Indigenous Peoples and the Modern Era

Meghan Enzinna, author
Dr. Laura Farrell, faculty advisor

Much has been accomplished since the industrial revolution. Transportation and technology have skyrocketed and left behind their mark of accomplishment. However, this mark is not so easily seen by those who make it, but rather by those who suffer from it. Native tribes all over the world have clung to their traditions of the past regardless of the progress made by the world around them. From the colonial era to present, indigenous peoples have tolerated missionaries, dictators, corporate suits, and so on. According to Joshua Hammer (2013), “[f]or the past century, they have lived with an awareness–and fear–of the outside world, anthropologists say, and have made the choice to avoid contact” (p. 219). The experiences between indigenous tribes and the modern world best describe the basis of intercultural communication. One theory that follows the communication pattern between indigenous culture and modern people is cultural identity. Two more that follow this same theory happen to follow it in a contradictory sense. These two theories are communication accommodation theory and cultural convergence.

Cultural identity serves as an appropriate theory for this topic. However, two more theories, cultural convergence and communication accommodation, help exhibit evidence of the denial of cultural identity which is important to discuss when concerning the development of a group of people. Cultural identity is defined as the feeling of belonging within a distinct cultural group while also surrounded by the same culturally idealistic individuals. Communication accommodation theory deals with communication that is shared equally. Both the encoder and the messenger must be able to accept and in turn, be willing to share cultural values and beliefs when the communication roles are reversed to encourage the communication event. A successful development of this theory would eventually lead to cultural convergence, which describes the event of different cultures coming together or becoming similar to each other. These theories contradict cultural identity because there is no acceptance from outsiders. When there is no acceptance from outsiders, or understanding from the natives, communication cannot develop and therefore cannot exist within these two theories.

The indigenous peoples and the modern era have been juxtaposed with each passing year. This is an important topic of study because it is still a current developing issue. The indigenous peoples are continually wiped out by everyday advancements in technology and diplomacy. They are eradicated from their homes and villages because of modern-day progress like farming and construction. Large corporations look for land to build or convert, while governments look for employment opportunities and income. This leaves indigenous people helpless and voiceless. However, in recent years the natives, through protests, speeches, and rallies, have challenged cultural boundaries and pushed for their rights to be heard. In Farmville, these voices can be heard through similar rallies and speeches. It is important to understand these cultures in a community such as Farmville because of how small and local the town is. Bringing diversity and knowledge out of the jungle and into small farming towns such as Farmville will really help bring locals out of the dark and help them understand further issues such as global warming, deforestation, sustainability, and wilderness survival.

Literature Review

“Culture,” as defined by the Merriam–Webster online dictionary (2015), refers to a particular society that has its own beliefs and ways of life. It also states that culture is a way of thinking, behaving, or working that exists in a place or organization. “According to the UN, ‘indigenous people account for most of the world’s cultural diversity.’ They estimate that there are approximately 6,000 cultures in the world, 4–5,000 of which are indigenous” (Campbell, MacKinnon, & Stevens, 2011). Due to the multitude of indigenous peoples, it is commonplace to assume that there would be a high acceptance rate among all people. However, most of the remaining population looks down upon these tribes as people with little to no value to the world.

There are several synonyms to replace the adjective indigenous. The word indigenous is defined as, “produced, growing, living, or occurring naturally in a particular region or environment” (Merriam–Webster, 2015). Indigenous people have grown off of the land and learned from it; “their lives are part of and inseparable from the natural world” (Mankiller, 2009,     p. 223). Regardless of the numerous environmental advocates and EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) members developed by the United States government, there exists no group of people more in tune with nature and the environment than indigenous tribes. Living with nature is a consistent reminder of their responsibilities to the earth and their devotion to live by it. People of the modern era do not have this connection and therefore cannot live by these standards to the fullest extent, regardless of their affection towards nature because they do not depend on it.

Cultural identity theory is evident among all indigenous tribes. For the same reason that modernized people cannot connect entirely to nature, indigenous people stay fully immersed in it. These natives stay within their communities because they are so distinct from all other societies that they will not separate for fear of isolation. Even from other indigenous communities, all tribes are entirely individualistic in regards to the culture, values and religious views. “One of the most common misconceptions about indigenous peoples is that they are all the same” (Mankiller, 2009, p. 223).

Unlike modernized peoples, most indigenous peoples are unwilling to assimilate. Cultural convergence theory is apparent in this statement, but in a reversed aspect. This theory has been tested multiple times within several native communities. However, many are unwilling to detach from hundreds of years of tradition. Similarly, modernized people have a hard time accepting this native way of life when there is so much technology and innovation to take advantage of and utilize. “‘Modernization’” fundamentally benefitted the large landowners and entrepreneurs at the expense of the Indians and the peasantry” (Rus, Hernández Castillo & Mattiace, 2003, p. 93). This was experienced through forceful land grabbing and the extermination of tribes in profitable areas. Some tribes in Latin America such as the Kayapo in Brazil, the Panare in Venezuela, and the Saraguro in Ecuador, have experienced this pressure to assimilate. Like countless other tribes around the world, these Latin American aboriginals are viewed as underdeveloped and backward. Missionaries and anthropologists attempt to intervene to provide basic modern necessities such as textiles, medicines, and cookware. While little is accepted from them, the presence of these outsiders is intrusive and uncomfortable.

