The Truth Board

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The Truth About the Fact: An International Journal of Literary Nonfiction

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The Truth About the Fact: A Journal of Literary Nonfiction is an international journal committed to the idea that excellence in the art of letters can play a vital role in transforming the planet we share.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

To Preserve and Protect

You know the story. It’s all too familiar. It has come alive on the big screen through Disney characters and 3-D animation and has touched the hearts of people everywhere. It typically goes like this: native people inhabit a tropical region where their lives are inextricably bound up with the land, sky, stars, etc; then some foreign influence in pursuit of valuable resource rolls in and destroys everything, forcing the people from their land obliterating their livelihood. Civilization takes over; humanity takes a back seat.

In recent days, BBC UK released the first-ever seen aerial footage documenting one of the last uncontacted tribes in existence. The tribe, which lives on the border of Peru and Brazil, has been the subject of conversation for the past few years. Illegal loggers and oil prospectors have been closing in on the tribe, forcing them to move from their home in Peru across the border into Brazil. However, for the past two years the Peruvian government chose not to acknowledge their existence, calling it a myth created by environmentalists and even using a “Loch Ness Monster” reference. However, with the recent release of the footage the Peruvian foreign ministry has now announced that it will work closely with Brazil to protect the tribe on the shared border.

This is not “Pandora.” It’s not a fictional moralized masterpiece complete with a love story and man-made robot villains. It’s real life. These people, in all their beauty, are painted red with the substance of a local fruit; they live in self-made communities of huts; they are healthy; they are alive. “They are the last free people on the planet,” as the BBC documentary states.
In contemplating this incredible circumstance, my mind keeps shooting back to an experience I had in Vietnam last summer. While traveling, I somehow found myself thrown into teaching English at a boarding school in Pleiku, a small city in central Vietnam. Not only was I unprepared to teach English but I was also unprepared for the moral dilemma that would plague me to this day.

So here’s the deal. The boarding school is run by an order of Vietnamese nuns who, out of the goodness of their hearts, take children from their indigenous communities and bring them to their city school to be educated. What became immediately clear to me was the racial tension between the Vietnamese city children and the indigenous students. What became disheartening to me was that the languages of instruction in this school (for all students) were Vietnamese and English. Along with learning English they wanted to embrace and take on all of their (perceived) Western cultural traditions that came with it: light skin, break dancing, technology, etc. If you don’t yet understand what made this disheartening to me, keep in mind that many of these students are indigenous. They are away from their communities, away from their native language, away from their cultural traditions. In other words, the children were not just taking on and learning new languages and cultures but also losing their own in the midst. While I realize the importance and/or benefits of teaching the English language and Western culture and the Vietnamese language and city culture, I just can’t look past the danger in the neglect of their native J’rai culture. This homogenization of culture, the disappearance of unique languages and ways of life, is and has been a universal trend that is both unfortunate and destructive to the diversity of our global community. While I truly fell in love with each and every one of my 8 and 9 year-old students, it was undeniably difficult to walk into that classroom everyday with all these thoughts in my head and my Western alphabet letters and English workbooks in my hands.

Going back to the tribe on the Peru/Brazil border, I can’t help but imagine their lives several years from now, post outside intervention. Will they be immediately dropped to the bottom of the socioeconomic food chain and thrust into what we know to be poverty? Will the proselytizers rush in to “save” them? Will they pursue major languages and neglect their own in the process? We must think critically about the consequences of and possibilities for their future. So the question becomes this: to make contact and change life as they know it or to protect them from outside intervention and preserve the beauty of their culture in its purest form?

Mallory Massie

To view the footage and to learn more about the tribe and how you can help protect them and their way of life please visit


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