A dangerous thing can happen when an indigenous culture is exposed to western influences, without proper regard to the impact those influences might have.
Picture Santa Maria, a Sataré Mawé community deep in the Amazonas state of Brazil. The village is home to almost 500 people, yet to reach it you need to take a small john boat through the network of rivers and jungle that surround it. The scene is every bit the exotic, picture postcard experience an Amazon TV documentary would have you imagine. But on closer inspection, things aren’t quite as they seem.
A group of teenage girls huddle next to a traditionally built woven palm hut. Each girl, with her dark black hair and olive skin, has shaved off her eyebrows to paint them back in and is wearing a bright red lipstick, and blue eyeshadow. This is not a tradition belonging to their culture though. The look the girls are going for is a borrowed one. One they have seen western women sporting on the large, flatscreen TV’s that the village is adorned with. Most of the village’s young boys who love soccer have shaved and bleached their hair in order to imitate the game’s stars and their elaborate hairstyles. Elsewhere sexy magazine pin ups are posted and villagers can buy alcohol and cigarettes that are brought in from the city.
We last visited Santa Maria in July 2011. We met with Chief Atanilo as he was weaving a basket, a traditional craft of the Sataré Mawé people. We asked him about the weaving he was doing and what it would be used for. He shrugged and said, “Oh nothing now, I just do it because there’s a government scheme that pays us to. They want to keep our dying traditions alive, but there’s no place for them in our culture anymore. We’ve moved too far from our roots.” Despite its remote location, Santa Maria, is an almost bustling community. Its inhabitants may be part of a classified Indian heritage, but their modern day identity is being faster shaped by western influence than by any other characteristic. And the result is a culture with an identity crisis.
If you’ve never been somewhere like Santa Maria, this notion might be hard for you to comprehend. “Best to keep the Sataré Mawé as they are, help them preserve their existence just as is”, you may think, but it’s too late for that. They’ve already lost much of their cultural roots, and the next generation have a hunger to be at one with what they’ve seen on TV.
Yet as we all know, TV and movies don’t offer the whole picture, much less an answer to a lack of true identity. So where should the Sataré Mawé go from here? The Gospel of Jesus Christ offers each of us a brand new, unshakable identity, which when mixed with faith, makes for a powerful future.
Our goal at Overland Missions is to continue raising disciples in the Amazon of Brazil in order for every community to have the opportunity to embrace this identity. Santa Maria and the Sataré Mawé Indians will continue to question who they are, looking for answers in whatever presentations of humanity they find.
We want to be sure there are passionate believers available to them to answer their questions about who they are and where they’ve come from. For this reason we’ll be returning to the Amazon with two teams this summer. We’ll revisit communities we’ve preached the Gospel in before and we’ll be pioneering into new villages as well. Watch this space as we post more about how the work unfolds.