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To which Tribe do the Synod Indians Belong?

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Antony Burckhardt

There were Indians in Hollywood Westerns. With feathers in their hair and a bow in their hands, they would seize the stagecoach before having to cross the Rio Grande fleeing John Wayne. There were also Hergé’s Indians [from The Adventures of Tintin]… With their blowguns, they guided Tintin and his dog Snowy to the fetish with a broken ear. Could Synod Indians exist as well?

Admittedly – and this is a pity – the preparatory document is not a work of fiction. The Synod Fathers have not invented their Indians. They recruited them from the good cannibals of Montaigne and the noble savages of Rousseau. Like the latter, “Synod Indians” live in peaceful harmony with a paradisiacal nature. Their innocence is intact since the first morning in the world. Benevolent, Mother Earth watches over these big kids like a spoiling grandma. In short, the synodal Indian is a kind of Adam said to have never sinned, or a hippie who escaped gentrification.

If this is not a movie or a comic book, it is beginning to look like a shaman’s fairy tale The synod Indian, an inverted mirror image of the white man, is just as unreal as his diametrically opposed counterpart, the Aztec cannibal who spends his day extracting hearts from Spaniards and cooking them on the spit. This is so for three reasons that any reader aged 7 to 77 will immediately understand.

The first is that the Garden of Eden, where this sacristy Indian is usually frolicking, is as real as Alice’s wonderland. Anyone who has ever ventured into a tropical forest can attest that—despite its incomparable beauty—it is not a paradise. Banana spiders, Tityus scorpions, coral snakes, black caimans, piranhas: Noah’s ark disembarked here the bestiary most hostile to man. Not to mention malaria swamps infested with mosquitoes, devastating storms and the sweltering heat that would almost turn sauna baths into pleasant refreshments…

This world is the one that Providence reserved for certain Indian tribes. They do not live (or rather survive) in it because of an immoderate taste for zoology or botany. It is simply because they are born there and are as at home as the  ancient Gauls in the forest of Brocéliande and the Tuareg in the Sahara. But note that no one has ever become infatuated with the dunes trampled by dromedaries… It is true that Western followers of Gaia regret the real or supposed disappearance of forests as much as they worry about advancing deserts.

The second reason why the Synodal Indian refers to the museum of exotic dreams is his so-called peaceful harmony with the world of the forest. If the latter undoubtedly provides the local races with their subsistence and —why not— modest reasons for rejoicing, there is nothing of a Club Med about it (as we have seen). The world of the man they call “primitive” a bit too quickly is not that gently vaporous environment of New Age followers. No offense to the synod fathers, but it is not an exotic garden where you cuddle jaguars and where Pachamama tells you a story before going to sleep like Grandmother Willow in Pocahontas. The Earth is certainly the nourishing benefactor that heaven fertilizes — the Gaia-Uranus couple is found in many cultures — but it is also the monster that swallows the dead. The world of natives is contradictory, dangerous, populated by menacing spirits, and therefore terribly distressing.

Jean de Léry experienced it half a millennium before the synod now being prepared… Unlike Montaigne and Rousseau, this Huguenot crossed the Atlantic and ventured into the jungle. In his Histoire d’un voyage fait en la terre du Brésil [History of a Trip in the Land of Brazil], which Levi-Strauss described as “a masterpiece of ethnographic literature,” he recounts, not without emotion, the how terrified Tupinamba Indians are with “Aygnan”, a spirit of the forest that never stops tormenting them…

Much closer to us, Mircea Eliade describes with a precision that should inspire the Synodal Fathers, the terrifying and often extremely violent rites through which the “primitives” tame their universe. In the book titled, Initiation, rites, sociétés secrètes [Initiation, Rites, Secret Societies], Eliade dedicates an entire chapter to the initiation of the shaman. Needless to say, the trance and even homicidal phase through which he passes is a far cry from the image of a wise man dialoguing in his hut like a Socrates, as Diderot’s imagination staged in his Supplément au voyage de Bougainville.

Finally, here is one last thing that seems to escape our priests in flip-flops: the Guarani, Macuxi, Yanomami etc. do have a history even if we must recognize that we do not know it very well for lack of writings and archaeological remnants. To speak about them as if they belonged to the childhood of the world and possess the innocence this presupposes is to show a Eurocentrism which Pope Francis’ disciples abhor when it comes, for example, to do missionary work. No, the Indian did not stay in the Adamic age, preserved from corruption. He is probably not even a “primitive”. This, in any case, is the thesis that Jacques Soustelle defends regarding the Lacandons in the book Quatre soleils. This passionate anthropologist of the early inhabitants of Mexico shows that the little men who circulate in the Chiapas jungle are not “innocents” who never evolved but rather decadent Mayas. Mutatis mutandis, in Tristes tropiques, Lévi-Strauss raises the same hypothesis about the Mato Grosso tribes that he studies.

But let us return to the Lacandons, so similar in many respects to their distant cousins of Amazonia. According to Soustelle, they belonged to the plebs of a brilliant civilization before declining following the decomposition of the elites who maintained the cities to which they belonged. Some still wander to the once prosperous city of Yaxchilan, of which only ruins devoured by the jungle remain. How not to recall the barbarized Romans of the seventh century who passed their plow near the Forum? What did they have in common with Cincinnatus if not their race and the instrument they had in their hands?

Decadence: a topic as old as history, which synodal Fathers would do well to reflect upon… By raising the Amazon Indians as a model ubi et orbi, where are they leading the remnants of Christian civilization?

Positions and concepts emitted in signed articles are the sole responsibility of their authors.

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