Piraha   Leave a comment


A wise Chinese immigrant to the United States said that his family decided to keep the traditions from China that they loved and/or found important, and incorporate the traditions from their new country that they found meaningful and/or fun. What a great idea! We can enjoy other’s traditions and cultures without denying our own. We can relish a man wearing a turban, a yarmulke, a woman wearing a brightly colored African dress or a sari and the end result when we embrace other peoples is that we are all enriched with new knowledge and experiences.

It has been almost 20 years since reading an Indian author and first hearing the concept of “staying in the moment,” which, of course, has been suggested long before I tried to practice being in the now and not living in the past or the future, which makes for a less than satisfying life. A year or so ago a very interesting article appeared in the New Yorker about an Amazonian tribe of people numbering around 350 called the Pihara Tribe. A missionary, Daniel Everett, and his family went to live with the tribe. Everett stated that this group of people are such practitioners of “staying in the now” that they do not plan ahead, and they only have belief in what either they have seen or experienced or people they know have seen or experienced. When this young missionary learned their language and tried to teach them about Jesus, they asked Everett if he had seen Jesus, if his parents had seen Jesus, if he knew of anyone who had met Jesus, and when Everett said that he had not, the Pihara people did not feel that they had a reason to believe any of what Everett was teaching them.

The Piraha people have no words for numbers or colors,  no art, and they have no creation myth. They do not worry about the future as is obvious by their lack of building houses and canoes that are made to last. It is fascinating that a group of people exist that do not struggle for the answers that many of us spend much of our lives trying to figure out, such as the meaning of life, afterlife, eternity, why are we here, is there a purpose, what is God, is there a God?  A flower has no purpose, no reason, it just is? Can our egos just let us “be” without having a reason for existing, or creating our own reason?

The Pihara have been exposed to other people, but choose not to be influenced or changed by others.

Everett studied linguistics and is Dean of Arts and Sciences at Bentley University in Waltham, Massachusetts. He spent 4 months of every year for nearly two decades with the Pihara, and he is the only non-tribal member who is fluent in the Pihara language. His understanding of their language did not jive with past beliefs about language as studied and written about by linguist Noam Chomsky or Steven Pinker, which is another fascinating aspect of the story of the Pihara, who seem never to fit in any kind of mold.                                                                                                                 Everett says that he gained much from the Piraha, but  lost his own religious beliefs in the process.  “It’s wrong to try and convert tribal societies,” he says. “What should the empirical evidence for religion be? It should produce peaceful, strong, secure people who are right with God and right with the world. I don’t see that evidence very often. So then I find myself with the Piraha. They have all these qualities that I am trying to tell them they could have. They are the ones who are living life the way I’m saying it ought to be lived, they just don’t fear heaven and hell.”

Daniel Everett is the author of Don’t Sleep, There are Snakes: Life and Language in the Amazonian Jungle.

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Posted August 15, 2010 by strongjacksonpoet54 in Essays

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