Meet Salvador. He is from the Kaiwa people indigenous to western Brazil. The Kaiwa are the second largest indigenous group in Brazil and yet one of the most marginalised. Unlike other indigenous groups (they call themselves ‘Indians’) the Kaiwa don’t live in a round village with a central house, but everyone has their own house and yard – just like Salvador. Salvador’s house is especially nice and his neighbours consider him to be rich. He works full time as a night watchman at the local school – that’s how he can afford a nice brick house.
Like Salvador, the Kaiwa are a peaceful people and will avoid conflict at all costs, even if it means that they kill themselves instead. All too often, this is the case. Because they don’t take a stand for themselves, other indigenous groups just walk all over them, don’t invite them to important political meetings and mis-represent them to the government. They are truly a people without a voice.
Brazil is the only nation in the world that treats their indigenous groups as ‘wards of the state’. This can have advantages but means that they do not have rights as citizens but are like children who must be told what is good for them. The government wants indigenous groups to learn Portuguese but otherwise to maintain a traditional way of life. They don’t want them to change their religion or other practices.
Not too long ago an anthropologist came to Salvador’s community to study their practice of suicides. After the anthropologist left more than half of the 50 people she interviewed committed suicide. Some people believe that this anthropologist, in bringing up information about past practices, was almost suggesting suicide as an appropriate social norm.
Far too often modern society wants to preserve people such as the Kaiwa for their own research and amusement. We don’t want them to be able to access the information we have. We don’t want them to change. This is surely the worst form of oppression. Imagine if Europeans were never allowed out of the Dark Ages, but were forced to live as muddy peasants giving all their income to the King, fearing bad omens and burning unusual women at the stake. What if the ancient Celtics were never allowed to advance but maintained their bloody wars with neighbouring groups, illiteracy, poor hygiene and never discovered tea, or America. Where would you and I be today? Isn’t it good that we changed? We changed religion, beliefs, values, social and economic structure – all for the better. All cultures are constantly changing, even our own. It is a natural, ongoing evolution. And while often humanitarian assistance is restricted to Brazil’s indigenous peoples the Amazon is being cut down, the world around them is changing, and the Kaiwa are encouraged to kill themselves.
But Salvador is different. Perhaps you can tell that from this photo. He doesn’t look like someone who would get intimidated and kill himself. Years ago, after his first wife committed suicide, Salvador discovered the white man’s God. And he appreciates this God’s message of grace, peace and hope. He thinks that if he could translate this message into Kaiwa, his people will no longer kill themselves when they are sad and down-trodden. And so, between making the rounds of his night-watchman job each night he is steadily translating the Bible into his language. He has been working for decades. Those books piled high on his porch are the references that he uses for this task. His favourite books.
I was so fascinated by Salvador and his orange-brown earthen home that matched his dark vibrant skin. He was generous in sharing about his life and his passion with me. I took many photos of him while he talked and happily flashed his toothy grin. I wanted to show his environment and a bit of family life in a single photo. His wife stood in the background soothing their grand-baby in the hammock while I worked on a portrait. I like this one that includes her.