Matsés Cultural Preservation and Biculturalism

This month we invited linguist David W. Fleck to write about cultural preservation and biculturalism in relation to the Matsés ethnic group. David first encountered the Matsés in the early 1990s while studying marsupials near their territory. They offered to help him collect specimens, and invited him to do so on their land. He spent two years among the Matsés, learning their techniques for hunting, fishing, and trapping, as well as absorbing some of their outlook on the world.
Jack Wheeler
April 2, 2020

After taking an M.A. in zoology from Ohio State, David switched to linguistics and wrote a Matsés grammar as his Ph.D. dissertation. The following year he was co-author of an authoritative book on Matsés culture, “The Traditional Life of the Matsés” and to date has published almost 30 scientific publications on Matsés language, culture, and ethnobiology. Ultimately, he married a Matsés woman and is now the proud father of two young boys.

Dina, David, & Dunu on the farm / Feb. 2009

Cultural evolution vs. assimilation 

When I mention that I regret that young Matsés are not interested in their traditional culture, sometimes people reply, “All cultures change”.  It bugs me when they say that.  It’s true, of course, but by that statement they imply that I am not aware of it, and it reveals that they have not thought carefully about the different ways that cultures change. Consider American culture: it evolves gradually, with innovative fashions, adaptations to new technology, new vocabulary and pat phrases, some borrowing from other cultures, etc. By contrast, the cultures of many indigenous groups are not evolving naturally, but assimilating to mainstream cultures, which results in a net loss of cultural diversity in the world. The Borg of the Star Trek series might be a fitting comparison to Western culture.

From kings of the jungle to peasantry 

This assimilation is not motivated just by adaptation to new technology and the desire to participate in national economies, but also by shame of their indigenous identity. Furthermore, when an indigenous person joins the mainstream society, they enter at the bottom. No one says, “Would you like to be an upper middle class businessperson?, or perhaps a lawyer?” Rather, they either end up working at low-paying unpleasant jobs in cities, or they become rural peasants in their own lands. Did you know that studies show that indigenous peoples obtain about twice the amount of recommended daily food allowances before they enter the market economy, and only about half after they do? Further, they have more leisure time because their traditional subsistence strategies are very efficient. But free food and free time entails expert knowledge and an intact society. Consider that when a foreigner gets lost in the jungle, they have to “survive”, but if a Matsés gets lost in the jungle, it’s just an inconvenience. The point is, if the Matsés lose their traditional culture and knowledge, going back to the old subsistence patterns will no longer be a viable option.

For the younger Matsés - cultural revitalization is vital in a bicultural culture.

Out with the old, in with the new? 

Nevertheless, as they say, cultures always change; and it’s unrealistic to expect the Matsés, especially the younger generation, to ignore the attractions of Western society. And in the Matsés case, the assimilation process is already well advanced. So what’s the solution? I say it’s biculturalism. I didn’t make that word up, by the way, but in the context of indigenous peoples, I mean it as acquiring and maintaining skill sets from two different cultures. Just as one does not need to forget one’s natal language to learn a second language, why should an indigenous person have to set aside their culture to become proficient at participating in Western society?

Revaluing culture 

Part of becoming bicultural is a matter of choice. Many young Matsés, for example, due to the racism they experience outside of their communities and their own insecurities, are anxious to erase their indigenous identity when they learn speak Spanish (or Portuguese) and learn to interact in the national societies. One cannot simply give a Matsés an inspirational talk about how great their culture is and expect them to change attitudes. Although it is possible and attested for individuals to revalue their culture, the desired situation is for this to happen generally throughout an ethnic group. Before considering how outsiders could help with this process, let us consider some statistics.

Bigger is better 

The following Peruvian Amazonian ethnic groups can be said to have revalued their cultures: Asháninka (88,000 members), Awajún/Aguaruna (55,000).  Shipibo (35,000). The following have lost their cultures and languages beyond recovery: Omagua (600 members), Kapanawa (400), Resígaro (37), not to mention the many completely extinct groups. As the reader can infer, there seems to be a correlation between the size of an ethnic group and the tendency for them to revalue their culture. The Matsés, with a population of 3500 (2200 in Peru and 1300 in Brazil) are a “medium” group. So they could go either way. The Matsés have the great advantage that they were contacted fairly recently (in 1969) and they were essentially isolated until the 1990s. Consequently, older individuals still possess complete traditional knowledge, and the language is the most vital indigenous language in Peru. But attitudes are changing quickly, and the situation could become quite different in one or two generations. The fact is that all indigenous groups, including the big ones mentioned above, go through a phase of devaluing their culture after contact with mainstream societies, but some make a comeback and some don’t.

Jungle Ph.Ds 

As suggested above, revaluing one’s culture is only part of becoming bicultural. The other part requires a lot of hard work, because, what’s the point of becoming bicultural if you’re a loser in one or both cultures? To become a successful rainforest hunter and farmer, one needs to invest many years, ideally beginning at childhood, in learning traditional knowledge and gaining personal experience. After dedicating 2 years of field research and as much time writing my Master’s thesis on Matsés ethno-ecological knowledge, at the end my understanding of the topic was elementary compared to that of the Matsés hunters I worked with. If degrees were awarded based only on quantity of knowledge, most adult Matsés and women would have a “Dr.” in front of their names. Likewise, going through the extremely poor public education system offered at the Matsés villages and learning Spanish and a few social skills is not enough to interact successfully with or live comfortably in mainstream Peruvian society.

