In conversation with linguist Dan Everett

Everett talks to Survival’s Joanna Eede about what the world loses when a tribal language and knowledge disappears, why we need all of our minds and experiences working together and how the Pirahã Indians are ‘bipedal encyclopaedias of the world around them’.

Why did you live with the Pirahã hunter-gatherers of the Brazilian Amazon?

I initially went to Brazil in 1977 as a missionary with the Wycliffe Bible Translators – Summer Institute of Linguistics. They asked me to work among the Pirahãs because no previous missionary, anthropologist, or linguist had successfully analyzed their grammar. And there were no converts and no translation yet.

What do you consider to be the most important things you learned from the Pirahã people during the years you spent with them?

I suppose the most important lesson was to be tough – non-complaining and resilient in the face of hardship; not worrying about tomorrow.

Pirahã boys play in the forest. The small Pirahã tribe will be affected by the Madeira river dams, Amazonas state, north-west Brazil.

Pirahã boys play in the forest. The small Pirahã tribe will be affected by the Madeira river dams, Amazonas state, north-west Brazil.
© Clive W. Dennis

The Pirahã live entirely in the present. You describe this as being a ‘sophisticated way to live.’ Why?

How many of us regret our pasts or our families’ pasts? How many of us worry about what we’ll be in the future, how we will die, what will become of our loved ones? Imagine life without regrets, without worries beyond what we can solve right now, without a heaven above us or a hell below us.

That is a marvelous lesson and, I think, sophisticated philosophy.

What are the threats to the Pirahã people and other Amazonian tribal peoples that you have worked with?

The threats are many, but they have in common the activities of outsiders, encroaching on their land and way of life.

When I was last among the Pirahã they told me that they didn’t want anyone else to come to live on their land. They said ‘Crooked people (their term for outsiders) have lots of land and lots of water. We have the Maici river. Why can’t crooked people stay in their jungle and leave us in ours?’

But now even organizations designed to help the Pirahã, NGOs and government agencies, fail to learn about Pirahã culture or bother to learn the language before trying hard to change their way of life, in many and mainly adverse ways.

Pirahã village in dry season.

Pirahã village in dry season.
© Daniel Everett

The Pirahã has fewer than 400 speakers. What does a tribal people lose when their language becomes eroded?

I wrote an essay on this some time ago; it’s called From threatened languages to Threatened Lives.

In that I concluded that: ‘For many people … the loss of language brings loss of identity and sense of community, loss of traditional spirituality, and even loss of the will to live.

‘To save hundreds of endangered languages around the world will require a massive effort by linguists, anthropologists, and other interested individuals.

‘We need, as a minimum, to identify which languages are endangered, to learn enough about each of them to produce a dictionary, a grammar, and a written form of the language, to train native speakers of these languages as teachers and linguists, and to secure government support for protecting and respecting these languages and their speakers.

‘A daunting task. But a vital one for all of us.’

The small Pirahã tribe will be affected by the Madeira river dams.

The small Pirahã tribe will be affected by the Madeira river dams.
© Clive W. Dennis

What does the world lose when a tribal language is lost?

It loses another way to solve problems of how best to live in the world. It loses knowledge of the earth and alternative relations to the earth and alternative categorizations of the world around us.

We need all of our minds and experiences working together. I believe in the need for diversity. Without diversity our world becomes less likely to survive. If different traditions and languages disappear, it is far worse than the loss of entire museums, such as the Louvre or the British Museum.

In such places we have miniscule vestiges of lost cultures. But in tribal societies we have entire sets of knowledge and examples of living.

You refer to the Pirahã’s homeland around the Maici river as ‘startlingly beautiful’. Why?

The Milky Way at night with the Southern Cross brightly embedded in the dark sky. Moon shadows of jungle trees with the sounds of life from the splashing of the water to the growls in the dark.

Pirahã man paddles by sundown on the Maici river. The tribe are at risk from plans for the Madeira River dams.

