Nearly a hundred years ago, the colonization of the territory of the Enlhet — a native people of the Paraguayan Chaco, belonging to the Enlhet-Enenlhet language family — began with three traumatic events (Kalisch & Unruh, 2020): the run-up to the Chaco War (1932–35) from the mid-1920s, the massive unexpected immigration of Mennonite settlers from 1927, and a smallpox epidemic in 1932–33 which took the lives of more than half the population. These events established processes of dispossession and reduction, alienation and discrimination, which exerted strong and constant pressure on Enlhet society and induced it, around the late 1950s, to make the decision to capitulate to the hostile world that was imposing itself.
For the Enlhet, faced with radically reduced possibilities of movement, capitulation took the specific form of a commitment to proposals from others in the hope of finding new options for living. That commitment, sealed by submission, was expressed, for example, in the fact that the entire people allowed themselves to be baptized within the space of a few years by the Mennonite immigrant missionaries. Following its capitulation, Enlhet society has rearranged its thinking in terms of defeat and has begun to be markedly orientated towards external initiatives and leadership. Despite this, the Enlhet clearly see themselves as a distinct society of their own within Paraguay. Any consideration of education must take account of these two contradictory perspectives.
Objects and subjects
It is not difficult to perceive that indigenous societies are typically considered backward, ignorant and destitute by national society and are described in ways that marginalize them and exclude them from a common project. However, this state of exclusion is not seen as a result of the decisions, discourses, attitudes and actions of the dominant society, but as an essential feature of indigenous people and their societies, which in turn confirms the dominant society’s idea of itself: that it is following the only reasonable path. Therefore, since that society does not seem to be the problem, it is not the one that has to change: the indigenous community must be changed. In other words, this perspective means that the construction of a shared social space within Paraguay and other countries — and participation in that space — would not be achieved by negotiating limits or boundaries, differences or peculiarities — an articulation — but by subsuming the other under unilaterally defined objectives and systems.
As I write these lines, various national media outlets are constantly repeating that “it is impossible to develop communities without education”. This phrase — which does not refer specifically to indigenous communities, but does include them — sums up that perspective, as it is conceived in terms of a type of education that comes from outside, instead of being directed towards learning that originates within each distinct society. The phrase implies that in order to be able to participate in the common project called “development” (whatever this may be), those who live on the margins need to receive something; it ignores the fact that first of all they need space to express themselves, to become themselves. The very grammar emphasizes what is happening here: those who receive “education” — those who are educated — become objects. To certify that they need education is therefore to declare that they are objects, which is equivalent to denying them a real possibility of agency. This denial means, in practice, that for an indigenous society the possibility of a life on its own conceptual terms, of sustained expression in categories of its own that it handles virtually, is ruled out. From such a perspective, indigenous society is neither a subject nor an actor, and relating to it comes down to a choice between ignoring it and constructing for it. It finds itself excluded from all participation.
Exclusion and inclusion
This exclusion — resulting from actions, not essences — does not go unnoticed by the dominant society. However, as I have said, the latter finds it extremely difficult to think of articulation — negotiating limits and differences — in terms of specific spaces affirmed through dialogue on positions that in many cases are and remain incompatible. Because of this, perhaps hoping that exclusion will disappear when there is no more difference and diversity, the conception of inclusion has been invented. This is the imposition of the dominant group’s categories, objectives and mechanisms over those of the other societies: the contradictory — and perverse — proposal of an inclusion that excludes their own ways and thereby reaffirms, instead of reversing, their status of being excluded. It is a discourse of inclusion that promotes exclusion: an exclusionary inclusion.
The exclusionary inclusion approach is very widespread and convinces even those who are motivated by a sincere empathy for the other; they therefore try to improve the external proposal instead of fundamentally questioning it. So, for example, no one disputes the argument that in order to solve the difficulties of communication, the indigenous population must unilaterally learn Spanish. National society assumes that in order to be able to participate — in order to be granted the right to participate — indigenous people must enter the national education system, with its own particular history and its non-indigenous objectives and contents. This society is convinced that to solve their health problems they must use hospitals and their specific programmes. However, if indigenous people do not accept the dominant proposal as it is put to them — in respect of hospital facilities, for example, as opposed to native ideas on health — they are excluded from the benefits it could bring them, because it is closed to any possibility of articulation or negotiation with ideas and practices rooted in a different historical trajectory.1This impossibility of articulation is repeated in the state’s various economic projects and even in its construction of housing: the alternatives are always to reject the external proposal entirely or to accept it unconditionally (although in fact indigenous society is often not given the choice of whether or not to accept an external model: it is directly imposed).
