Sarah Shulist on her new book, Transforming Indigeneity

Transforming Indigeneity
Interview by Shannon Ward
Shannon Ward: Your book demonstrates how children in São Gabriel actively respond to discourse that frames Indigeneity as performance, by acting out Indigeneity as a set of symbols distinct from the realm of everyday life. You also explain that youth, facing the realities of urban poverty, substance abuse, and violence, often look to non-Indigenous symbols of material wealth for aspiration. Do you see any hope for mobilizing the resources necessary to give children and youth space for building their own meaningful cultural practices, as part of a shared identity as urban Indigenous youth?
Sarah Shulist: I absolutely see hope for youth to find creative ways to build “meaningful cultural practices”, and I think they definitely are doing so already. I should note that the story about “performing” Indigeneity really highlights more about what the little girl’s parents thought than what she herself was doing (because she herself was very young), which illustrates that even the adults have a complicated relationship to the balance between the symbolic form of Indigeneity and a more “lived in” one. I found that older teens and young people in their 20s were very committed to their vision of themselves as urban Indigenous people, however, and really resisted the discourses of rigid cultural “purity” that some powerful people advocated. They were creating theatre groups, developing radio programs, and starting hip-hop dance/song workshops, and in all of these they really wanted to use Indigenous stories and themes in ways that resonated with their “modern” views of themselves. This was also situated as a way of ensuring that kids would have sources of social strength that would help prevent them from becoming involved in drug trafficking and other risks. One of the most passionate young women I knew when I was there is now in her early 30s, and has become the head of a newly created municipal youth council, so her energy is being transferred forward in that context.

