Posted by: Juri Estam | August 8, 2011

Indigenous People’s Day: Live Sustainably and Let Live

Indigenous People’s Day: Live Sustainably and Let Live

Ever since 1994, August 9 has been the International Day of Indigenous Peoples, thanks to an initiative of the UN General Assembly. Even if the UN is sometimes a strange and weak organization, not that I personally would like to have it any more powerful than it already is, it has its strong suits.

In 2004, the UN General Assembly proclaimed a Second International Decade of the World’s Indigenous Peoples. The goal of the Second Decade is to further the “strengthening of international cooperation for the solution of problems faced by indigenous people in such areas as culture, education, health, human rights, the environment, and social and economic development, by means of action-oriented programs and specific projects, increase technical assistance, and relevant standard-setting activities”. The quote sounds like bureaucratese, but the idea of a day for First Nations is needed.

 Estonians: are we “indig” or are we mankurts*? 

Estonians too are an indigenous people. Modern Estonia rests on the foundations of a number of ancient tribes who have now substantially but not utterly coalesced into a whole.

Some regions of Estonia have boasted a rejuvenation of local identity in recent years. This is evident most of all in Southeastern Estonia, which is the home of the Seto people. Down the road from the Setos to the West, the Võro dialect or language is spoken. Then there are the Mulks, and so on. In Southern Estonia and elsewhere, other local dialects also exist, hanging on by the skin of their teeth. While the Setos and Võro speakers are doing reasonably well, others are less successful and some will probably end up packing it in in the not too distant future – for example the South Tartu dialect of my ancestors.

In comparison to the situation just a few generations ago, many Estonians have more difficulty than they used to in thinking of themselves as the maarahvas or “the people of the land”. This has to do in part with an inferiority complex of the past that was inculcated during the many centuries we tilled the soil of the manors that belonged to foreign owners, under what was essentially a colonial caste system, but also in more recent times, with Estonia largely ceasing to be an agricultural society.

Now that Estonia is independent again – to the extent that one can be “independent” at all within the confines of the EU – there are many erosive trends afoot. Though not sufficient, there are also antidotes that help in part to strengthen traditional Estonian ways of doing things. A return in many households to the baking of traditional sourdough rye bread is but one example of many.

An understandable source of cognitive dissonance in the heads of some is the tough time they have with reconciling notions that appear – to the uninitiated – to be mutually exclusive. Which should I do? Modernize? Remain true to myself? Can I figure out a path that facilitates both, or does one rule out the other, as some folks seem to think? It is unfortunate that for some, traditional culture is still regarded as a stigma and a synonym of supposed backwardness. National Geographic magazine, for example, has changed in modern times, but many years ago, it both wittingly and unwittingly propagated stereotypes about the “backwardness” of the first nations of our planet. “Traditionalist renewal” is not an easy trick to pull off, nor is it easy to regain self-assuredness, once natural confidence has been eroded.  On too many occasions, when Estonians do try to recreate the traditional ways that were largely smothered by the years under the USSR, or when they engage in experiments of “ethnofusion”, the result is a kitschy mashup.

Stigmas of old and Modern Siren Songs both work Against Traditional Culture

Confident and secure when independent 800 years ago, the “people of the land” eventually developed a fear of being classed in the eyes of supposedly “superior cultures” in the same category as the peoples of the world who are regarded as going about their apparently primitive daily business in loincloths with a bone stuck through their noses, which shows how many Estonians learned to first feel uncomfortable about themselves, and then to look down on other native peoples. Try as we may to shake off stereotypes, “indigenous peoples” are still poorly regarded and discriminated by many, in a way that reveals the lack of subtlety of the condescending ones. Some modern indigenous peoples are so far “developed” by now that they are no longer capable of regarding themselves as the offspring of traditional cultures, having lapsed into apparently irretrievable denial about their own roots.

Modern Estonia teems with tourists. In the capital, you can’t see the forest for the trees any longer. To hear Estonian spoken on a summer day in the heart of Tallinn’s old town is almost a rare occurrence, with no exaggeration.

With things going the way they are, one expects that the Tibetan language may eventually cease to be heard in Lhasa, the character of which is being constantly altered, as though a neutron bomb were at work there that functions relentlessly with the passage of time, instead of in one fell swoop.  Tallinn is not Lhasa, but the two are not that different either. Small cultures don’t stand up as well under wear and tear as those that have more reserves to draw on.

