When Shine a Light began the Statel Stuk project in 2002, we wanted to address a concrete problem we had seen on the streets of many Latin American cities: increasing numbers of indigenous children were working on living on the street, and few organizations had the experience or know-how necessary to work with them. To address this lacuna, we spent several years working with the Mayan NGO Melel Xojobal, then created our first digital workshop so that other organizations could also learn from the experience. Soon after we published Statel Stuk, Herardo Horopo, a leader of the Sáliva Indians, a very traditional tribe living at the headwaters of the Orinoco River, contacted us with another problem. The suffering of indigenous children in the city, he informed us, only reflected an even more severe crisis for children living in their traditional villages. Faced with the conflict in values between their communities and the modern, capitalist world; limited by shrinking habitat and predatory colonists, and corrupted by a welfare state more interested in their passivity than their growth, young people in the Sáliva community stood at an existential cross-roads. They would need powerful tools in order to negotiate between modernity and tradition, but the tribal leaders did not feel up to the task. How, he asked, could Shine a Light help?
Working with the Mayas, we learned that every indigenous group does, in fact, have the resources necessary to educate its children, even in the midst of brutal modernization or civil war. The problem is recognizing what kinds of cultural capital work in which situation, and applying it to the problem. Are there myths or stories that help children to understand their divided world? How can families help give their children in the learning process? How do indigenous ideas of mental health provide for a therapy of modernity? Our work with Melel Xojobal taught us which questions are likely to find the right tools for an indigenous community, and working with the Sáliva, we found that exactly the same was true. For all of the concerns expressed by the leadership, both children adults have extraordinarily rich resources with which they can make the educational system work for both modern and traditional needs.
Though a brief project (only two weeks), this was one of the most difficult we have ever done, for logistical and physical reasons. Access to the reservations where the Sáliva live requires a flight to Bogotá, then into the great Eastern Llanos (Flooded Plains), and then seven hours on some of the worst roads in the world. The highways are almost impassable after the rains, and dozens of species of mosquitoes leave eternal welts on the skin. Even so, the result was clearly worth the effort.
After training Sáliva children in the basics of digital filmmaking, we helped them make seven documentaries about the life of the tribe, everything from legends and philosophy to the traditional ways of cooking manioc and fish. After the films are edited, local schools will be able to use the documentaries as yet another tool to teach traditional values and language, using postmodern technology to preserve an ancient culture.
In the process of making the films, the child filmmakers also learned to value the knowledge of their elders. As one of them said, I always knew grandma was smart, but its different when you see her on the screen. For better or worse, in the modern world, we value things we see on television: instead of just lamenting the nefarious effects of this phenomenon on their culture, the Sáliva now put themselves on television.
Working with the Mayas, we learned that one of the major problems for indigenous children is their invisibility; though valued by their parents, people from outside the community disdained them as filth or thieves. This negative vision of native children often worked as a self-fulfilling prophecy, leaving indigenous children with only two options: begging or crime. Indigenous children need to be recognized for the good things that they can offer, so for his reason, we worked with a group of children to teach the basics of digital storytelling. The Sáliva have a good connection to the internet, so we also showed the kids how they can use blogs, web pages, and online communities give them a platform on which to share their stories. In addition to the photos available on the SAL website, the Sáliva now have two photo-blogs where they can publish their work, and a teacher at the Duya Reservation plans to incorporate blogging and photography in his courses this year.
We were simply stunned by the ability the Sáliva children showed with photography. Their work with the video camera was strong, and they were able to maintain a form hand and compose the scene well, but their art with a still camera was nothing short of fantastic. The composition of the shots expressed a delicate balance of color and shape, and they were able to convey the personality of the people they photographed. Though we might hypothesize that this æsthetic sensibility emerges from the harmonious nature of Sáliva life and art, we would need more research to understand it. Regardless, their work merits wide distribution.
With only a brief project, SAL fortified the Sáliva educational system, helped to recognize its strengths in negotiating the modern world, and gave children the tools they need to confront that world on their own terms. We also provided important new tools to help the Sáliva sustain their traditions, and believe that this project can be a powerful model for other work with indigenous communities.
This project was financed by eBay Champion a Charity.
- Saberes e Mistérios Sáliba. Rita de Cácia Oenning da Silva (Março, 2010)