The choice always comes down to entirely rejecting or unconditionally accepting the external proposal. This is serious, because not only technologies,2The technological supremacy of this model is spectacular. However, colonial ideology was formed before this supremacy (as is shown, for example, in Todorov, 2010) and its roots lie beyond it. Coincidentally, G. B. Grubb’s notes (1911) make it clear that 100 years ago, although the technological disparity was much smaller, colonialist processes were the same. are at stake, but also guidelines, values and practices: people’s own needs and, in short, potentialities. In the health sphere, this dilemma is experienced especially strongly. The intensity with which specific needs are felt in this space therefore intersects with the special intensity with which concepts and needs related to sickness and health are determined by the particular cultural world. So with no possibility of articulation, indigenous people find themselves forced to decide between physical wellbeing and symbolic, evaluative, emotional wellbeing, although in fact one does not exist without the other. In other words, for all that the agents of healthcare assistance may consider themselves to be self-sacrificingly dedicated, in actual fact they are engaged in a highly violent imposition (for this reason, it is no surprise that many Enlhet people prefer to die rather than go to hospital). It can therefore be seen that this one-way relationship perpetuates their defeat and forces them into constant capitulation.
In one of his stories in the Toba-Enenlhet language, Melteiongkasemmap (in Kalisch & Unruh, 2018: 173) refers to an episode in the history of his people which places the beginning of this widespread mechanism of imposition in a precise historical context, while at the same time illustrating the violence of that mechanism (even though the external constellations of the present are not as dramatic as they were on that occasion). As he tells it, the disastrous smallpox epidemic which occurred in the 1930s was sent by the Hispanic population to suppress the Toba-Enenlhet. However, this same Hispanic population offered vaccination against that disease; so the above-mentioned dilemma appeared for the first time: to let themselves be vaccinated by those who were waging war through an epidemic, which was to accept defeat, or to refuse and suffer almost certain death. One part of the Toba-Enenlhet people submitted and survived; another resisted and died. With their physical elimination, that resistance was extinguished at the same time: from that episode onwards, the Toba-Enenlhet tradition continued through the story of those who made the decision to submit. The DNA of defeat became part of their memory.3The times and conditions of the capitulation differ in each Chaco people. But like the Enlhet (Kalisch & Unruh, 2018), they all underwent that experience, which profoundly shook them and defined the terms of their acceptance of subordination, with all the consequences it involved.
Effects on indigenous society.
Indigenous peoples do not live in isolation, but within a specific country, from which they cannot escape. To a large extent, therefore, the exclusionary inclusion they are offered obliges them to accept policies originating from outside their own society. Indeed, in recent decades many of the indigenous spaces of action have been reduced, dismantled and imprisoned in institutions alien to them, such as schools, hospitals or cooperatives. Through these structures, national society — often on the pretext of taking responsibility for the other’s welfare — has replaced indigenous dimensions with parameters of its own in order to act, afterwards, on behalf of the other society.4It is exactly the same process that traditional missionary organizations have been engaged in around the church. This gives rise to the contradiction whereby, although many Westerners criticize the imposition of religion, they encourage that of schools and hospitals.
Hasta hoy, se producen leyes e instituciones profundamente colonialistas que proceden –aunque digan lo opuesto– a ocultar, obstruir y eliminar todo lo que Up to now, national society has denied the differential social dimension or has perceived it as an obstacle and tried to iron out its particular features, where it can. Up to now, profoundly colonialist laws and institutions have been established and have proceeded — even if they claim the opposite — to conceal, obstruct and eliminate everything that distinguishes indigenous peoples in linguistic, cultural and political terms, instead of guaranteeing different societies their status as independent entities. Such an imposition on a different society reflects a colonialist attitude. It institutes and exercises imbalance and ends up doing away with the peoples concerned.