Pirahã man paddles by sundown on the Maici river. The tribe are at risk from plans for the Madeira River dams.
© Clive W. Dennis

Strong people paddling swiftly and laughing loudly. Water that mirrors the blue heavens and white clouds. Old men talking around the fire at night. Sleeping on the beach, looking straight into the heart of the universe.

Can you tell us about the Pirahã’s intimate knowledge of their environment, and their daily uses of plants and animals?

Walking with the Pirahã through the jungle or traveling with them on the river, you are startled by their knowledge. If you see bubbles in the water, they will tell you whether they are caused by the shape of the riverbed at that point or by a particular species of fish. Or an anaconda.

If you see a branch move overhead, they will tell you what bird or mammal moved it. I have never seen a plant or animal in the jungle that the Pirahã couldn’t tell me about – how it grows, what eats it, where to find it, what its various uses are, how it behaves, whether it is good to eat, and so on. Everything.

They are bipedal encyclopedias of the world around them.

You talk often about the Pirahã’s sense of happiness. What do you think this stems from?

Their toughness, their lack of regrets, their lack of fear of heaven or hell, their lack of guilt, their lack of worry. I know that all sounds idyllic. I don’t mean to make them sound perfect. They can be sad. They can be mean. They can be upset. But these are the exceptions.

To watch the Pirahã on a daily basis, to live among them, is to know a group about as free from angst as one (at least I) can imagine. The principle I refer to account for a lot of this is the ‘Immediacy of Experience Principle’. I talk about it quite a bit in my book, Don’t sleep there are snakes.

Young Pirahã mother.

Young Pirahã mother.
© Daniel Everett

You started your time with the Pirahã as a missionary and now believe that it is wrong to try and convert tribal peoples to Christianity. What happened to provoke such a fundamental shift in belief?

As I learned about the depth of Pirahã knowledge and the strength of their characters, I began to realize that is obscene to think that I or, worse, some violent people from the distant past, have anything to teach them about how to live.

And I realized that the Pirahã were thinking about the nature of beliefs in some ways more effective than I, by requiring sensory evidence for factual claims.

Many false beliefs still abound about tribal peoples; the colonial idea that they are in some way backwards is still used to justify their dispossession. How do you think the notions of ‘stone age’ and ‘primitive’ can be permanently eradicated?

I have said in the past that we don’t always occupy the ’same century’ as other peoples. That was an unfortunate choice of words. What I meant by that is that there are values and ideas that we had in previous phases of our western societies that have been lost, to our detriment, but which some tribal societies possess.

Pirahã couple having fish for breakfast.

Pirahã couple having fish for breakfast.
© Daniel Everett

There are no ‘stone age’ societies. If by primitive we meant ‘adhering to foundational ways and values’ then I wouldn’t object too strongly to that word. But it is used mainly to indicate backwardness and inferiority. And that is just ignorant.

Everyone should live a week with strangers – as unlike themselves as possible. Everyone needs to travel, to eat different foods, to see different movies from different countries, to see how what is unlike us can teach us. Yet I know that this is utopian.

Prejudice is the easy way. It doesn’t strain us mentally to think we’re better, that our way of life is superior. It just seems natural. Like believing that a dog is called ‘dog’ because that is what it is. I don’t think ignorance can be permanently eradicated. But we need to try to alleviate it and to speak on behalf of tribal peoples, weaker and smaller than us only in population and ability to wage war. It is a never-ending endeavor.

Survival’s movement for tribal peoples believes in a world where tribal peoples rights are respected and their ways of life are recognised. How do you think the public can best help to foster these beliefs so opinion is changed and the illegal treatment of them is stopped for good?

Read about travels, about tribal peoples, from popular to introductory ethnographies.

Make the effort. Write letters. Get involved with organizations like Survival International, Cultural Survival, the Foundation for Endangered Languages, and so on. Make donations. Travel! Volunteer to go on trips to help in remote parts of the world.

If you really care.

Daniel Everett is Dean of Arts and Sciences at Bentley University.


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