Alone among the South American Indians

It was in 1969 when he was studying ethnography at Charles University, Prague, that Mnislav Zelený, now 30 years old, first came into contact with the Indians of Ecuador. The country so fascinated him that three years later he returned to Ecuador as leader of “Expedition Cotopaxi” which, besides carrying out ethnographical, vulcanological and geological research, made a number of documentary films. The results of the expedition´s work, including the mapping of the territory, were highly appreciated by the director of Ecuador’s National In­stitute of Culture and Mnislav Zelený was given a grant to cover a further ten-month stay in Peru. Today he is at home working on a diploma thesis.

Recently an interesting exhibition which he prepared, entitled “The Virgin Forest Indians of Ecuador and Peru”, was opened at the Náprstek Museum of Asian, African and American Cultures in Prague. This exhibition gives the public the opportunity of learning about the life of the once large tribe of Kofans, only about 150 of whom still remain on the territory of Ecuador, and the Huarays from the delta of the Madre de Dios River in Peru. In addition to many interesting exhibits and photographs, Mnislav Zelený also brought back many findings about these little known peoples.


SOUTH AMERICA continues to be a large and free field for the practice of the most varied scien­ces in the humanities. It is above all a territory with very great scope for ethnographical studies. Efforts to study Indian tribes, groupings and cultures are being stepped up from year to year, nevertheless it is virtually impossible to cover the entire extent and varied features of the original inhabitants. Even today around a thousand different Indian languages still exist in South Ame­rica. Some of these languages, however, are spoken only by the very few remaining members of former tribes, others are rapidly dying out and of the great number of languages which used to exist here in the past, only a few traces remain in local place names. In the interior of the Amazon forests, hundreds of Indian tribes still live in their original, unchanged way of life. It is our duty to humanity to preserve examples of these cul­tures and to prepare the population itself for gradual integra­ron as equals into twentieth century society.

So far no satisfactory solution to this problem has been found. The majority of experts had high hopes of the outcome of the establishment of Indian national parks, which particularly in the United States spread very quickly. Unfortunately, the replacement of space and free indepen­dent development for the Indian population by life in fenced-in parks is an anachronism and provides no real solution. With the passage of time great ideals and well-intentioned actions resulted only in the creation of a mere tourist attraction.

This was one of the reasons why I took up Indian studies. My particular interest is focussed on the forest Indians of the Amazon jungle because I believe that most work is needed in this sphere and that it is here that there is the greatest threat to In­dian cultures and to entire tribes as a result of the pressures of industrialization.

The Indians of the virgin fo­rests are those who are usually described as “genuine Indians”, whose faces are painted with coloured ornamentations, who wear decorations made of feathers and feather garlands and who hunt with bows and arrows. Most of them live in the same way as their ancestors of hundreds or even thousands of years ago. Their culture and way of life correspond to the level of the “hunting-scavenging” period. This fact is underlined by the acute danger of a clash between such different levels of civiliza­tion as ours and theirs. Where such clashes have already taken place the result has been the destruction of Indian culture and the loss of the people’s identity.

The situation of the South American Indians of the Andes mountains is essentially different. The process of “civilizing” and assimilating them was carried out by force and in an inhuman manner from the earliest days of the conquest of America. The Indians became agricultural slaves and their only gain from our civilization was the worst possible - alcohol.

The inborn fear of the white man, deeply ingrained in the consciousness of the Indians, puts us in an extremely disadvantageous position in our efforts to save and protect them. Yes—to pre­serve and protect them! We pro­tect rare animals and plants, but people, too, need to be protected. The majority of ethnographers concerned with Indian studies look at the Indians and their cultures merely from the point of view of fact-finding and theoretical study for its own sake. But what do such observations and the collection of scientific materials bring to the actual object of their studies? Very little, in fact nothing of concrete value. I believe that these studies should only be a first stage in what is known as applied ethnography. The second stage should consist of pedagogical, educational work among the Indians, aimed at drawing them into participation in the new society—something that is historically inevitable. This approach to integrating them means strengthening their tribal consciousness and tribal pride. We do not think that the only sign of Indian identity should be the tribal headdress—much depends on an awareness of being an Indian. The feeling of membership of a particular tribe can exist even in modern society, and it is something we should foster and promote.

It was this that was the purpose of my four-month stay among the Indians of the Kofan tribe in the jungles of Ecuador and the Huaray Indians in the Virgin forests of Peru. I chose these two particular tribes because they are tribes which are little known. In fact I was the first to carry out systematic ethnological research among them.

To come among the Kofans was by no means an easy matter. After discussions lasting a whole day, I was turned out. This is our Kofan territory, they declared and their pride was reflected on their faces and in their whole bearing. After all I was one of the millions of bitterly hated whites. It was difficult to explain to them that I wanted to help them and that I had come to live among them as a friend. They have heard such assurances all too often but have never seen them fulfilled in practice. Any white man has to fight hard to win their confidence. It was several days before I could move freely about the Kofan village and it took even longer for us to become friends. Only when I had succeeded in this could I begin to study them, to treat their ailments, teach them to trade and to strengthen their con­fidence and pride. You are unlike other white men, they told me and perhaps that was the greatest praise I could hope to gain from them.

I was accepted by the Huaray Indians as a doctor. Their situation is quite different from that of the Kofans. They have suffered even more adverse effeets from the darker sides of civili­zation although their settlement of Palmareal is on the far side of the Madre de Dios virgin forest. It is there that the last 116 Huarays have their home. I lived in one of their huts and experienced many of their joys and sorrows. The Huarays, like the Kofans, are hunters and “scavengers”. Their principal diet con­sists of bananas, varied with fish or peccari wild pigs or the meat of monkeys or parrots. Fruit, honey and the fat caterpillars that live on palm bark enhance and supplement their diet. The influences of civiliza­tion are very strong. The majo­rity of the skins of wild animals they have processed they trade with white men in the town of Pu­erto Maldonado which takes ten days to reach by river. The results of their trading can be heard every evening: transistor radio sets have become very popular among the Huarays. So we can witness the fundamental changes that are taking place in such a remote part of the world.

During my stay with both these tribes, initial suspicion was followed by firm friendship. But it would be wrong to stop there. The results of our research into the material culture, social relations, relationships and—partly even languages—should be used for the coming process of draw­ing the Indian population into active participation in normal life. Only in this way can their culture be preserved for the world and the Indians can gain equality and a happy future.

The white man owes many debts to his “red” brothers and I hope the time has come for these debts to be paid.