While in the year 12,016¹ it should be no surprise that a nation or peoples’ level of industrialization is not indicative of their intelligence or evolutionary status, many people still currently make this mistake in regards to indigenous peoples.
The traditionalist Christian Amish people may be seen as radical in their literal interpretations of the Bible and their rejection of electricity and many other modern conveniences, but they tend to be a respected group of people. Seldom do people enter Amish Country with the intent of ‘converting’ them to a more modern lifestyle, or attempting to force them into a different way of thinking. While many find the Amish lifestyle and culture to be somewhat odd, it is nonetheless seen as a valid lifestyle choice. A significant amount of people even express an interest in converting and actually joining the Amish.
And that is not a bad thing. However, the story takes on a much different tone when the people in question are indigenous tribal peoples. They are still often referred to as “primitive” or “backwards.” Many people feel personally offended, as can be noted on nearly any Facebook post made by the organization Survival International, by the lifestyles of non-industrialized indigenous peoples, and leave comments that express that a tribal lifestyle is equatable with child abuse, or that by advocating that these Native people should have a right to choose their level of industrialization we are insisting that everyone else give up all technology (which falsely implies indigenous peoples lack technology to begin with), or comments that suggestion criminalization of ‘offensive’ tribal customs.
Scientifically, it is known (and obvious) that Amish people are not a human subspecies; they are not biologically inferior. Their lifestyle and beliefs may be criticized, and rightfully, but they are normal human beings. This is also true, yet less commonly realized, of tribal Natives. The idea that a group of people who choose to live a different, notably simpler lifestyle, are somehow less advanced is therefore referred to as an “Amish Error” because it can be disproven using the more commonly recognized Amish people, or because someone may not judge Amish people in the same manner.
So let me address a few misconceptions, pseudoscientific statements, and problematic notions:
Modernity: The first misconception is that many citizens of first-world countries equate their lifestyle to modernity. Industrialization is as modern as an Amish lifestyle, as they both currently exist. Just because something exists elsewhere in the world, it does not cease to be a part of modern life. Ongoing activities are all modern, regardless of when they were developed. Many people make the mistake in saying “In modern times, women are no longer oppressed.” These people fail to realize that time is not restricted to a location. “Modern day” Iraq is very different from “modern day” United States,” which is very different from “modern day” Amazonian rainforests. Our societies are contemporary.
Health: One of the biggest misconceptions regarding indigenous peoples is their health and welfare. Many people tend to associate the phrase “tribal people” with images of starving African children, filthy people, and sickness. I have heard on more than one occasion advocacy for forcing tribal people into civilization because it would be a “gift” preventing entire tribes being wiped out by plague and children dying from easily preventable diseases. I discussed this previously as well in an earlier essay, Towards a Better Understanding of “Progress”. The fact of the matter is that the best way to prevent these communities from perishing by way of disease is to avoid them. More than anything else, outside contact disturbs their health. Want them to not get diseases and die? Then its safe to say we should not be forcing them into large groups of people (civilization) who carry bacteria and viruses that, while harmless to those in particular nations, could easily kill them. Why bring them somewhere with foreign diseases to vaccinate them to these foreign disease when they could simply have their land be theirs with little chance of deadly foreign disease reaching them? These people have hygienic practices and generations of natural immunity. Post-contact is when these people are most vulnerable to annihilation by disease.
Secondly, life expectancy in the vast majority of tribes is lessened only by infant mortality, and not exponentially. In other words, No, indigenous peoples do not have an average lifespan of 40. Stafford Lightman, Professor of Medicine at Bristol University reports that the general health of most isolated tribes is “extremely good,” and that following contact “the incidence of severe stress related disorders and mental health conditions will increase very, very rapidly.” Contacted and integrated indigenous populations such as the Innu or Australian Aborigines are reported to have very high rates of heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and depression that were previously unknown to them. Jo Woodman, a senior researcher at Survival International reports that “their food systems are complex, self-sufficient and deliver a very broad-based, nutritionally diverse diet.” And because many isolated tribes are still largely hunting and gathering societies, they lack the issues that are found to arise from agriculture, which anthropologist Jared Diamond describes as “a catastrophe from which we have never recovered.” These agriculture-induced issues include increase in diseases, weaker bones and teeth, smaller brains and shorter stature, and a heavy dependence on low-nutrient density/high-carb crops.
