Replying to Nestor and more Marxist Pedagogy was on Brazilian indigenes

Les Schaffer schaffer at
Fri May 25 18:03:32 MDT 2001

[ reformated ]

Heading: Breaking out of the Eurocentric mindset
Added By: Gary MacLennan     g.maclennan at
Date: Fri, May 25 2001

Dear Students,

The argument behind the last lecture is that those of us born in
Western Countries read texts from a Eurocentric point of view. The aim
of the check list and the lecture is to help you to break with
Eurocentric ways of approaching texts. By Eurocentric here I wish to
mean primarily the core white nations of the world, including Europe
of course but also the United States, Australia and Canada.

Consider the following text. It is an excerpt from Rosemary
Cunningham's Under a Thatched Roof in a Brazilian Jungle: A missionary
Story, Toronto: Evangelical Publishers, 1947: 86-7.

Cunningham describes how a group of indigenous women came to her house
for a women's meeting and to sing hymns


One of the old men said, "I am going along to see what they [the
women] do and to hear what is said." He sat on a bench by the door and
punctuated the lesson with his ejaculations and comments. Much to my
disappointment one of the warriors sprawled himself out on the
meeting-room table to listen, insolent to our remonstrations. His
latest girl-wife, about nine years of age, was younger than his own
small daughter who sat next to her on the floor.

Two of the women brought dresses, which had been given to them.  We
suggested that they put them on before the singing of the first song.

"You've got the dress on backside foremost," commented the old man,
"hurry up and put it on right."

When the change had been effected one showed great concern: "How can I
sit down with this dress on?" The other proceeded to demonstrate the
correct method, lifting the skirt up to the waist before sitting
reluctantly on one of the benches

They listened with interest to the Creation story, even though
half-way through the lesson baked potatoes were produced out of their
gourds which they ate blissfully, throwing the skins on the floor. The
undesired meeting concluded after all the hymns had been sung, some of
them over and over again. The old man declared that the meeting had
been good and the audience all requested that they be given some
grated manioc root as payment for having come and listened!.

"Is it all right to take our dress off now?" asked the two clothed
women. "What don't you keep them on and wear them all the time like I
do?" I suggested.

They hung their heads. "We Indian women don't decorate ourselves with
clothes like you do. We decorate ourselves with paint. We are ashamed
to have other see us in these strange clothes. Well take them off now
and keep them safely and bring them with us the next time we come to
sing." They struggled out of their "strange decoration" (as they
termed the frocks), and carried them away in their arms.

That they enjoyed the meetings one could not doubt, but what new thing
had penetrated hear or even head we could only wonder, and trust that
something might have done so. The spirit world was real to them; but
it was the world of evil spirits who came to terrify them at night
with strange noises, to chase them when someone died, even to kill
them by strange diseases and maladies.  They have no word for peace,
pardon, love or salvation, and no comprehension of their need of a
Saviour. Brazilians call these creatures animals.  Can it be that
Christ's salvation is for such a people.

Ok so let us now go to our check list and see if it helps us:

A multi-ethnic/cultural approach.

1 Is there more than one ethnic grouping within the text?

2. If the answer is 'no' next ask

a] What is the basis for this absence? b] Is the society, within which
the text is set, genuinely mono-cultural or does the author not wish
to acknowledge the multi-cultural nature of the society.

3. If the answer is "Yes there is a number of ethnic groups
represented within the text next ask

a] What is the nature of the relationships between the various ethnic
groupings? b] What transactions take place between the ethnic
groupings? c] What is the division of roles between the ethnic
groupings? d] What languages/dialects are represented within the text?
e] Is any one language/dialect/accent regarded as a source of humour,
amusement, derision or anger? g] What is the ethnic position of the
author in the text? Think of this of the point of view from which the
text is written. Does the text take the point of view of one
particular ethnic grouping? h] What attitudes does the author in the
text display towards those characters display towards those characters
from a different ethnic background?  i] If the author displays an
attitude of superiority, ask what is the basis for this
superiority. ii] If the author of the text presents an attitude where
all ethnic groupings appear equal, ask yourself is this an accurate
reflection of the position in the world outside the text, or is it an
attempt to evade the whole question of racial tension or racial
prejudice? iii] If the author displays an inferior attitude towards a
particular ethnic grouping, ask whether this inferiority is based
within the ideology of Romanticism.