In recent years, governments of several different countries have extended a helping hand with the protection and conservation of land towards the indigenous communities. After two decades of failed integration and relocation of Indians, the Brazilian government created the Department of Isolated Indians inside FUNAI (Fundacão Nacional do Índio). Within this department, they reserved a piece of land called the Javari Valley Indigenous Land that became private land sealed off to outsiders. According to Hammer (2009), the Javari Valley reserve “is home to ‘the greatest concentration of isolated groups in the Amazon and the world’” (p.219).  The Kayapo Indians of Brazil are a good example of modern influence and from a theoretical view, of cultural convergence as well. The Kayapo society was once a series of “large villages with a complex age–grade and lineage organization” (Posey, 1994, p. 271). However, due to European invasions, the large villages split up into smaller distant villages. One particular Kayapo community depicts evidence of cultural convergence. This community exploits the gold in a gold reserve about ten miles from the village. With the gold reserve being a ten-million-dollar industry, there are obvious cultural differences between each village. Whilst one village embraces modern indulgences, the other represses it with meetings on how to continue to escape and ignore modern goods.

As for the Panare Indians, this indigenous culture has segregated itself from the rest of the world. Anthropologists claim that the Panare are soon to be extinct due to common illnesses like the flu and the ignorance to not seek medical attention. It is communities like this that provide the necessary evidence into discovering alternate ways of life. However, if the Panare continue this secluded lifestyle, they will soon cease to be a culture. Opposite to the Panare, in “the southernmost Andean province of Ecuador, is the traditional homeland of an estimated thirty thousand to forty thousand people who identify themselves as Saraguros, one of Quichua nationalities” (Macas, Belote, & Belote, 2003, p. 217). The Saraguros are one of the few indigenous tribes that have kept control of their land for many years. Although many have relocated, each individual remains to “maintain a strong, proud, self–identity, as Saraguros” (Macas et al., 2003, p. 217).

These cultures are just a few of the 300 million indigenous people scattered throughout the world. With a focus on Latin American indigenous Indians, it is evident through the Panare and the Kayapo that many have been oppressed or wrongfully developed by modernism. With governments attempting to exploit the land for economic purposes and missionaries attempting to convert communities, it is practical to apply the theories previously discussed to explain the cultural differences between indigenous peoples and modern peoples.

Cultural Identity Theory, Communication Accommodation Theory, and
Cultural Convergence Theory

Cultural identity theory is easy to understand. It involves a group of people with the same beliefs congregating within the same community or organization. This occurs because understanding and acceptance comes easily between those who worship, believe, or promote the same ideals. Cultural identity theory is important when studying indigenous peoples because it explains why these groups rely on each other. Each society is culturally unique, and cultural identity theory supports why they continue to stay together. However, as discussed previously, tribes can be located within a short distance of each other; and yet lack the same cultural values. When discussing the Kayapo Indians, both villages originated from the same cultural background, but have long been separated from European infiltration years earlier. The Kayapo culture supports the application of communication accommodation theory. Due to their long–term separation, the Kayapo have adapted the different cultural ideals discussed in the previous section. Although this theory contradicts the prior theory, it does help to explain the struggle between indigenous people and the modern world.

Communication accommodation theory, as said previously, requires acceptance when applied. It cannot work unless both parties are willing to accept the other’s beliefs and values and work toward returning that acceptance. Although it contradicts cultural identity theory, both theories work together to create an understanding between the differences of each culture.

Both these theories help me understand my topic because they both deal with polar topics that eventually mesh together. For example, cultural identity theory shows how indigenous tribes stay linked together, whereas communication accommodation theory shows how outsiders or modern-day peoples cannot communicate with tribes because they choose not to. In the case of this topic, this theory could be reworded into reverse communication accommodation theory. Due to this topic requiring two viewpoints, it is possible to flip the theory to adjust to both viewpoints regarding acceptance, as well as ignorance.

