Interview with Canadian based documentary photographer Alex PİLCHİN
“One Indigenous day in the Heart of the Amazon”
‘ I think many people out there think that Native Americans are dangerous and unpredictable; I met many people who were affraid to go visit them for these exact reasons.
The truth is far from this; the tribes I visited were very open hearted and wellcoming; they were very relaxed and happy to share.’
Interview by İmren DOGAN
Translation & Glossary & redaction by Pinar DAG
İmren DOĞAN: How did you decide to do this work?
Alex PİLCHİN: When I came to travel to South America, one of my main goals was to meet Native American tribes and learn about their culture for myself. I got exposed to some of that culture in Colombia, but for the most part the Native Americans I came accross in Colombia have already became modernised. So, it was not until I was already two months in the Amazon jungle that I heard of various Native American tribes living in reservations deep in the jungle and decided to persue my dream and meet them. My main goal was to learn about their culture and experience their way of life. The rest took some curage.
‘”¦I somehow ended up meeting a few Native Americans and with the help of an English speaking translator, I convinced them to let me visit one of their villages to learn about their culture. The same afternoon I was on a boat heading to a far away village.
The journey took two days.’
İmren DOĞAN: Was it difficult for them to accept you?
Alex PİLCHİN: I cannot explain exactly how it all happened; it was all so quick, it was like magic. I arrived to a town in the Amazon where I knew there were some Native American living. My plan was to talk to the FUNAI government officials in Brazil and to apply for a visit to one of the tribes in the area. However, I somehow ended up meeting a few Native Americans and with the help of an English speaking translator, I convinced them to let me visit one of their villages to learn about their culture. The same afternoon I was on a boat heading to a far away village. The journey took two days. When I arrived, I asked for the permission to stay in their village for some time. A group of elders gathered in the center of the village and I had to speak in front of them and explain who I was and what I wanted to do. Finally they accepted me. Ironically when I was leaving, they were already inquiring about when I will return.
İmren DOĞAN: Was there any differencies between your knowledge and your observations about them?
Alex PİLCHİN: When I went to stay with the Xikrin Kayapo* tribes I admit that I did not know very much about them. I ended up learning a lot about their history, and their culture directly from them. I think many people out there think that Native Americans are dangerous and unpredictable; I met many people who were affraid to go visit them for these exact reasons. The truth is far from this; the tribes I visited were very open hearted and wellcoming; they were very relaxed and happy to share. Some of the things I learned about their culture include their belief that by shaving the middle of their head they will become more beautiful in the future; their belief that the warrior body paintings with patterns of animals (eg. Snake) will give them the qualities of these animals in battle, etc.
İmren DOĞAN: You are mentioning the number of modern clans is seventy whereas there are more then thousands of registered clans which US and Canada recognise survive in the land of America. Were there other clans which could not maintain culture and authentic conformations, and fail to stand against the modern life thus might have changed their life behaviour without notice?
Alex PİLCHİN: I am sure there are thousands of Native American clans in the Amazon as well, and from what I can tell it looks like the Native Americans of South America have managed to keep a lot more of their traditions and culture compared to those in North America. When I mentioned 70 villages, I was refering to 70 villages belonging to two or three sister clans. The Kayapo tribe is one of the most successful tribes in Brazil. Over the history they have survived many conquests and reconquered a lot of their land.
‘ A group of elders gathered in the center of the village and I had to speak in front of them and explain who I was and what I wanted to do. Finally they accepted me.
Ironically when I was leaving, they were already inquiring about when I will return.’
İmren DOĞAN: Did you have a chance to discuss with them about the issue regarding similarities and separations among them?
