s little boy stepping forward to salute his father’s casket after his assassination last year, of protesters rallying on campus just this past spring in the lead up to the congressional vote on the Civil Rights Act, and of crowds of millions gathered on the National Square in Washington DC all channel through Lac’s mind as he casts about for another thread to pick up in his writing.  

The Cultural Evolutionists, the Marxists, the Boasians—and that’s just at U of M. And me, Lac wonders, where do I fit in here? Well, you can’t escape the influence of Boas; he, more than any other single individual, is responsible for founding the discipline of cultural anthropology. The contributions of Marx are pervasive throughout the various competing factions as well. But, seeing as how I’m here to take advantage of this quickly vanishing opportunity to study a growing and thriving tribal society made up of unknown numbers of politically independent villages, a society occupying a level of complexity between the stages of band and chiefdom, I’d have to locate myself pretty squarely in the camp with Leslie White and Elman Service. Though my specific area of interest is in genealogies, since the going hypothesis is that kinship is somehow the key to maintaining group cohesion as village sizes increase. And the approach I intend to take relies on a combination of Claude Levi-Strauss’s structuralist modeling and calculations based on the pioneering population geneticist Sewall Wright’s “coefficient of relatedness,” a mathematical expression of one person’s degree of kinship to another. It is through this measure that I hope to bring Darwin back into the conversation about cultures, since the universal instinct toward nepotism is quite clearly an evolved characteristic of our species—and most other species for that matter.  

Lac lifts his gaze to ponder the twilit jungle surrounding him. Most of the kids have wandered off back to the shabono. He’s hardly alone, but he finally feels a sense of quiet suffusing the air around his head. After taking a long breath, he leans back down to write one last line in his notebook for the day: It all starts with learning the faces, learning the language, and getting the damned names.

Continue reading: Notes from the Periphery

Also read:

He Borara: Chapter 1: Journey up the Orinoco



Just Another Piece of Sleaze: The Real Lesson of Robert Borofsky's "Fierce Controversy"