Estonia didn’t take the road less taken, chosen by Bhutan, where the level of tourist activity has been restricted in favor of what has been designated as sustainable high quality tourism. Access is also often restricted nowadays by many famed national parks. The neoliberal ethos, on the other hand, which means uninhibited free movement of everything, come hell or high water, doesn’t permit peoples and cultures to be regarded in the same way as the Serengeti or Yellowstone. When the essence of small nations is diluted beyond recognition and redemption, they are lost.

Compared to Estonia of the prewar period, many residents have lost contact with their own “creation narrative”. Things as banal as consumerism play into the equation. There is a lot of catching up to do, after the Soviet Union kept Estonians from shopping until they drop for such a long time.

The struggle to remain alive – the struggle to remain who you are, daring to be different or “specific” in a positive sense, as a contributor to diversity – is occasionally featured as a component part of multiculturalism, but many proponents of multiculturalism seem to have a hard time getting the mix of their conceptual model adjusted right. While tolerance is or can be a virtue, and hospitality is an almost universal dictum of native peoples, the “blender approach” at the other end of the spectrum is permanently destructive of native homelands. Attitudes towards first nations have improved since “Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee” was published, but lack of awareness remains a big problem. Most people accept that biodiversity is desirable, but awareness of the need to keep human cultural diversity from slipping away as well is far from ideal.

Baluch jewelry (source: Wikipedia - photo credit Usualphonexs)

The Different “Orchards” of Mankind Require Effort to Maintain

Which would be preferable –  a bar providing choices from a long row of glasses, one containing pineapple juice, the next ones each containing juice from the many types of cherry that exist, these then followed by mandarin orange, etc., or a single goblet with a multi-fruit blend?

Even if some customers out there might prefer the blended non-choice default drink to all the others, a broad variety of choices very much deserves to be kept on the menu. The individual flavors should be on offer as well as blends. If these many choices are to remain available, someone needs to make sure that as many varying fruit tree orchards as possible continue to be tended, not eradicated.

The list of the “many flavors of humankind” goes on and on. Would anyone at all prefer the end result if all of the individual flavors at Ben and Jerry’s ice cream shop or your local gelateria were thrown together in a cement mixer, with the mix ending up as the only remaining flavor on offer until the end of time, much like the ubiquitous and omnipresent Golden Delicious apple that tends to drive out all the other contenders on the produce shelves of many supermarkets?

The Estonian linguist and clergyman Jakob Hurt once said: “Estonians aren’t flies, who are born today, only to die tomorrow, but an old and tenacious breed of people, who have lived on this planet for a great many years, and who will continue to be around long after we’re gone.”  In reality, the Estonian culture – a small one consisting of less than a million souls – is under threat because of a variety of influences and pressures.

Estonian Embroidery of Old from Kihnu Island - Snowdrop'i näputööd

August 9 should be in the minds not only of the various tribes of the Andaman Sea area and the rain forests of South America and all those who can relate to them. It should also be in the minds of the Welsh and the Bretons and the Ingrian Finns and the Baluch speakers. That is to say: front and center in the awareness of all of the indigenous peoples who would like to still be around long after we’re gone, and in the minds and actions of their friends.

It is not as though Estonians didn’t work to some significant degree to retain their identity, but it is a struggle to reconcile being at the cusp of modernization in some areas, while also remaining identifiably Estonian. One has to give equal shrift to trying to be adaptively-innovatively street wise on the one hand, and on the other to also allow tradition with all of her charm and wisdom of the ages to live on and thrive.

The “discipline” involved in keeping a culture alive has a lot to do with everyday behaviors, which involves learning and sticking to traditional beliefs and ways of doing things. It has to do with literally practicing known customs and habits, which need not exclude experimenting with new ways and adaptation. The main rule is: to thine own self be true! The Estonians actually have a fairly complex cyclical calendar of rituals and significant traditional milestones that some organizations such as the Maavalla koda try to keep people mindful of.

 It’s Great to Strive to Save Cute Animals, but what of Languages and Cultures?

Many of the families of man are breathing their last. Languages are going extinct, and cultures dying. As the lights go out, the world is being rendered less charming, less authentic, less interesting.