Alex PİLCHİN: I visited several villages of two sister clans and I happened to attend a big meeting relating to a new ethnic education system proposed by the Brazilian government, so I know a bit about the differences. For example the youngsters of Xikrin tribe all have short mushroom haircuts, whereas most of the people in Kayapo tribes have long hair. They both share the same native language, and have many cultural simularities like body painting, festival ornaments and dances. There are some differences in how the chiefs dress up for the big meetings; the Kayapo like to wear feather crowns. Other differences are in their social status; the Kayapo tribe in general are more known and more wealthy, whereas the Xikrin maintain more of their traditions like traditional houses vs. Cement houses of some of the Kayapo villages. On the other hand the Kayapo tribe have managed to maintain a lot of their knowledge of natural medicine and for the most part, they are still a shamanic culture, whereas the Xikrin tribes now mostly rely on western medicine provided by the Brazilian government.
İmren DOĞAN: Are there protest groups? İf so is there any share of an Indian assimilation in their nature?
Alex PİLCHİN :There are many protest along the Xingu river. All the Native American clans that may be effected by the construction of the Belo Monte Hydro-electric dam participate. For example in the state of Matto Grosso, some Kayapo tribes have blocked a key road. In Para state, there are a lot of protests both by Native Americans and local residents of Altamira city; remember it is not only Native Americans that will be effected: the Belo Monte dam will flood parts of Altamira and Victoria towns as well. When the Brazilian government tried to start this project in 1989, there was a huge rally that brought Native Americans from the entire country; thousands of people led by Kayapo chiefs and with participation of rock musician Sting. Together, they stopped the project at that time.
‘ ”¦youngsters of Xikrin tribe all have short mushroom haircuts, whereas most of the people in Kayapo tribes have long hair.
They both share the same native language, and have many cultural simularities like body painting, festival ornaments and dances. ‘
İmren DOĞAN: An indian does not see apart itself from the nature but as a part of it. As though there is not also a word such as “nature” in their languagge since it was being reminiscent of meaning telling a different thing from human beings according to me. Do saving it come to mean saving life?
Alex PİLCHİN: Basically for the Kayapo and Xikrin tribes saving nature by fighting against the Belo Monte dam means to fight for their survival. Remember, they rely almost entirely on food from the forest and water from the river. If the river is dry, there is no water and not much food (eg. Fish, wild animals) in the forest. They are concerned about their children; how will they survive in an environment like that?
İmren DOĞAN: What kind of a feeling was it being a witness to this preternatural relation?
Alex PİLCHİN: It was undescribable. Nature gives them energy, makes them strong and aware of their envrionment. I have not seen anything like it before. They can walk with slippers along jungle paths faster than I can follow, they can run nonstop for hours, and their senses are extraordinary: they can differentiate between sounds in the forest (e.g detecting a monkey on the tree), spot a slow moving snake on a trail or hear an incoming boat a long time before I would hear anything. Not to mention the relaxed and non violent state of being that they have grown accustomed to; everything is taken with a smile. Our society has much to learn from them.
‘ Some of the things I learned about their culture include their belief that by shaving the middle of their head they will become more beautiful in the future; their belief that the warrior body paintings with patterns of animals (eg. Snake) will give them the qualities of these animals in battle, etc.’
İmren DOĞAN: What an interesting thing is their fashion of painting bodies, and usually the patterns come from the nature. As if existance in nature came to symbolize celestial symbols and it’s like like they want to carry them on themselves. Would you tell us something about their meanings?
Alex PİLCHİN: Indeed, the Kayapo tribes paint their bodies with patterns from nature; mostly animals like snakes and turtles. These are warrior body paintings that traditionally the tribe warriors used to paint with before going to battle. They believe that the patterns of the paint give the person some qualities of these animals, for example: snake signifies courage, patience, whereas a turtle signifies clarity of mind, resistance to tension and anger.
İmren DOĞAN: From what I know, they do not like a foreigner witnessing their home life. Do they consider it as private?
Alex PİLCHİN: I think just like with all human beings it is about trust. Once they get to know you and trust you, they are happy to share and to invite you to be in their village, home, eat with them, etc. I found the Xikrin tribe for example to be very open and wellcoming from the beginning; more so than the Kayapo tribe. Everything depends on the tribes past experiences with foreigners.