As a result of colonial acts, Enlhet society, in common with many other indigenous societies, has been profoundly transformed. The condition of being colonized has gradually taken root in people’s concepts, thoughts, practices and attitudes. As I have shown extensively (Kalisch, 2013–15), an ideology of submission to the white population and of subjection to peers has established itself, making it difficult to achieve any construction that goes beyond the patterns of subordination. There is also a strong contradiction — within society and within people themselves — between a way of living and a discursive level. At the same time, the coincident uncritical attitude towards two opposing sides paralyses people and makes it difficult for them to move in any direction. So although they lead a highly active life on the surface, their activism reflects a process of accommodation within the categories of subordination. They are therefore more and more firmly enmeshed in concepts — in imaginaries and practices — that direct every act of construction towards external initiatives, and even demand them.
Symbols of defeat
If I refer to possibilities of learning, therefore, I am not speaking from a position of cultural affirmation, of strong agency or independence. Rather, I am putting myself in the context of a society subjected to another, a subordinated society, characterized by lacking freedom and by being disconnected from its memory: by an absence of opportunities to play an active role. Indeed, schools themselves — the institutions that administer the imposition of a certain type of learning — play a crucial part among the mechanisms for keeping indigenous people in subjection. In parallel, from the Enlhet perspective, the school, which is operated to this day through a clearly external agency, is linked to defeat. Like the church, it has become a symbol of capitulation, installed in the community itself.
As a reflection of this, Enlhet society does not see the school primarily as a space in which learning related to life itself takes place, but rather perceives it as a tool to manage relationships with the groups that hold hegemonic power, in a dual sense: it provides the skills needed to interact with the dominant society, while at the same time the operation of the school in the community is a specific way of relating to this autocratic society which puts so much emphasis on school education. So when the Enlhet speak of the need for education in order to have a future, it sounds the same as the discourse of the agents of the school; however, they are based on clearly different expectations. Any consideration of education and learning in a colonized society must take account of this mismatch. Otherwise, the apparent similarity of goals continues to be taken as legitimate grounds for reinforcing still further a pernicious mechanism of colonial power in indigenous societies, instead of examining learning and interethnic coexistence itself as an “alternative way of thinking of alternatives” (Sousa Santos, 2010: 47).
Grubb, Wilfred Barbrooke, 1911. An Unknown People in an Unknown Land (London: Seeley & Co).
Kalisch, Hannes and Ernesto Unruh (ed.), 2018. “¡No llores!”. La historia enlhet de la guerra del Chaco (Asunción and Ya’alve-Saanga: Centro de Artes Visuales/Museo del Barro, Nengvaanemkeskama Nempayvaam Enlhet & ServiLibro).
Kalisch, Hannes and Ernesto Unruh (ed.), 2020. ¡Qué hermosa es tu voz! Relatos de los enlhet sobre la historia de su pueblo (Asunción and Ya’alve-Saanga: Centro de Artes Visuales/Museo del Barro, Nengvaanemkeskama Nempayvaam Enlhet & Servilibro).
Sousa Santos, Boaventura de, 2010. Descolonizar el saber, reinventar el poder (Montevideo: Trilce).
Todorov, Tzvetan, 1984. The Conquest of America: The Question of the Other, trans. by Richard Howard (New York: Harper and Row).
The Pandemic in the Mirror of the Colonial Condition
In many respects, the Paraguayan state is not fulfilling its responsibilities to the indigenous peoples whose lands it has appropriated. With regard to the COVID-19 pandemic in particular, organizations related to indigenous communities are urgently demanding better healthcare from the state for such communities, supported by specific budgetary provision (Canova et al., 2020). A look inside one of the native societies in Paraguay, the Enlhet, makes it possible to refine this demand and, at the same time, to specify the type of responsibility that the state should assume towards indigenous peoples. The Enlhet nowadays live reduced to small communities within their traditional territory, which has been completely occupied since 1927 by Mennonite settlers from Europe and Canada.
There are no official data on the effects of COVID among the Enlhet. While medical staff speak of many cases of infection, people in the communities have not noticed any fatal or even serious cases. Nor, incidentally, have they developed any consciousness of a threat that would make it worth paying attention to warnings, recommendations or healthcare measures concerning the pandemic. On the contrary, the communities are keenly aware that all these instructions come from the Paraguayan and Mennonite societies, which have not only deprived them of what was theirs, but constantly act in a way that enables them to maintain the situation of coexistence on terms that they define. As will be shown by the following summary of the dynamics since the start of quarantine in March 2020, the response of the communities to the healthcare recommendations and measures — the application of which would significantly affect life within them — was largely a reaction to outside interference and not a response to a health problem.