Child welfare: Many people cite “barbaric” customs regarding youth as a reason to force Natives into a “civilized society.” Many of these customs are mere guesses or assumptions (as rarely does a person cite a specific custom found in a specific, actually existing tribe). However, there can be genuine concern. Yet many of these people fail to realize that many normalized practices of many “civilized” nations could rightfully be considered abuse. Many who are concerned that there may be barbaric rituals or practices involving tribal children may have circumcised their own son, or may use corporeal punishment, or leave their child left alone crying- all without a second thought simply because these things occur among us and not a foreign, strange society. These people usually fail to acknowledge that bonds between indigenous communities tend to be much stronger, that bullying is virtually unheard of, they emphasize sharing and “we” rather than “I,” and that physical violence against children even in form of punishment is largely taboo.
Religion: Many people feel the desire to “rescue” indigenous peoples by bringing them into a civilization that can teach them a better religion. Of all the reasons to uproot a community and cause chaos, this is the probably the least logical. The overwhelming majority of religions have no basis in fact or reality, and therefore certainly should not be imposed upon anyone. Even if it is, in best case scenario, well-intentioned, the results are not very good. More churches do not make up for more diseases and other issues that arise when outsiders, such as missionaries, make contact. Ensuring that someone does not go to hell is not worth eradicating centuries of a culture, or a part of a culture: Ancestral beliefs.
On the other hand, some atheists have posed a similar argument. That these indigenous communities are held back by their seemingly bizarre beliefs, and that we can provide them with better education in a civilized setting. First, the idea of completely erasing an ancestral belief or attempting to “fix it” with our lifestyle is very imperialistic. It does not make sense to forcibly change a group of people so they can have a subjectively better life. Indigenous communities are taught all that is necessary. If they were lacking desperately needed knowledge, they would have either obtained it or died off by now. The knowledge we need to thrive in our lifestyle is not the same as what they need. Teaching them all that we know would be irrelevant at best, and imposing if nothing else. These people will not die if they do not know calculus, but they can suffer or die if their identities are taken from them, if their worldview is crushed, and if they lose ancestral knowledge of land, and if they lose their lands.
Conservation: Indigenous people have been accused of being detrimental to the environment, leading to many being evicted from their ancestral homelands. Being falsely seen as poachers, many have been forced to starve. In the worst cases, anti-poaching groups funded by conservation organization World Wildlife Fund have terrorized and abused Natives. Yet,the world’s most biodiverse areas are home to many of these tribes. These tribes thrive in these areas, and these areas thrive with these tribes. Indigenous communities have lived in harmony with their environments for centuries, long before “conservation” was ever heard of, or necessary. No individual dependant on an industrial civilization will ever be living more sustainably than an indigenous individual would be. Being removed from nature does not mean we do less damage. Not being able to directly see the consequences of our lifestyle does not mean ours has less impact. Indigenous peoples face the worst effects of our lifestyles and of any damage to the environment at all. Virtually every part of life in tribal communities is organic, used entirely, and self-sufficient. In no way does it make sense to evict those who care for their environments the most, whilst allowing tourists into these regions. Yet this is more often than not the case: Those who have cared for the land for generations must be kicked out because they might hurt the environment, but if you’re a foreigner you can pay to come here and shoot a lion and they use that money for conservation.
Overall, even if what we view “progress” to be is truly progressive, we should not feel the need to enforce it upon anyone. These indigenous communities do grow and change with time, and if they chose to integrate, that is fine. But when so many groups and individuals are not only speaking out against it, but actively running and hiding from it, we should leave them alone. They will make their own advancements and do what is best for them. Afterall, they know themselves and one another better than we do.
¹Not using the Anno Domini (AD) numbering, instead using the Holocene Era (HE) calendar