Friday, June 6, 2008

Indigenous Pagans

There’s been some news lately about indigenous Pagan cultures that still exist in this world, sometimes right under the noses of “conservatives”. I remember a long time ago someone telling me there are no “real” Pagans left. That all Pagans these days are Neo-Pagans. I argued veheminantly at the time and my opinion hasn’t changed, but the news has evidence to back me up.
One story out of Pakistan talks about the Kalesha people in the Chitral region of Pakistan. They are Kafirs-infidels-Pagans and they have been there for more than 2000 years. Legend traces them back to Alexander the Great and some say that they worship the Gods of the ancient Greeks under different names, but their traditions are unlike anything seen elsewhere.
The reason they’re in the news is because some folks think Osama Bin Laden is hiding in this region. Indeed, rumor has it that he hid among the Kalesha during his jihad against Russia. But Osama Bin Laden is a conservative Muslim. It is hard to believe that he would be comfortable living among people whose women run around uncovered, who marry (and divorce) as they please and who worship many Gods. Also, the Pakastani tourism society is promoting Joshi, the Kalesha spring festival, as a tourist atraction. I’m not sure how I feel about that. It seems very disrespectful. And it will only encourage missionaries and we will have yet another extinct culture to talk about.

Another story is about a tribe in the Amazon. Anthropologists believe there are still a few uncontacted tribes in the Amazon and have for quite some time. Last week helicopter photographs were released from Brazil’s indigenous affairs council of several individuals from a previously unknown tribe. National Geographic has a bit about that. This has led to a great deal of conversation about how the Amazon rain forest is used, about oil mining and farming, which often requires cutting down great swaths of the forest. Should protecting these people interfere with this “progress”? And should these people be contacted? Although these tribes are being called “uncontacted” tribes, we don’t really know that. They could have been contacted by missionaries or Anthropologists in the past, and certainly they have contact with other tribes, many of which have contacts with “civilization” and can share their stories. It seems clear to me that at the very least, these folks don’t want helicopters landing near them, judging by the arrows they were shooting.
When I think about cultures going extinct it makes me as sad as when I think about species going extinct. All cultures contain wisdom and nobody from another culture has access to it unless we go and ask. So many cultures have already gone extinct, been totally wiped out, by other cultures who were so sure that they knew more than the culture they were wiping out that they never stopped to ask. It’s not just that the wisdom is lost, but the fact that maybe if they took the time to ask and saw the wisdom that was their, they might decide the culture had value and was worth saving and cooperating with instead of just wiping out. Thankfully, it seems, at least for the Amazonian tribes, there are people who care about them. The Kalesha I am quite worried about.