When the quarantine began, many Enlhet people were fearful of the threat reported to them from outside their society, and several of the elders applied strategies based on traditional imaginaries and practices to confront it. Therefore, since no worrying effects of the pandemic were noticed in the communities, Enlhet society soon took the view that it was coping with the situation, and at the same time they became convinced that fear of COVID was a white people’s fear — for the Enlhet are very conscious that each people develops specific fears. Outside their communities, the Enlhet complied with everything demanded of them, but within them they were reluctant to do so; they even concealed the positive cases that occurred. When the society around them became aware of this, it described this attitude as irresponsible (Duerksen, 2020) and even responded with police action. On the basis of this type of experience, the Enlhet began to perceive the pandemic as a battlefield with society which is constantly trying to subsume native communities. At the same time, they felt they had some freedom to resist the healthcare constraints. So when the dominant society has interests to protect, it applies refined strategies to manipulate indigenous people and even force them to comply with its aims. After a few weeks of quarantine, however, the dominant society began to argue that the indigenous peoples were actually responsible for their own attitudes and did not greatly concern itself with what was happening within the communities. At first, for example, the national police, tasked with ensuring that the health regulations were applied, appeared in the communities; the leaders then prohibited the daily meetings in the village canchas (clearings), for fear of possible restrictions. As the police stopped appearing, the meetings in the canchas soon returned to normal.
To sum up: the pandemic was gradually disconnected from healthcare arguments in people’s minds. Conversely, it began to be seen in terms of the experiences of a systemically imbalanced interethnic coexistence, and people’s thoughts about the pandemic were expressed in terms of an attitude towards those who nowadays hold hegemonic power within their traditional territory: the Mennonites and the Paraguayans. Regarding the ruling on social distancing, for example, people in the Enlhet communities said that “they want to force us to reject our neighbours”, asserting the traditional value of mutual respect as an identity trait that distinguishes the Enlhet from the dominant society. At the same time, reflecting the complexity of life between two different power groups, the Enlhet did not regard the Mennonites and the Paraguayans in the same way, and their clearly felt opposition to the former was supplemented, on another level, by a symbolic alliance with them. For example, the ban on crowds decreed by the state potentially affected services in their Mennonite-style churches, and many maintained that “the Paraguayans want to make us stop being Christians”, implying that being Christian creates a strong bond with Mennonite society. In both cases, the rejection of health measures, understood as an act of distancing from or resistance to power groups, has a political dimension.
A look at the various actors in Enlhet society shows, however, that rejection of the health measures cannot be reduced to a single motive. For example, the attempts to avoid crowds forming in the village canchas were never extended to gatherings in church; the Enlhet pastors ruled out this possibility with arguments that no leader can oppose. They explained, for example, that it was necessary to continue meeting regularly to avoid contemptuous comments from other communities on the marked absence of faith that would be shown by temporarily suspending the services. They maintained that “God will protect us” and shared the idea that in disregarding the health measures and showing a lack of fear “we are going to show that we are better Christians than the Mennonites”. Bolstered by arguments of this kind, they even organized inter-community meetings with several hundred participants in closed spaces which shared the Holy Supper (the Enlhet live reduced to a few communities, several of which have more than a thousand inhabitants).
Many Enlhet ideas about the world outside the communities are influenced by what they hear every day from their Mennonite bosses, and among these there is an important group that denies the danger that the presence of the coronavirus may signify. This opinion, which is repeated on social media, where all kinds of information circulates with no identifiable source, supported the assessment that the pandemic is not in fact a health issue.
