Recently, I had the privilege of attending a CBC Studio One Book Club, where I, along with Daily Gumboot editor-in-chief John Horn and about 40 other lucky souls, spent an inspiring hour and a half listening to and learning from renowned anthropologist Wade Davis. Facilitated by the engaging host of CBC’s North by Northwest Sheryl MacKay, Davis took us on a journey from the hills of Japan to the depths of the Columbian Amazon, exploring cultures that are at risk of being driven out of existence, and reflecting on why such ancient wisdom matters in our modern world. This question forms the basis of Davis’ new book, The Wayfinders, for which he is currently undertaking a cross-country tour as CBC’s 2009 Massey Lecturer.
Mr. Davis’ accomplishments are exceptional in both breadth and scope: he is an ethnographer, writer, photographer, and filmmaker, and has been described as “a rare combination of scientist, scholar, poet, and passionate defender of all of life’s diversity” by National Geographic, where he is their explorer-in-residence. A self-proclaimed storyteller, Davis spent 90 minutes in the retro-chic CBC studio enrapturing the audience with tales of peril, adventure, and hope. Through these stories, we collectively left with a contrasting sense of urgency and optimism – not what I expected coming into a talk about disappearing indigenous cultures.
Of the 7,000 languages spoken around the globe, half are not being taught to children and are at great risk of being lost. In Costa Rica, non-indigenous people have rapidly encroached onto indigenous territory: currently, 80% of indigenous territory is in the hands of non-indigenous people. British colonization. Canadian residential schools. The ways in which indigenous cultures have been put in jeopardy by external egregious forces are beyond measure. And still, Davis was able to instil in us a sense of hope for the future – for the inherent ability to respect difference. For the need, in this globalized world filled with the dangers of climate change and limited resources, to find a way to appreciate the diverse ways of thinking and interacting with the earth, and to accept that “traditional” ways of living are not inferior to “modern” ways, but instead reflect different paths taken. In the words of Wade Davis: “Together the myriad of cultures makes up an intellectual and spiritual web of life that envelops the planet and is every bit as important to the well being of the planet as is the biological web of life that we know as the biosphere”. Indeed.
One of the most inspiring tales of resiliency and strength told by Davis describes his recent journey to the Northwest Amazon of Columbia, whereby indigenous inhabitants of the land thrive in a revitalized culture, made possible by Columbian President Virgilio Barco Vargas (1986-1990), who gave legal land title to this group of aboriginals, among others. One of the most fascinating and wonderfully enchanting facts about the peoples in this region of the Amazon: in order to marry, one must marry someone who speaks a different language than they do. This is done in order to facilitate peace and vitality within the region. Through stories and fact, Davis dispelled the myth that culture is a fragile thing – something that can be broken, eradicated, destroyed. Instead, he paints a portrait of culture as something inherently strong, resilient, and dynamic, if given the change to be.
Margaret Mead, honoured anthropologist, expressed her concern about diminishing cultural diversity, stating: “as we drift toward a more homogeneous world, all of human potential might be reduced to a single modality, a blandly amorphous generic culture”. Within our increasingly globalized world, our duty as global citizens is to embrace the diversity of indigenous cultures, which contribute to the dynamic ethnosphere that makes our world such a rich and vivid place to live. For those readers who haven’t had the opportunity to see Wade Davis speak, I would strongly encourage you to check out his recent talks on TED.com