İmren DOĞAN: Would you tell something about their daily life? What about their culture, kitchen and the social lifes? When men went for hunting what was women and children doing?
Alex PİLCHİN: Their daily life is divided into collective work. In the morning the men gather to discuss what needs to be done for that day. The men usually go hunting or fishing to get food. When needed they get together to build a traditional house or make repairs to old ones. The work is shared. In the meantime, the women take care of children, collect wood from the forest and cook food. Women tend to have many children. When the women or men have some free time they work on making some hand crafts or ornaments for the festival. The kitchen is fire wood based with stones surrounding the fire. Nowdays they tend to use some metal pots from the cities to cook.
Regarding the social life everything is open as the village is built in a circular formation, everyone can see everyone else and is free to come socialize. There is a shack in the middle of the village where the men meet in mornings and evenings, and the women meet as well sometimes. Kids are always playing in the middle of the village or in the river when they are not in school. Nowdays there are two televisions in the village and two hours of electricity at night: so many people gather in the evenings to watch a movie. The men also play football in the afternoons.
The children spend their days in school and the rest of the time playing. Older kids take care of their young ones; it is not uncommon to see a girl of 10 years old carrying around her younger brother or sister.
About their culture; aside from the handcraft making, warrior dances, marches and songs which they perform during their festival days and body painting. They have a marriage tradition that the couple will spend one week locked inside a house and afterwards they are considered married; there is no formal ceremony. When a baby is born, it is presented to everyone in the village for recognition.
They still build their houses from earth and palm leaves; they also make mats from palm leaves as well.
İmren DOĞAN: The slippers that they wear is attracting my interest. Do they accept them due to necessity or is it related with their culture?
Alex PİLCHİN: About sixty years ago, the Xikrin tribe used to live in the jungle without any clothes, and any contact modern objects. In the past 60 years however, they have been introduced to foreign culture and now have clothes, and some other objects from the city. In Brazil nearly everyone walks around in slippers, so they have adopted this custom as well. They even wear them when they go hunting.
‘One way we are doing that is by shining spot lights over injustices going on around the world. Many things that in the past would have been easily hidden away are now poping up as videos on youtube or cellphone photographs in online blogs.’
İmren DOĞAN: How do they educate their children?
Alex PİLCHİN: Yes. The government of Brazil now has a practice to have a shool and a pharmacy in every Native American village to provide free education and medicine. Additionally the children learn quickly to do other tasks like take care of small kids, hunt, and traditional songs, dances and body painting.
İmren DOĞAN: Would you tell something about your view point of photography?
Alex PİLCHİN: I cannot say much about art photography, but as a documentary photographer for me photography is a great way to capture reality and present it to those who are not able to be there themselves. With a camera nearly in everybodies pocket today (at least in the form of a cell phone), we are changing the world. One way we are doing that is by shining spot lights over injustices going on around the world. Many things that in the past would have been easily hidden away are now poping up as videos on youtube or cellphone photographs in online blogs.
İmren DOĞAN: What is your point in photography? What do you plan for future?
Alex PİLCHİN: My point in photography is to show the art and beauty in the diversity of life and culture through photography. To go to places where most people don’t venture, to explore little known cultures, and share their stories through photography; to connect people to reality outside that presented by the mass media.
I don’t tend to plan my future too far in advance, but for the moment I will concentrate on doing more projects in South America: exploring the rich cultural diversity and biodiversity of that continent. One ongoing project I have is to explore the shamanistic culture in the Andes mountains. After that I see myself moving more around the world to explore other frindge cultures and traditions: especially those that are on the verge of disappearing.