The advice that the missionaries gave to the Enlhet pastors is in a similar vein. Although they were very careful not to question the measures taken by the state, they downplayed the need for them. They argued that abandoning the gatherings would be more dangerous than the coronavirus, because the religious services would ensure the spiritual welfare of the faithful (an idea that the Mennonite settlers have discussed within their own societies; Siemens, 2020). They were also conscious that in the long run such abandonment could cause the Enlhet to question their relationship to the church, an institution that the Mennonite settlers have established in the communities. This possibility represents a threat to them, because they see the church as a key tool to control native society and maintain what they call “social peace” within their colonies. For the Enlhet, in turn, this control function opens up possibilities for them to influence Mennonite society through the church, and they therefore consider it important to maintain and demonstrate their connection with the ideas of the Mennonite church and its mediators. On both sides, the reaction to the pandemic constitutes a power game within a hierarchical system of coexistence.
Not only powers between the colonists and native society are negotiated through the church, but also between the Enlhet pastors and the community. It is held, for example, that the right to a legitimate life in the community and the guarantee of wellbeing are based on participation in church activities. The Enlhet pastors may deny these values, even if only indirectly, to those who do not participate in the gatherings or seem not to respect them. This exclusionary practice, based on a symbolism shared by the community, gives the native pastors considerable power, even over the leaders, making it difficult to take a critical look at the discourses and practices through which it is reproduced. In the context of the pandemic and the uncertainties it created, many pastors have shown the exclusionary attitude to any consideration that sought an understanding of the situation beyond resorting to blind faith. They thereby confirmed the institution of the church as a foundation of colonial society and at the same time strengthened their own position.
As well as the political interpretation of the pandemic and its exploitation in the context of power games, there is a third important factor that influences the attitude of many Enlhet towards healthcare measures, and especially vaccination. In native society there is a marked resistance to vaccination, which is connected with a profound mistrust of the white health system. It is not unusual for someone to prefer to die rather than go to hospital. Why, then, would they have any faith in those who have taken everything that was theirs? Similar processes to those described so far are found in many other indigenous contexts within and outside Paraguay.
There is a certain consensus among the institutions of the state and the organizations of civil society on the view that steps must be taken to better inform indigenous peoples and raise their awareness about the pandemic, for example by translating technical information into their languages, which would equip them to respond more appropriately to the health challenges (Canova et al., 2020: 164). However, native societies use numerous internal channels of communication which they implement to circulate external ideas that they hear on the radio, for example, and consider important, on the one hand, and trustworthy, on the other. In other words, the reaction of the communities to the pandemic is not mainly due to a lack of access to information from outside. The fundamental question is basically not about teaching indigenous people something, but rather rethinking coexistence in terms of a balance that gives people the freedom to act and articulate themselves from their own conceptual worlds and at the same time enables them to explore new horizons.
To speak of a balanced relationship sounds utopian, to say the least. The state has appropriated the indigenous territories without asking whether their owners wanted to be part of the society and the country that says it represents them. Up to now, when the state and the wealthy and powerful sectors within it enter into relations with indigenous peoples, they are mostly guided by interests of domination and expansion. Although there were, and still are, processes of a well-meaning relationship from the surrounding society towards indigenous societies, it is undeniable that the dominant society has learned little or nothing about the internal dynamics of native societies and the perspectives of their thoughts and attitudes; similarly, the latter feel a marked distrust towards the former. So a balanced interaction is impossible. In an emergency, to act in a way it considers beneficial to indigenous communities, the state has no other choice than to resort to a unilateral activism. However, such activism is unable to remedy the historical failings and undo the countless violations of indigenous societies and people that continue to be committed on a daily basis. On the contrary, that activism constitutes yet another imposition on them. It must be stated loud and clear: simply imposing health measures would be a repetition of colonial acts. Taking responsibility for the internal affairs of a subjugated society is an integral part of the colonialist attitude and underpins the colonial status in which it lives. However, in times of emergency, forgoing an activism that seems to offer quick solutions creates great tensions. These must be worked through, instead of being justified on the grounds of lack of time and then repeated at the next opportunity.
The state, founded on many historical violations, has great responsibilities to indigenous societies. Nevertheless, accepting these responsibilities should not be a reason for acting in place of those societies. Rather, it must provide the spaces needed for the latter to recover the possibility of exercising agency of their own, a possibility that for many decades was systematically destroyed. It is the responsibility of supporting forms of interaction that are not limited to directing proposals and impositions at native societies, on one side, and on the other, resigned acceptance of those proposals and impositions, leaving no room for articulation with their own needs, wishes and values. It means creating the conditions for indigenous societies to develop a participation as central players within the country, a radically different concept from the common idea of participation, in the sense of being included in existing structures at the expense of giving up one’s own individuality.
