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The World's Greatest Lost Treasures are Cultural

An excellent example of paper two by M.J.H.

I recall reading about horrific genocides in grade school, practiced by colonizing European nations on the multitudes of Native American nations. Sometimes, it was found in my favorite childhood literature which included stories about Kit Carson, Calamity Jane, or in a T.V. miniseries special, such as The Last of the Mohicans. Bad traders would be introduced, who intentionally traded in blankets inoculated with small pox; with the horrific intent to "wipe out" entire tribes of Native Americans. Other times, the genocidal activities where retold in stories of the Trail of Tears, the name given to a historic U.S. government program, in which Native Americans where marched, the majority to their death, across huge expanses of America, in the dead of winter. Sometimes, the genocidal activities where more social or cultural, as in Spanish missionary schools, and Australian adoption programs, in which children were removed from their native cultures and families, and forbidden, often beaten or tortured, for speaking their own native languages.

I suppose, most would look on these tragic genocide stories as someone else's history and tragic loss, and not as my history, because I'm white. But, I've always viewed these early Americans as part of my history and the loss of such contacted peoples and cultures, as mine as well as that of the rest of the world. These people, and others like them, along with their knowledge and cultures, are the world's greatest lost treasures, and of infinitely more value than all of the world's treasures of silver and gold.
Aside from the heart wrenching pain and loss suffered by the direct victims of such human crimes, no one could ever know the toll of loss to all of humanity these lost peoples and cultures represent. Could some of these people have held the key to a cure for cancer or terrific diseases, or could some of these people have held answers to fighting global warming? What tales of ancient American History have been lost? How might descendants of some of these people have been able to change the world for the better, today? Might some lost American language have served us well in times of trouble, as did the Navajo language, one of the hardest to crack codes in history, used in World War II? Might one of their descendants have possessed the diplomatic skills needed to bring world peace? We will never know.

What is equally tragic is that genocides continue all over the world today. We have not woken up to the damage of some of these genocides, and permit many to continue without protest. Yes, there are the protested, obviously tragic and not to be trivialized murderous genocides, as in recent years in the former Yugoslavia, and today in Darfur - (and there are still more). However, perhaps because the brutality is considered less severe, on-going cultural genocides go on with less notice and little to no recognition by global political powers and media sources. Perhaps the problem is all in the label. We don't call it cultural genocide, we call it, modernization.

One of the most important articles I have read to date is the article "The Pressure to Modernize", written by Helena Norberg-Hodge, Director, at ISEC. (www.isec.org.uk/articles/ pressure.html Accessed 2/19/08). Helena Norberg-Hodge captures what I have been saddened to witness in the case of some indigenous individuals I have encountered, from cultures of the South Pacific... undermining of self-esteem as a cultural people, and a perpetuation of feelings of inadequacy, based upon racial differences, leading toward downward spirals into socially and sometimes criminally deviant behaviors... What I would describe as a failure to thrive, socially.
Andersen & Taylor describe culture as, "the complex system of meaning and behavior that define the way of life for a given group or society" (p. 54, 2008). In other words, culture serves us as compass through life, as it defines the way, of and through life. When the "modern" world sustains a collision with more traditional cultural worlds, and traditional cultures are decimated, as with Norberg-Hodge's Ladakh. Typically, what happens, according to Norberg-Hodge, is that traditional peoples are seduced by the material culture of a modern culture; in tangible things like cars, clothes, cell phones. Andersen and Taylor tell us that "Culture is taken for granted" (p. 55, 2008). As culture is taken for granted, though people of a traditional culture may be aware of their material culture, they are likely to be less aware of the intangibles of their cultural identities. As the traditional culture is made to desire the tangibles of a modern culture, they grow embarrassed of their own material cultural artifacts, and abandon them. As they abandon the material cultural artifacts, they also lose their sense of unity, and the symbolic meanings of their own culture. The elements of culture, as described by Andersen and Taylor, are lost; Language, Norms, Folkways, Mores, Beliefs, and Values (p. 59, 2008).

Interestingly enough, these things are also essential in maintaining order, much like with Quinn's Peace-Keeping Laws (1992). Thus, frequently, when a modern society collides with a traditional society, violence and crimes may erupt. When a people's compass is lost, it is very difficult for individuals, and even entire societies, not to lose their way. When a traditional culture in erased by the pressures of modernization, its people must find a way to recreate the intangible cultural traits of norms, values, mores and beliefs. Throughout the decades or centuries that it takes for them to do this, they are a weak, and broken culture.

Such people are unstable and susceptible to exploitation by outside groups; as a Brazilian woman once described to me, "A tree without roots...cannot stand in a storm. As indicated in Anderson and Taylor, it is natural for cultures to change over time (2008). However, a better transition for people within a culture may be had, if such cultures are allowed to transition more slowly, so that better informed decisions may be made by people of a culture, allowing for a more natural evolution of culture; and allowing for the people of that same culture to determine on their own, what changes may make their people AND their culture stronger and which changes would be a step backwards for the future of its people.

One instance of pressures to modernize that I have witnessed, would be on a visit to Western Samoa, in January 2000. Originally, we stayed in concrete hotels and concrete houses. My hosts were greatly amused, when I asked if I might stay with a family in a traditional fale (a house without walls)...Those with higher social status, had modern, concrete homes. The breezes permitted in by the traditional wall less fales, made the hot and humid climate immensely more comfortable, and they were less expensive to build, as well as being more environmentally friendly.

Quinn, in his book, Ishmael: An Adventure of the Mind and Spirit, describes modern cultures as, the Takers, and the traditional cultures as the Leavers (1992). Quinn indicates that people in modern societies would rather suffer extremely unpleasant lives in a Modern society, than live what they perceive as a frighteningly sparse and endangered life in a Leaver society (1992). I say, we don't have enough information to make such judgments. Unlike Quinn implies, I don't believe that Leavers have a better life than Takers. I believe the both have different lives, that both have traits of value to offer the world, and we should be studying the differences and making better informed decisions on how to exchange cultural traits and characteristics, while encouraging more cultural differences and preserving traditional cultural traits that work best for each people and culture, in their own unique environments.