There are many charitable undertakings out there that strive to save what can be saved of various plant and animal species. Manatees and Amur leopards and porpoises all deserve a helping hand. But why is it that some of the people who are protective of endangered animals and heirloom fruits and vegetables are either involved in planing out old and dying cultures, or are at best lukewarm or inactive when it comes to lending a hand to the ancient families and cultures of man? Something doesn’t compute. Why are human languages and cultures less deserving of a helping hand than Panda bears? Why are human cultures not deemed more significant?

The keys: Preservation and even Expansion of Human Ecotopes, Minimal Intervention, Best Practices 

By the word “expansion” above, I don’t mean spilling over borders, or military expansionism. The Siberian flying squirrel Pteromys volans – the mascot of the Estonian Fund for Nature and a prime example of the treasures that exist in Estonia’s animal kingdom – has been having a hard time of it in recent years because of logging companies that fell old growth forests. The flying squirrel makes its home in aspen trees in these old growth forests. The more felling of trees that goes on, the more difficult it is for the flying squirrel to be able to make its way from one patch of forest to another that is suitable as a habitat.

What the flying squirrel needs is for humans to figure out “bespoke” ways to stop messing with the habitat that this little animal requires in order to continue to exist. Where possible, the habitat area should be increased, not decreased. Live and let live.

In a similar way, the territory of Estonian could sustain more Estonians that she currently accommodates. The question is: what measures should a national fitness strategy include in order to get young people to stay in country, make their homes here, and feel secure?  We need more Estonians, who should live smarter, not just harder.

Cultures need to be allowed to remain themselves, which means we need to resist the typically human compulsion to intervene in their lives of others. Insensitive and uninvited forms of “help” can wreak irreversible destruction when unthinkingly or ineptly applied.

Something is wrong if one feels a need to almost be somehow apologetic (actually I don’t, but I do feel pressure) when emphasizing that it isn’t a sin for first nations to try to prevail and survive. It is good for those on the outside to try contribute in a really aware way to measures that give breathing room and oxygen to the still extant tribes. One should focus first on those that are in danger but still viable, and when possible, also to those in dire straits. Often such measures mean the staving off and ceasing of disruptive activities, such as stopping logging where it impacts harshly on indigenous peoples, etc. If the most important things the flying squirrel needs are a larger ecotope than the one it has currently been left with, and “noninterference” in its ecotope, the same applies to native human cultures. If we’re to do more than pay lip service to diversity, this requires that growth conditions be enabled in the native homelands of the indigenous peoples.

How a native culture sustains itself should be its own matter, although native cultures probably don’t always have sufficient awareness of “best practices”, and a lot could be done in that area. Cultures would like to be allowed to develop at their own pace, on their own conditions. The very allure of “progress” can put an indigenous people in danger. Is being given the right to run casinos truly a gift to the native Americans, or will it be the instrument of their final downfall? Is this not fool’s gold and almost a form of black humor?

If one acknowledges that there is a need to feed and sustain diversity – to ensure that diversity is not eradicated into a gray and irreversible “one size fits all” future, one should get behind those who understand what they’re doing and do something to contribute to the sustainability of diversity. One needs to tread lightly, but act we should, out of thanks to the goodness of genuine diversity. The more tribes that survive, the more multifaceted and diverse of a world we can enjoy. If we do the “right thing”, Discovery Channel will continue to be able to turn out new ethnographic and travel documentaries for a long time to come, instead of being forced to resort someday to showing chronicles of the last days of numerous cultures that we lost because of encroachment on their territories, along with lack of compassion and neglect.

In Estonia, check out the website of the Maavalla Koda

An organization that does excellent work in London is Survival International.

Both deserve your support!

Survival International:

Maavalla Koda

Account nr. 333805270003 Sampo Bank

Danske Bank A/S Estonia branch, Address: Narva mnt. 11, 15015 Tallinn, Estonia, phone: + 372 6 800 800, fax: + 372 6 752 803 – SWIFT: FORE EE 2X , E-mail:


* Indig, short for “indigenous”, is a slang term that has sometimes been used by U.S. Special Forces soldiers, who work a lot with various ethnic groups, to indicate a member of a native population. It is not pejorative, or at least it shouldn’t be. The term mankurt refers to a person who cannot recall his or her cultural roots and origin. The word comes from a Turkic myth popularized by Chinghiz Aitmatov in his excellent novel “The Day Lasts More Than a Hundred Years“.

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