Shannon Ward: Your book shows the challenges of cultural and linguistic transmission in a city, when concerns about Indigeneity are often framed through discussions of land rights and when Indigenous language practices are deeply tied to the realities of everyday agricultural life. How could the generally effective political mobilization of Indigenous peoples for rural land rights (pg. 41, for example) be replicated in urban spaces?
Sarah Shulist: I think that one way to mobilize around language in urban areas would involve mobilizing more directly around language in and of itself, rather than as an extension of other rights – specifically, in this case, the right to ‘differentiated education.’ A lot of activism that has taken place around language has strategically looked for the openings provided within the legal structure of the Brazilian constitution, which makes perfect sense, but which has left the urban areas out. Now, with the recent election of a government that has promised to erase Indigenous land reserves, the risks associated with having all rights tied to these land recognitions become even more starkly clear. Language efforts can become ways of solidifying and strengthening community networks in urban areas, or across urban/rural movements, and so on. Language exists (or can exist) wherever speakers and potential speakers exist, so I have often seen the crux of urban language revitalization as based in the notion that “the community” needs to be created, rather than presumed to already be in a given place. At the same time, an aspect of Indigenous mobilization that’s happening here in Canada, and that I think is also important elsewhere, is a reminder that these cities are also built on colonized land, and that the Indigenous people living in them have a claim to ways of moving through those spaces that are often erased by separating out what “counts” as Indigenous lands as only referring to what we call “reserves” here, and “demarcated territories” there. It’s striking to look at a map of the municipality of São Gabriel and remember that the ‘seat’ of governance is the only part of it that is not considered to be Indigenous territory – this tiny island of non-Indigenous space from which everything is supposed to emanate – when of course the reasoning behind that is a purely colonial logic.
Shannon Ward: In chapter 4, your discussion of Indigenous language pedagogy, specifically, Nheengatú classes that valorize literacy over other linguistic skills, seems relevant to discussions not only of language revitalization, but of language and literacy learning more broadly. What do you think the case of Nheengatú classes in São Gabriel can tell us more generally about the acquisition of literacy, and the challenges of implementing immersion-based learning in communities that may not value linguistic diversity as an element of everyday practice?
Sarah Shulist: This is a great question, and it covers a lot of ground. I think the example of the Nheengatú classes fits within a much larger pattern of classroom-based views of ‘language’ that really emphasize not only literacy, but very particular forms of literacy. The diversity of literacy practices beyond schooled literacy have, of course, become an important topic within linguistic anthropology, and this research is part of what helped me to recognize the strength of that pull towards writing-centric ideologies in the Nheengatú classrooms. I think what I learned from the challenges facing Nheengatú language teachers was to be careful about dismissing the meaning and power behind teaching literacy. As someone trained in linguistics, I’ve definitely been influenced by the emphasis on orality, and I do think there is an important need, in language revitalization efforts, to orient toward supporting language in practice, rather than as an abstract grammatical system.  But at the same time, I think there is a lot of meaning behind the literacy practices that we can sometimes dismiss too easily. While feelings about the inferiority of Indigenous languages are obviously rooted in internalizations of colonial logics, that doesn’t make them any less real or worth challenging, and having or learning writing in the language seems to have a lot of power to challenge those beliefs. The biggest challenge of implementing immersion schools in São Gabriel, I think, is less about a devaluation of multilingualism per se and more about a strong attachment to a specific view of what formal education is for, which is to learn how to move and succeed within a non-Indigenous world. Given that, I think the potential for immersion-based learning that is happening outside of schools is important to cultivate, and there are plenty of great examples of these types of strategies from around the world that could be applied in the Amazonian context.
Shannon Ward: In chapter 7, you explain that cross-border migration is changing the linguistic ecology of São Gabriel  How might cross-border alliances of Indigenous peoples in this region develop? How could such alliances mobilize Indigenous people to hold greater agency in urban places of habitation?
Sarah Shulist: The question of cross-border migration within São Gabriel remains an ever-changing concern, and I think even in the year or so since I did the final read through of the book proofs, the dynamics of changed. Colombia has become more stable, while Venezuela’s economic and political crisis has deepened, and the results of the Brazilian election will also reshape the implications of being Indigenous in each of these three countries. I think the degree of unrest and the shifting dynamics make cross-border alliances and transnational advocacy groups into vital elements in this discussion, but in ways that I don’t think are predictable at this point.
Shannon Ward:  Brazil has recently faced several tragedies covered by international media, including the destruction of archives of Indigenous endangered languages at Brazil’s National Museum. How might this tragedy factor into future decisions surrounding the methods of language documentation and linguistic revitalization in São Gabriel?
Sarah: I think working on language revitalization requires a degree of hopefulness – an imagination about a future social world in which Indigenous peoples have the space, both metaphorical and literal, to use their languages and live in ways that are holistically their own. I have, personally, found it difficult to maintain that hopeful vision given the recent tragic losses of the museum fire, as well as the election of Bolsonaro, who has said some truly frightening things about his desire to do away with even the most basic of Indigenous land protections. I think these events call us, as academic allies, to really rethink what our goals are with respect to language revitalization. Documentation and “preservation”, as in the museum, have long been recognized as incomplete, and also, in many ways, as products of an extractive colonial ideology that puts the language down on paper and takes it away from the community in which it is used (I wrote a post about this on my own blog in the immediate aftermath of the fire: ).
Schools, likewise, are very expensive projects whose maintenance and value depend on constant reinvestment and buy-in from the colonial state, and the political whims of the moment really demonstrate how precarious it is to lay our hopes on this kind of a foundation. That’s my somewhat long-way-around introduction to saying that I think a lot of language documentation and revitalization, in São Gabriel in particular but also elsewhere, needs to really listen to Indigenous voices who are emphasizing radical re-imagining of what ‘language’ is and what it means to support its continued presence in their lives.  I’m thinking of Indigenous scholars like Wesley Leonard and Jenny Davis, among others, here). A lot of academics are recognizing that any authentic desire to support Indigenous languages requires us to support Indigenous people, and not shy away from the messy human realities that entails. The museum fire was somewhat less devastating to languages in the Northwest Amazon region than it was to other areas, because most of them are still spoken by at least a small number of people, and good, recent documentation exists of many of them that was not housed in the Museu Nacional. I still hope that it will be taken as a powerful reminder that we need to refocus on language as inherently embedded in its social context, and on protecting the lifeways of the people who use it.

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