Bilingual education schoolhouse in Estirón

Do we have a right to meddle?

Even though the Matsés are being influenced by other outsiders’ racism and ethnocentrism (the notion that one’s cultural superior to others), I don’t believe that we have a right to impose our own vision of their future upon the Matsés. Rather, it’s about giving the Matsés options. Acaté Amazon Conservation and I are contributing toward this with the following projects: an apprentice program for young Matses to become medicine men; a medicinal plant encyclopedia; pedagogical books on traditional Matsés natural history knowledge that also serve for learning and practicing to read in Matsés and Spanish; training young Matsés to be authors; and training in biodiversity inventory methods. As the reader can gather, Acaté's projects aim to sponsor both the intergenerational transfer of traditional knowledge and skills, and training in language, technology, and skills from the mainstream society. To provide some concrete examples, below I will highlight two of Acaté’s projects that effectively combine the learning of abilities form both societies.

Cool Project 1: Matsés Cartographers

Indigenous mapping initiatives involve training residents to use GPS receivers and to record data in notebooks for generating maps of their territory boundaries and localities of cultural, historical and ecological significance. It’s a good thing, but it’s not new. Acaté’s innovation was to try teaching Matsés to use computers and cartography software to process the data and produce the maps themselves. They had never used computes before and the cartography software being particularly complex, we naturally expected that they would only learn enough to get an idea of how one produces a map, and that in the end we would have to make the maps for them. Boy, were we wrong!  Two of the three Matsés field coordinators learned so quickly, that they are much better at using the software than me. In fact, for the management plan that must be submitted to the Peruvian government to legally export sustainable forest products, the Matsés cartographers themselves collected and processed the data and generated the maps. The other cool thing about this project is that in the process of collecting the data, the elders that form part of the sampling expedition teams are teaching the younger members a wealth of knowledge about the historical and ecological geography of their territory.

Mariano, Felipe, and Segundo; 3 Matsés employees of Acaté working on the mapping project.

Cool Project 2: Earn Money at Home

Perhaps our most impactful program is finding markets for renewable rainforest resources. In addition to giving Matsés a chance obtain cash without having to leave their villages, it reinforces the intergenerational transmission of skills and knowledge (e.g., forest orienteering, seasonality and other ecological knowledge about wild trees, etc.) and teaches new skills of economic importance (marketing, quality control, processing palm nut butter, collecting and drying valuable medicinal mushrooms, sustainable collection of copaiba tree resin using custom-made drills, etc.). Acate’s joint venture with Xapiri to sell Matsés artefacts (all made from renewable forest products) is an important part of this initiative, as it is encouraging the elders to continue their traditional weaving, pottery, carving, and arrow and spear manufacture, and motivating the younger generation to learn these skills that now lead to an income.

From Zeroes to Heroes

The reader may have noticed that this essay is almost finished and I still haven’t talked about how to catalyze cultural revaluation. The truth is that I don’t have the answer, so I was going to be sneaky and just leave that part out. But I figured you’d catch me, so here are a few thoughts on this issue.  I think (at least) two thing are important: pride and economy. With respect to the latter, it is hard to imagine that one could value their culture if they cannot obtain the things they need. In this way, Acate’s sustainable resource marketing initiative, including our venture with Xapiri Ground, contributes the Matsés’ revaluation of their culture. With respect to pride, I think I’ve made a small contribution to this with a history book I wrote in collaboration with two Matsés authors. This book describes that, contrary to the local non-Indians’ viewpoint, the Matsés ancestors were not bloodthirsty savages, but a peaceful people who had to become warriors to defend their territory and their families from rubber tappers bent on exterminating them and capturing the women an children for the slave trade. Nevertheless, this is only a small contribution, and if you have any ideas on this topic, I’m anxious to hear them.

Zombies Apocalypse Epilogue

After getting through my academic programs, I lived permanently at a Matsés village named Estirón for 10 years, subsisting in the traditional Matsés manner (farming, hunting, fishing, etc.), but also did work on my laptop for Acaté Amazon Conservation and the Peruvian ministry of education to make some extra cash. I had solar panels to run the laptop, but no internet, so at night we would watch pirated DVDs that I purchased during my infrequent excursions to Iquitos. Many of the movies we watched were zombie ones. The appealing thing about watching zombie movies was we felt safe from the zombie hordes in Estirón because it is so remote; but more relevantly, it was nice to consider that if there was indeed some sort of world-wide apocalypse, the Matsés (including my family) would be able to continue living normal lives in Matsésland. In this sense, the Matsés and other indigenous groups who have not lost the knowledge and skills to live independently in the jungle are a potential holdout for the human species. It would be cheaper to invest in them than in underground bunkers and undersea refuge colonies.

The venue for zombie movies in Estirón

Estirón; the Matsés village where Dave lived for 10 years.