It is obvious that there is more than one ethnic grouping here.  There
are the Canadian missionaries and the Cayapo women and men, so we now
proceed to 3 and try to work out which of these questions are most
relevant to our purposes. Three d & three e do not appear very
relevant because the remarks of the Cayapo women are either translated
or presented as if they spoke English.  I would also argue that hi and
hii are irrelevant to our analysis as the author clearly does not
treat the Cayapo as her equal, and certainly does not regard them as
her superior. We can see this most clearly when she says, without
apparent surprise or disapproval, "Brazilians call these creatures
animals". She also wonders out loud if they can be saved when she
says, "Can it be that Christ's salvation is for such a people?"

(Note here that I made an assertion about the text and then I quoted
from the text to prove what I said. That is the correct way to

So we will continue our analysis utilising three a, b, c, g and hi.

The nature of the relationship.

Though it is not stated directly in the above passage on can infer
that the relationship is that between a missionary and people she is
hoping to "save". We might pause a while to consider that apart from
suspecting that they are not worthy or capable of salvation what
attitude is betrayed here by the author. What right does she have to
take upon herself the task of "saving" people?  Moreover what does it
mean for a people to be regarded as damned and in need of saving. I
would suggest that it is not an exaggeration to say that it is very
dangerous for a people to be regarded as damned and possibly incapable
of salvation.

Another aspect of the relationship that is worth noting that this
meeting is taking place on the territory of the Cayapo. the missionary
is the stranger here but she acts as if she has a right to comment on
and judge. Moreover in the case of the dresses, the author seems to
feel free to try and change the cultural customs of the Cayapos.

Transactions and roles

The main actions performed here are singing, eating, taking leave and
putting on and taking off dresses. Most of these actions are performed
buy the Indians we are not told exactly what the missionary does
except to urge the women to stay dressed. so we can guess from the
detail in the text that the role of the Cayapo is to perform for the

The ethnic position and attitudes of the author in the text.

The text is written from a very white centred view of the world.
Eurocentric does not quite fit here as she is Canadian, but that is
not overly important. The significant point is that for the author her
culture is correct and every departure from it represents damnable
deviance. She displays an attitude which veers between being
patronising and downright hostility to the indigenous people. Thus she
describes the husband as "insolent" and is shocked by both the fact of
his polygamy and the age of his bride. The episode with regard to the
dresses is patronising in the extreme.  The fact that she wants the
women to wear dresses shows a total absence of cultural
sensitivity. She feels she is correct and the native women are wrong
for not dressing as she does. So, to repeat, this text is written from
the standpoint of the White person. Her values, attitudes and
prejudices are regarded by herself as the norm and everything that
departs from them is barbarous.

The basis for her superiority.

Clearly Mrs Cunningham sees herself as superior. The basis of this
superiority would appear to be two fold. She is civilised in that she
wears a dress and presumably does not throw the peel form the potatoes
she eats on the floor. More importantly perhaps for Mrs Cunningham is
that she is saved while the Cayapo are perilously close to lost. their
immortal souls are in danger and it is just their good luck that she
has traveled thousands of miles up the jungle to save them for
everlasting damnation.


There is much that could be said about Mrs Cunningham's attitude but
we will confine ourselves here to pointing out that we have
demonstrated that hers is an absolutist and Eurocentric view of the
world. She is correct and the people she comes into contact with are
wrong. They must change and adapt the customs of Mrs Cunningham.
Their fate is truly terrible if they do not. We might pause again to
consider what it must be like to live in a land where one's own people
have been for thousands and thousands of years and to be regarded by
the newcomers as either "animals" or potentially lost souls. God help
the Cayapo indeed.

More information about the Marxism mailing list