Native American: The indigenous peoples of the Americas are the pre-Columbian inhabitants of North and South America, their descendants, and manyethnic groups who identify with those peoples. They are often also referred to as Native Americans, Aboriginals, First Nations , and (by Christopher Columbus‘ geographical and historical mistake) Indians, now disambiguated as the American Indian race,American Indians, Amerindians, Amerinds, or Red Indians.
Xikrin tribes: In the oldest literature, these Indians are referred to as “Diore,” “Chicri,” or “PurukarÃ´t.” Their self-denomination, however, is “PutkarÃ´t.” “Xikrin” was a name given them by Whites, but nowadays they rarely identify themselves as such. The Xikrin are a subgroup of the KayapÃ³, the westernmost representatives of the Northern GÃª. The name “KayapÃ³” comes from the TupÃ kaia (monkey) and po (similar to), but the GÃª to whom it is applied never called themselves by this name. All KayapÃ³ call themselves “MebengnÃ´kre,” that is, “people of the big water.” Modern KayapÃ³ give no explanation for this name, but originally it may have referred to the Rio Araguaia, whose course was apparently an important geographical boundary separating the ancestral KayapÃ³ from the ancestors of the present-day ApinayÃ©. Today, however, each of the fifteen KayapÃ³ groups is autonomous and has its own name. http://www.everyculture.com/South-America/Xikrin-Orientation.html
Kayapo tribes: The Kayapo (Portuguese: CaiapÃ³) people are the GÃª-speaking native peoples of the plain lands of the Mato Grosso and ParÃ¡ inBrazil, south of the Amazon Basin and along Rio Xingu and its tributaries. In 2003, their population was 7,096. Subgroups of the Kayapo include the Xikrin, Gorotire, Menkragnoti and Metyktire. Their villages typically consist of a dozen huts. A centrally located hut serves as a meeting place for village men to dicuss community issues. They speak the Kayapo language. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kayapo_people
FUNAI Government : The National Indian Foundation, is the Brazilian government body that establishes and carries out policies relating to indigenous peoples. http://www.survivalfrance.org/about/funai
Shamanism: Shamanism is an anthropological term referencing a range of beliefs and practices regarding communication with the spiritual world. A practitioner of shamanism is known as a shaman (pronounced /ËˆÊƒÉ‘ËmÉ™n/ “SHAH-men”or /ËˆÊƒeÉªmÉ™n/ “SHAY-men”). http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shamanism
Xingu River: : (pronounced shing GOO) is a 1,230-mile long, (1979 km) river in northeast Brazil; it is a southeast tributary of the Amazon River. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Xingu_River
Belo Monte Dam: The Belo Monte Dam is a proposed hydroelectric dam complex on the Xingu River in the state of ParÃ¡, Brazil. The planned installed capacity of the dam would be 11,233 Megawatts (MW), which would make it the second-largest hydroelectric dam complex in Brazil, and the world’s third-largest, behind Three Gorges Dam (China) and Itaipu Dam (Brazil-Paraguay). Electricity from the dam would presumably power the extraction and refinery of large mineral deposits in ParÃ¡, such as bauxite, the raw material for aluminum. However, there is some opposition to the dam’s construction regarding its impacts to the region.
Sting: Gordon Matthew Thomas Sumner, CBE (born 2 October 1951), better known by his professional name Sting, is an English musician, singer-songwriter, activist, actor and philanthropist. Prior to starting his solo career, he was the principal songwriter, lead singer and bassistof the rock band The Police. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sting_(musician)
Buffalo dance: Video clip of a dance performed by a Sioux tribe from Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show. This is part of a group of films constituting the first appearance of Native Americans in motion pictures http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sting_(musician)
Andes mountain: The Andes are the world’s longest continental mountain range. It is a continual range of highlands along the western coast of South America. This range is about 7,000 km (4,300 mi) long, about 200 km (120 mi) to 700 km (430 mi) wide (widest between 18 degrees South and 20 degrees South latitude), and of an average height of about 4,000 m (13,000 ft).http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Andes