Tribesmen taking a ‘civilizational’ turn? | Daily News

Tribesmen taking a ‘civilizational’ turn?

Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva with Minister of Indigenous Peoples Sonia Guajajara. Guajajara is an influential Indigenous rights activist and lawmaker.
Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva with Minister of Indigenous Peoples Sonia Guajajara. Guajajara is an influential Indigenous rights activist and lawmaker.

The Vedda community is running for office, we are told. Apparently the top Vedda chieftains are billed to contest forthcoming Local Government elections on the ticket of a large coalition of political forces.

Without bringing partisan politics into it, it’s best to analyze the Vedda foray into politics in such a way as to derive some insight into the indigenous community and their political ambitions. The Veddas are a minuscule community in this country, and they have no political clout.

But for years it had been said that their habitats have been encroached, and their lifestyles have been denied them because of encroaching gentrification, and demands of ‘civilization’.

In this context a reference to the indigenous communities of Brazil could be deemed apt. The new Brazilian President Lula da Silva, freshly re-elected, has created a Ministry of Indigenous Affairs and vowed to save the Amazon forests which are called the lungs of the world.

But is there a comparison between the indigenous communities of Brazil and those here? Hardly, because the numbers of tribal hunter gatherer folk in this country are negligible. That does not mean that their rights could be usurped. What’s more, there is value in keeping their indigenous lifestyles intact because if the Veddas disappear forever from our lands it would mean that we have lost their unique knowledge on how to sustain livelihoods despite an inhospitable habitat, and with very little access to the tools of ‘civilization.’


But why are the Veddas running for office? Doesn’t that go against their desire to stick to their hunter gatherer lifestyles? As far as that is concerned, it’s a known fact that the Veddas of this country abandoned their hunter gatherer ways of making a living a long time ago.

According to some, they became nothing more than appendages to tourism. They seemed to have sacrificed their desire to live as hunter gatherers in order that they may be fed and looked after in exchange for their being a tourist attraction, because of their unique position as the only extant indigenous people of this county.

But now that they don’t seem to have any real connection to their roots, are they to be seen as something less than the genuine article? Not so according to some accounts at least.

Certain experts feel that as a collective, they are trying their best to salvage something from their old lifestyles despite the fact that they are being swamped from all sides and being taken over by the ‘civilization’ that surrounds them. If that’s correct then would running for office help them?

If indigenous people in Brazil can run for office and hold ministerial portfolios with the avowed intent of saving the Amazon, then would it harm the indigenous Vedda community here to run for office and look after their own interests and the interests of those that want to preserve the habitats that are still identified by them as their ‘territory’?

The fact is that their ‘territories’ so called have been already usurped. But they are allowed to hunt game and carry on as hunters foraging for food because the State believes that their lifestyles ought to be preserved.


Isn’t it sad then that they live at the mercy of the State? Well that’s of course the reality — sad or otherwise — of the encroachment of so called modern civilization. But there is a difference in their being at the mercy of the State and being instruments of the State and the larger designs of political players, who see some benefit in their running for office.

Does anyone see a benefit in their running for office? That’s not known, but if the Veddas are running for office of their own volition it may be that they are sick and tired of being run roughshod over and being at the mercy of politicians who have made them tourist attractions and only consider them useful insofar they bring in some sort of revenue to fill State coffers.

This is quite a contrast to the situation in Brazil. Of course the indignities that the indigenous communities have had to face in Brazil are far greater than the circumstances similar communities have had to face here. In Brazil the indigenous tribes have been persecuted and very nearly wiped out by loggers of the Amazon forests, and other unscrupulous elements who see them as a nuisance.

In some other countries indigenous communities have been condemned to live in ‘reservations’ after new settlers basically made them outcasts in their own original lands.

So the indigenous communities here are no exception when it comes to being hounded out by ‘civilization’, which is of course no excuse to persecute them or harass them any further.

Perhaps there should be more research done to obtain some significant insight into why the Veddas are running for office. But if they are, it would be a good idea to ensure that they are able to keep their dignity intact.

Nobody wants them to be classed as politicians with selfish agendas and be categorized as being venal and unprincipled, which is not to say that all politicians are automatically in that class. But a lot of politicians are identified these days as self-centred crooks and as a result the Veddas, if they are running for a genuine purpose, may find themselves being tarred by the same brush.

Do they have constituencies? Among their own they have very few numbers that can vote for them, so if they want to get elected to office perhaps they would need to forge wider appeal.

But if they seek such a wider constituency they may have to do a good deal of petty politicking which may cause them to say goodbye to their time honoured image of people who relate to the earliest identified hunter gatherer communities.

Of course some may say that the debate is already over. They would opine that it has been a long time since the true values of the Veda community were compromised.


It’s rumoured that a film crew that came to Bintenna to document Vedda lives in the 70s wanted to find out more about the real lives of the Veddas and ambled along and took a look at the huts that housed the Veddas.

Apparently they expected to see hardy men living on honey foraged from the forests and game hunted down with bow and arrow, but were assailed by the sight of emptied salmon tins strewn around with discarded Vedda garbage. One of this writer’s former editors Ajith Samaranayake used to recall this tale with some mischievous delight no doubt tinged with a degree of sadness due to what had ‘become of our indigenous communities.’

In this context the fact that the Veddas are running for office arouses a mixed bag of emotions. In Brazil the indigenous people are holding portfolios as society has finally come around to the realization that these people are valuable, knowing as they do the secrets of the Amazon and holding the key to its preservation which is vital to Brazil and the rest of the world.

In this country we have a different take on folk that are often seen as quaint and a bit of a decoration and not as real people. Of course this is an affront. They should be seen as real folk with something of their own to protect, but the problem has been the level to which they have been ‘compromised’, playing a role benefitting the rest of surrounding civilization as a tourist magnet.

They can never go back to what they were and that’s certain. But it is hoped that their running for office is not a regressive step that further destroys what’s left of their tribal existences, but is a progressive move that has been well thought out by the elders of the community who see that there is still something to protect even though their lifestyles have been quite discernibly compromised.


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