The indigenous people of Latin America and all over the world have dealt with oppression for hundreds of years. This investigation shows how the intercultural communication between indigenous tribes in South America and modern-day people has affected the way indigenous people live. Not only does it affect their lives and their traditions, but it also affects the environment and ecosystem. The Kayapo of Brazil provide evidence to support this statement because when they split villages, the “dispersion had significant effects on regional flora and fauna, as well as provoking major social changes” (Posey, 1994, p. 271). Corporations and companies that try to invade native lands destroy the vegetation and homes that have been there for hundreds of years. While the natives live in and around nature, modern people move through it. As Stephen Judd proposes (2004), “the future of Amazonia also depends on the adaptability of Western society–its willingness to learn from indigenous knowledge and wisdom as well as from its own past mistakes in order to develop sustainable relationships with both ecosystems and indigenous societies” (p. 210). This investigation sheds light on the communication boundaries between native peoples and the modern era and how it can be easily conquered as long as people are aware of positive governmental strategies and progressive personal outlooks.

Practical Contribution

In an effort to bring awareness to the intercultural communication issue regarding indigenous peoples and modern society, media outlets are important resources. There are many Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook pages involving awareness toward such issues involving indigenous people. There are many practical contributions to make in regards to this investigation. Alongside a communications
investigation, an ecological/environmental study could be pursued. More than just communicational issues are at hand when it comes to native tribes. There are political and environmental issues regarding land ownership, corruption, and the desecration of ecological systems. Media outlets are crucial tools to bring awareness on a global scale. Websites and social media pages are the tools that help keep the topic of indigenous peoples alive.

In an interview conducted with Dr. James Jordan, he stated that without different cultures or traditions, we don’t learn about other ways of living and that it is wonderful the way other people live (personal communication, April 6, 2015). Other than the focus of this investigation, indigenous tribes in South America, it is possible to look at others tribes throughout the world. Other countries like Nigeria, Tibet, Australia and North America are home to natives with cultural communicational issues. For example, the Nnnngatanjara of Western Australia are threatened by missionary activity.

On a Facebook page dedicated to providing up-to-date news
concerning indigenous peoples, there are several articles posted covering successful endeavors toward saving these tribes. This Facebook page, Indigenous Peoples Issues and Resources, provides these articles in an easily accessible link to investigate further.

Although this is just one of many sites available to the public for research or leisure, there are still many other areas in the world that require attention. Native tribes are not the only issue accompanying progressive dilemmas. Recently, there has been information on shantytowns in third-world countries with high rates of infanticide. This is another topic that can branch off of indigenous tribes because it is yet another group of people that are neglected and run over by larger corporations. However helpful the media has been to bring awareness, it is not enough because there is always another new story.

Proposed Execution

The manner in which I intend to execute my project is as costly as it is beneficial. Although the date of execution is far in advance, it requires months of planning and preparation. So far, my plan to introduce diversity to the Longwood community involves a guest speaker from the indigenous tribe, the Kayapo, located deep in the
rainforests of Brazil.

I think it would be quite an honor to invite a member of the Kayapo Indians to come and discuss his or her way of life in the rainforest. This event would intrigue more than just Longwood students. Hypothetically, word would spread to neighboring towns and cities that a very rare event is occurring and many people would be interested. However, the challenge is to successfully accompany the member from Brazil all the way to Farmville, Virginia. As I have said before, it does get rather expensive. A grand total of $5,693 will be spent on this expedition. Including food, gas, air fare, and, hotel, it is important to make sure everything is in-tact.

Beginning in April, two Longwood ambassadors would make the journey to retrieve a member of the Kayapo Indians. Katie Stewart and Christie Baer have volunteered their time to travel to and from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. A proposed timeline for these events are as follows:

  • April 5, 2016–Leave Richmond International Airport for Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
  • April 7, 2016–Return and show guest to hotel room at Hampton Inn
  • April 8, 2016–Lecture presented in Jarman Auditorium @ 7:00 pm
  • April 11, 2016–Return to Brazil

This is a rough estimate of the events that will unfold in the first weeks of April. In addition to the over-all budget, food allowance will either be shortened or sustained because ambassadors can use their d–hall swipes to eat breakfast, lunch, or dinner with the guest. Using small vans provided by Longwood, volunteer professors would transport the guest and ambassadors to and from the airport, hotel, and campus.

An event such as this would hopefully bring awareness and other than spark questions and ideas, a club on campus or some type of donation could be started to help spread awareness and fund ideas to keep indigenous people where they feel comfortable, not to exploit them into modern society.


Hypothetically, the event would go seemingly well. There is ample time to locate the Kayapo tribe, return to the airport and return to Farmville. The only setback would be to get into contact with the Kayapo Indians when the ambassadors reach Brazil. However, that could be easily managed through radio and cellular devices since the Kayapo are aware of such technology and use radios themselves to get in contact with neighboring tribes.

The presence of a Kayapo Indian would spark intellectual questions on diversity, deforestation, and important survival techniques. The information that can be gained from an event such as this would
hopefully bring about clubs or donations to help keep indigenous people on the minds of politicians and global leaders alike. Since “indigenous peoples [are] occupying 20 per cent of the earth’s territory,” (United Nations Department of Public Information, 2010, p. 5) it is important to make sure they stay relevant in all walks of life.


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