Faced with the challenges of the pandemic, there is no time to develop spaces for balanced articulation and create a basis of trust, factors that would make it possible to think of other responses to the threat apart from the usual ones. It is not easy, therefore, for native societies to stop responding to the pandemic mainly in terms of a battle with those who dominate them. This is a tragedy, for insofar as they have been historically excluded, they should be the most interested in protecting themselves with means that are available to them and over which they understand that they have some measure of control, whether these come from within their midst or through their relationship with another society.
Canova, Paola, Henryk Gaska, Carlos Picanerai and Marilin Rehnfeldt, 2020. “La pandemia de COVID-19 en los pueblos y comunidades indígenas en Paraguay”, in Contribución Continental al Informe del Relator Especial sobre los derechos de los pueblos indígenas sobre el Impacto de COVID-19 en los pueblos indígenas: Compilación de diecinueve contribuciones de países de Las Américas (Mexico City: Red de Investigaciones sobre Indígenas Urbanos – RISIU, 19 June 2020), pp. 161–69.
Duerksen, Marvin, 2020. “Indígenas infectados en Boquerón”, abc-digital, 20 August 2020. Available at https://www.abc.com.py/nacionales/2020/08/20/indigenas-infectados-en-boqueron/.
Siemens, Rainer, 2020. “Die Coronavirus-Pandemie und die Einschränkung der öffentlichen Gottesdienste: Müssen Christen der Regierung ‘gehorchen’?” Mennoblatt, 91, no. 17: 2–4.
Hannes Kalisch – Biography
Hannes Kalisch es cofundador del Instituto Nengvaanemkeskama Nempayvaam Enlhet (https://www.enlhet.org). Se dedica a la recopilación, edición y publicación de la memoria enlhet, toba-enenlhet y guaná en las lenguas propias de estos pueblos a través de medios escritos, sonoros y audiovisuales. Es corresponsable de la Biblioteca de la memoria hablada (https://enlhet.org/memoria_hablada.html).
Ha trabajado sobre los impactos que la confrontación entre los pueblos originarios y los inmigrantes mantiene a nivel vivencial e ideológico. Concretamente, le interesa comprender la razón, el proceso y los resultados de la pérdida de posibilidades de protagonismo que han sufrido los pueblos indígenas, para encontrar pistas que indiquen vías posibles para recuperar dicho protagonismo propio.
Además de coeditar dos recopilaciones de relatos enlhet en castellano, ha publicado numerosos análisis sobre la historia del pueblo enlhet, sobre la cartografía de su territorio, sobre la convivencia interétnica chaqueña, sobre las lenguas enlhet-enenlhet y sobre el impacto de la educación ajena sobre los procesos autóctonos de aprendizaje.
Lanto’oy Unruh – Biography
Autor de las fotografías
Lanto’oy Unruh, nativo enlhet, es miembro de Nengvaanemkeskama Nempayvaam Enlhet. Trabaja como fotógrafo y artista digital. Ha realizado exposiciones en Asunción; actualmente cuenta con una beca del Santo Domingo Centre of Excellence for Latin American Research, del Museo Británico.
- 1This impossibility of articulation is repeated in the state’s various economic projects and even in its construction of housing: the alternatives are always to reject the external proposal entirely or to accept it unconditionally (although in fact indigenous society is often not given the choice of whether or not to accept an external model: it is directly imposed).
- 2The technological supremacy of this model is spectacular. However, colonial ideology was formed before this supremacy (as is shown, for example, in Todorov, 2010) and its roots lie beyond it. Coincidentally, G. B. Grubb’s notes (1911) make it clear that 100 years ago, although the technological disparity was much smaller, colonialist processes were the same.
- 3The times and conditions of the capitulation differ in each Chaco people. But like the Enlhet (Kalisch & Unruh, 2018), they all underwent that experience, which profoundly shook them and defined the terms of their acceptance of subordination, with all the consequences it involved.
- 4It is exactly the same process that traditional missionary organizations have been engaged in around the church. This gives rise to the contradiction whereby, although many Westerners criticize the imposition of religion, they encourage that of schools and hospitals.