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An inverted Sheherezade

Awarded the Érico Vannucci Prize for 2002, the researcher Betty Mindlin has for years been collecting indigenous myths and transforming them into books

In order to escape death, every evening Princess Sheherezade told marvelous stories to her Sultan. She did this for one thousand and one nights and, through the power of her word and inventiveness, she managed to save her beautiful neck. “I’m an inverted Sheherezade since, on listening to the stories of the Indians and writing about them, I am helping to preserve their culture for they themselves and also so that we can perceive how our identity is linked to them”, says the researcher Betty Mindlin, an Indian culture scholar, who recently received, as recognition of her intense work in registering and analyzing this culture, the Érico Vannucci Mendes Prize for 2002, awarded to her last month during the 54th Annual Meeting of the Brazilian Society for the Progress of Science (SBPC).

The award is homage to a lengthy career which includes thirty seven articles and several various books, including the delightful works that bring together some of the native Brazilian myths that she collected throughout an extensive stay with, among others, the Suruí and Gavião-Icolen Indians, both from the State of Rondonia. “I listened to the myths that they told me like someone reading a romance by Dostoyevsky and I believe that a Guimarães Rosa would be needed in order to put on paper, in the form of a book, all of the stories that they love telling for hours to those who show an interest”, reports Betty.

“However, I do not consider myself, in any form whatsoever, as the author of the book. The merit belongs entirely to the Indians and I am already curious to know how I am going to tell them how I won this award, which also belongs to them”, the researcher completes. The books are O Primeiro Homem [The First Man] (published by Cosac&Naif, about the stories related to indigenous cosmology), Couro dos Espíritos [The Skin of the Spirits] (written at the request of the Gavião-Icolen Indians who, explains Betty, “had become jealous that I only spoke about the Suruí”), Terra Grávida [Pregnant Earth] (which tells about the origin of the natural elements) and Moqueca de Maridos [Saucepan of Husbands] (the most peppery, as it brings together stories about indigenous love, and the eternal rivalry between man and women). For each one of them the narrators gained author’s rights.

Medicine men
“Though I had got close to them because of the research about how their economic participation was progressing in the Brazilian market, I ended up falling in love for this mixture of overflowing magic and literary essence of their myths”, the researcher says. Betty tells that, with the arrival of the attractions of progress, the Indians were becoming disinterested in what they were hearing from their elders and the authority of the medicine man was little by little being eroded. “From the beginning, when I began to want to listen to their stories, I noted that the elders had been happy to find someone interested in what they had to tell, since they knew of the importance of preserving these traditions, she explains.

Without knowing the Indians’ language well at the start of the project, Betty needed the help of natives who could tell to her their stories in Portuguese (in general the translators were retired rubber tree slaves from the region). Starting in 1979, the researcher began her work with the Suruí Indians, and with FAPESP’s support, made seven journeys to the Indians over a five year period.

Betty quickly got herself involved in the fight for the demarcation of their lands and today is one of the defenders of schooling and education through a native teacher, seen as the form of integrating the Indian into society, and even then, maintaining all of the richness of his identity as a minority group. “I’m very happy to know that the books in which I brought together their myths are now being used in their schools and, more and more, they’re becoming proud of their traditions”, she adds. “There is a growing fear that their language is being lost and it is important that they rediscover themselves as Indians and recover their oral tradition.”

In spite of her admiration for the Indians, Betty prefers to view them with their defects and qualities, avoiding the easy trap of being politically correct that substitutes, in an equally inadequate manner, the contempt of the past. “On listening to their myths, now written down, they also come across their not so good side, and get to know of infanticides and other rituals. This is a new dilemma for the Indians and a source of discussion about their present and future. However, above everything else, it is a concrete form of building self-esteem in an adequate and balanced manner.”

And everything seems to be working perfectly. If, in 1977, the Gavião-Icolen Indians were no more than a meager one hundred and forty three persons, close to extinction (in a large part due to the predatory contact with the rubber tree workers), today they have grown to four hundred and eight in a demarcated area of 148,000 hectares, with a health clinic and a school with indigenous teachers. Also there has been a steady decrease – due to the work of creating a conscience of the cultural richness of their past – in the weight of the influence of the missionaries of the region who almost destroyed once and for all the medicine men, responsible for the maintenance of ancient traditions within the tribe.

Among the various themes dealt with by the myths, there is the explanations on the origin of the world and of people; forms and regulations for understanding and living within this world; ways to behave; and also lots about sex and love. “Freedom for a people who live naked is everything. There is no censorship and imagination is free. From there spring the tales in which parts of the body have their own life and so on”, says Betty. “However, it is better not to fancifully paint these myths, as the structuralists did, since they are the only space for recreation, for allowing their imagination to run wild”, emphasizes the researcher. But as yet one cannot speak of indigenous fiction.

“For them the stories have a truth value. Nevertheless, I believe that they are on the pathway to a future literary creation that will bring both of their worlds together.” Betty observes. Outside of the Indian villages some “white men” have already discovered the creative potential that is hidden behind these delightful campfire stories, the researcher remembered. There are the wonderful books by Mário de Andrade, Raul Bopp and Darcy Ribeiro to remind us of the notable richness of the indigenous imagination as a source of fictional inspiration.

“To understand and to know better this creation of the Indians widens our spectrum of understanding of human relations, of friendship. They are not perfect creatures, as Rousseau would have wished, and they also have their dark side. They are no better or worst than we are, and to think the contrary is a piece of dangerous ingenuity”, Betty explains.

Dialectically speaking, they do not take much of an interest in us. “We related a few Greek myths to the Indians and they though them to be curious, but they didn’t get themselves over excited, since, like many communities, always come back to their own content, to their own world”, the researcher notes.