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The Storyteller | Themes


Cultural Assimilation: Pros and Cons

For centuries the Machiguengas have lived their isolated, unique way of life. But when religious groups like the Summer Institute of Linguistics and academics from the University of San Marcos entered the Amazon, they brought the possibility of change. The Storyteller examines how a marginalized culture can be pressured to acculturate, or adopt the habits of a dominant culture. Acculturation may eventually lead to assimilation, which involves leaving the original culture behind.

During the 30 years covered in the book, several linguists move to the Amazon and come to know the Machiguengas. They encourage communal living and fair trade practices in the tribe. By farming and selling crops, tribe members become economically self-sufficient. Linguists gather valuable cultural data studying the Amazon's many languages.

The narrator observes how the Institute's work might have a positive effect on the Machiguengas. For instance, a linguist-led business cooperative might prevent traders from taking advantage of the tribes. The isolated Machiguengas possess "an individualism bordering on anarchy" and are on the verge of dying out as a group. When the linguists help the tribe gather into villages, the tribe is more likely to survive. The narrator also notices some practices of indigenous tribes would be considered cruel or barbaric in Western culture—for example, killing children born with birth defects.

On the other hand, Saúl advocates for the tribe to be left alone, believing cultural assimilation destroys tribe members' souls and identities. Religious groups, he claims, want to wipe out Machiguenga beliefs "and corrupt even their dreams." Historically he points out members of a marginalized culture often end up serving members of the dominant culture after assimilation. Will the Machiguengas really have a better life as servants? Among the Machiguengas, assimilated or acculturated tribe members are considered "men who used to be men." A fundamental part of their selfhood is missing. The book argues for both sides of the debate, showing the reader how fraught and complex the issue can be.

Storytelling's Universal Power

The book showcases different kinds of storytelling. In each case the stories serve to entertain, inform, encourage, unite, and challenge their listeners.

Oral storytelling is the means for prehistoric cultures like the Machiguengas to keep their history alive. The storyteller-narrated chapters discuss the origin and mission of the Machiguengas, who say they walk to keep the sun in its place. When the storyteller describes the fates of people who have died or left the tribe, he keeps their memories intact. He retells the fates the Machiguengas suffered at the hands of Inca and white colonizers so that younger generations will remember what older generations endured. When the narrator realizes the significance of the Machiguenga storyteller, he considers similar figures around the world. The figure of the storyteller seems universally important to cultural tradition and identity.

Stories are said to put a chaotic world in order. The book's Machiguenga origin myths explain the animals, plants, and weather phenomena surrounding the tribe in the Amazon. The myths show how everything has a purpose and a plan. Some stories instruct Machiguengas how to behave in the world, including lessons about patience and warnings against anger. Scarred by a disfiguring birthmark, the storyteller even places himself as a character in a story to understand his fate.

Books, film, and other media enhance the tradition of oral storytelling. The photography exhibit in Chapter 1 tells a story about the Machiguenga to outside observers. The story of Gregor Samsa in Kafka's novella The Metamorphosis deeply affects Saúl, because he relates to Gregor's dilemma. When the narrator works on the Tower of Babel television program, he seeks out stories from around the world. The program interviews a variety of personalities, presenting a complex, intriguing, and shifting version of humanity in a Tower of Babel (biblical origin story that explains why the world's people speak different languages).

Legacy of Colonialism

Colonialism, or the practice of acquiring control over another country or expanding over other peoples in one's own country, has a deep-seated history in Latin America. The book reveals how colonization by Inca and Spanish settlers has impacted Amazonian tribes.

The Machiguengas fear Viracochas, or white men. Viracocha is also the name of an Inca god, and the word recalls Peruvian Inca rulers in the 15th century. Previous generations of Machiguengas were forced to strip trees for rubber when their colonizers wanted to profit from the material. The storyteller relays several tales about "the tree-bleeding," a time that nearly killed off the entire tribe. As the Machiguengas seek repair and renewal decades later, they tell stories warning one another not to trust the Viracochas.

Under constant threat, the Machiguengas are motivated to move onward whenever someone new settles in their place. Their migratory lifestyle takes a toll on their health and community, but walking empowers them. "Luckily we know how to walk," one tribe member tells the storyteller. Colonialism has kept the tribe on the defensive, but it also has given them a purpose.

Saúl and the narrator discuss the global impact of colonialism as well. The Incas, who had conquered others, were defeated and colonized by the Spanish. Saúl believes the Inca tribe members should be fully integrated into Western life as "the lesser evil." Once colonization has already begun, it is hard to reverse. The narrator points out the cultures with the most strength and resources will eventually reach every corner of the globe. After learning the influence of the Machiguenga storyteller, the narrator realizes indigenous tribes untouched by colonialism may have an inner strength helping them survive, so the complexity of the question remains for them.

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