Should Amazon tribes be allowed to kill their young? Foreign Policy editors aren't sure


In recent years, certain tribes in the Amazon region have been in the news because of their unpleasant habit of killing deformed or handicapped children as well as twins, and even offspring of single moms, soon after birth. They also may kill transgendered individuals.

I thought the consensus was pretty clear that such practices were evil. But along came an article (it was a month ago, but I’m only getting around to it now) in Foreign Policy magazine that argued how saving the lives of these children was a western value that didn’t fit with the customs and lifestyle of these tribes.

Call it cultural appropriation, if you will.

Now, the question you know we are going to ask, here at GetReligion, is this: Did journalists pay any attention to religion angles in this story, in terms of critics of these customs or among those defending the tribes? The story begins:

More than a decade ago, Kanhu left the homeland of the Kamayurá, an indigenous tribe with some 600 members on the southern edge of the Brazilian Amazon. She was 7 years old. She never returned. “If I had remained there,” Kanhu, who has progressive muscular dystrophy, told Brazilian lawmakers last year, “I would certainly be dead.”
That’s because her community would likely have killed her, just as, for generations, it has killed other children born with disabilities.
The Kamayurá are among a handful of indigenous peoples in Brazil known to engage in infanticide and the selective killing of older children. Those targeted include the disabled, the children of single mothers, and twins -- whom some tribes, including the Kamayurá, see as bad omens. Kanhu’s father, Makau, told me of a 12-year-old boy from his father’s generation whom the tribe buried alive because he “wanted to be a woman.” 

 I know this is a bit long, but please stay with me.

The evangelical missionaries who helped Kanhu and her family move to Brasília, the capital of Brazil, have since spearheaded a media and lobbying campaign to crack down on child killing. Their efforts have culminated in a controversial bill aimed at eradicating the practice, which won overwhelming approval in a 2015 vote by the Chamber of Deputies, the lower house of Brazil’s National Congress, and is currently under consideration in the Federal Senate, its upper house.

It turns out those missionaries are from a well-known Christian group called Youth with a Mission -- a title that other reporters managed to figure out.

But what may seem an overdue safeguard has drawn widespread condemnation from academics and indigenous rights groups in the country. The Brazilian Association of Anthropology, in an open letter published on its website, has called the bill an attempt to put indigenous peoples “in the permanent condition of defendants before a tribunal tasked with determining their degree of savagery.”

The main question, the article says, is:

To what extent should the state interfere with customs that seem inhumane to the outside world but that indigenous peoples developed long ago as a means to ensure group survival in an unforgiving environment?

If this above-mentioned bill passes, the government gets greater powers to prevent such killings and to monitor single pregnant women or women carrying twins in utero, to make sure they’re not killed by the tribe.

Brazil’s evangelical Protestants support the bill, the article continued, but not:

… those who support cultural relativism, which favors the freedom of communities to organize themselves according to their own moral codes.

The story is fascinating and bears reading. But the reporter leaves out a lot of details when it comes to the involvement of religious groups. Consider the following:

A missionary organization that tracks child killing estimates that some 20 groups, out of the more than 300 indigenous peoples in Brazil, engage in the practice.

Why not name that organization? Odd. If you wish to hear arguments for child killing, read on:

Critics argue that this countrywide debate over the rights of indigenous Brazilians, begun by evangelical missionaries, has sinister parallels to the country’s colonial history and the violence experienced by the indigenous at the hands of outsiders -- violence that continues to this day.

It’s the anthropologists leading the charge.

One anthropologist ... argues that child killing among indigenous peoples must be understood in the context of the Amazon’s incredibly harsh environment. The anthropologist, who conducted years of fieldwork on Brazil’s border with Venezuela, says he heard stories about child killing, which were difficult and tragic. But he says the context is critical. “Something like a misshapen leg can seem like a small thing for us,” he says, “but it’s not so simple for them.” Surviving in the jungle could prove an insurmountable hurdle for these children, leaving them, in the anthropologist’s words, “doomed to failure.”

There are similar arguments cited in this piece by other sources. The reporter cites a human rights lawyer and the missionaries themselves, Marcia and Edson Suzuki, who (pictured atop this blog) are the subject of this book. They also run this web site, which has a question-and-answer column that rebuts criticisms of their Hakani Project, which seeks to save at-risk tribal infants. Obviously they’ve been under attack for their activism.

The Suzuki’s story has been known of for some years. Nevertheless, there’s a lot of confusion in this piece about this couple. A photo shows them walking on the Navajo reservation in Arizona with a caption saying they now work there. The story doesn’t say why they are not in Brazil, so I had to look up their Facebook page to get some answers. 

There are some holes in this narrative. Although religion is mentioned, it’s done in a cursory fashion and not credited as the undergirding motivation that kept these two missionaries at their work for years under primitive conditions. Or it’s treated as though it’s suspect.

Their advocacy surrounding child killing began unintentionally, Suzuki says. In the late 1990s, she and her husband was living among the Suruwaha -- a tribe with fewer than 200 members that first made contact with the outside world in the 1970s -- in order to study their language. (Atini, according to the Suzukis, means “voice” in the Suruwaha language.) Some critics say the couple was also there to proselytize.

Well, no kidding. They were part of YWAM, right? This is a surprise that evangelicals want to do some evangelism?

We’ve long complained in this blog of “Kellerism,” an unofficial, unspoken policy in some media, which surfaced in some 2011 remarks by by former New York Times executive editor Bill Keller. It is a term that means that a media outlet that has made up its mind on a certain hot-button issue to the point where there is no legitimate other side to the story. Thus, only one point of view needs to be expressed.

In my opinion, this is a piece that could use some Kellerism. Isn’t infanticide one of those issues that doesn’t require debate? Or are we so used to abortion, that we're now creating exceptions for killing kids after birth? 

Fortunately, the piece ends with quotes by the handicapped girl at the beginning of the piece who got snatched out of the jungle thanks to the Suzukis’ efforts and is now a high schooler. For now, moral equivalence is defeated by the voice of a child. But will it stay that way?

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