The Times of India reported recently that the District Collector for the Madurai District was investigating reports of the illegal mortgaging of ration cards in a local Paliyan community. The official, S. Aneesh Sekhar, visited the Paliyans at the Alagammalpuram Colony, located about 60 km. from Madurai City, and explained the laws prohibiting such activities.

A Paliyan woman with her kids in the Sirumalai Hills of Tamil Nadu
A Paliyan woman with her kids in the Sirumalai Hills of Tamil Nadu (Photo by vdakshinamurthy in Wikipedia, in the public domain)

During the meeting, the Collector invited the people to let him know if there was anything they needed. The Paliyans responded that some individuals in the colony are homeless—they would appreciate having houses to live in. They also asked Mr. Sekhar to provide jobs and agricultural land so they could care for themselves better.

The TOI story indicated that these Paliyans used to live in the forest, where they depended on forest products to supply their needs. Now, many support themselves by working as security guards on farms.

Other officials have also visited the village recently. One day outsiders entered the community to administer COVID-19 vaccinations. The day before that a team led by a police official visited to inquire about the allegations regarding the ration cards. They asked the Paliyans to speak out if others are holding their ration cards. No one responded. In fact, everyone had their ration cards with them when the officials visited.

The Alagammalpuram Colony made the news in July 2013 over similar issues.  According to a report dated July 11th that year, an educated Paliyan man named Thangaraj from the colony decided to post on Facebook an open appeal to the Collector in office at that time concerning the needs of the people. In his post, Thangaraj asked why some basic amenities and housing had not yet been provided to the Paliyans, as required by Indian law.

The post immediately caught the attention of the Collector, who visited the colony and listened to the complaints. One might surmise that the way the Paliyans of that colony are still asking the government for the same basic services may indicate some of the problems they have in that district.

The baybayin, the ancient writing script still used by the Buid to show off their love poems, was discussed recently in an online lecture for Canadian Filipinos. The presentation focused on the history of the baybayin rather than on their role as an important aspect of their cultural heritage. Earlier news reports examined the ways the baybayin fostered the peaceful culture of the Buid.

An artistic version of baybayin script of the Tagalog word for peace, kapayapan (Photo by Christian Cabuay on Flickr, Creative Commons license)
An artistic version of baybayin script of the Tagalog word for peace, kapayapan (Photo by Christian Cabuay on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

According to a recent article in a major newspaper from the Philippines, Dr. Edwin V. Antonio, head of the National Committee on Northern Cultural Communities of the National Commission for Culture and Arts, presented a range of facts and graphic illustrations about the baybayin as part of an online lecture series concerning the Philippines.

Dr. Antonio reviewed the history of the baybayin for his viewers. He explained that the baybayin was used throughout the Philippines in pre-colonial times, but it was mostly abandoned by the 17th century. Only a few societies—the Buid and a few others—persisted in using it. For most of the country, the script became a largely forgotten cultural relict. In 1999, the script was inscribed in the Memory of the World Register preserved by Unesco.

The scholar told his viewers that the baybayin has been gaining more recognition in the last few decades. The Baybayin Act of 2013 required government agencies to include examples of indigenous scripts in their logos. Baybayin now appear in the logos of a wide range of Philippine cultural institutions. They also appear on the Philippine passport and on a series of banknotes.

The news story quoted the reaction to Dr. Antonio’s online broadcast by Mr. Zaldy B. Patron, the Consul General for the Philippines in Calgary. He described the presentation as “truly educational and revealing of the Filipinos’ ancient writing system.” He urged younger Filipinos to practice using the baybayin in order to enrich the cultural heritage of the nation.

On March 7, the Malaysian news website Free Malaysia Today published a report (summarized here on March 19) analyzing the reactions of the different Orang Asli societies to the COVID-19 vaccines. Three months later, FMT updated their coverage of the same subject by providing new information. The journalist identifies some of the people interviewed with the specific society they are from, such as Temuan or Semai, but for others they are only identified in general terms as being Orang Asli—Original People.

Temuan children (Photo by A satan incarnate on Flickr, Creative Commons license)
Temuan children (Photo by A satan incarnate on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

The latest analysis points out the wide variations in acceptance of vaccinations in the different communities the reporter visited.  Some believe the misinformation that is bandied about. For instance, a Temuan activist named Mimi Anai said that many of her contacts were afraid of being vaccinated after seeing stories of people who died as a result of getting the shots.

Worse, she said the people are repeating myths that help to exaggerate their fears. For example, as a result of their vaccinations some people become fully paralyzed, according to one rumor. Another false story is that vaccination shots could alter a person’s DNA. “Just yesterday, I saw news that someone had supposedly become comatose after getting vaccinated,” she told the reporter. Mimi is the only person in her village who wants to be vaccinated, though she has not gotten her appointment yet.

Tijah Yok Chopil (Screenshot from the video “Orang Asli Struggle for Land Rights, by Malaysiakini TV, Creative Commons license)
Tijah Yok Chopil (Screenshot from the video “Orang Asli Struggle for Land Rights, by Malaysiakini TV, Creative Commons license)

The reporter interviewed Tijah Yok Chopil, a prominent Semai activist who was also quoted in the March FMT story. She said it was essential for the Orang Asli agency of the government, JAKOA, to educate the Orang Asli more effectively and to counter the widespread misinformation that was circulating. She said that relying solely on the social media would not be effective enough. She said that community and government leaders needed to visit the villages in person and explain the importance of getting vaccinated.

She recommended that district health officials as well as people from JAKOA should take action. She added that visitors going into the villages should remind the people that babies are normally vaccinated in the health clinics to protect them against all sorts of diseases.

The FMT journalist quotes other Orang Asli who make similar points: there is widespread concern in their communities about the safety and efficacy of the vaccines. And those concerns are amplified and spread through misleading, false rumors which can best be corrected by getting knowledgeable people into the villages to present accurate information.

Illegal mining in south central Venezuela is fostering conflict and even some violence among the normally peaceful Piaroa people. A lengthy analysis in the publication Caracas Chronicles on June 4 provides a lot of details about the stresses the Piaroa are trying to cope with.

The Sipapo River (Photo by Fernando Flores on Flickr, Creative Commons license)
The Sipapo River (Photo by Fernando Flores on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

The author, who is not named to protect his or her security, begins the account by describing an attack on a group of Piaroa. They were going by boat up the Sipapo River when they encountered a barbed wire blockade stretching from shore to shore staffed by armed men—also Piaroa. The armed Piaroa stopped the boat, tied up the captives, took them to a “command center” as they called it, and proceeded to beat them. One man had a serious head wound from a machete strike that had to be treated in the hospital in Puerto Ayacucho.

Alirio Sánchez, one of the victims on the river boat that day, said that everyone attacked was a Piaroa from the Autana municipality. He explained that the boat was carrying supplies such as gasoline and food for the miners at a mine near Cerro Qemado. But speaking of the attack on a Puerto Ayacucho radio station he was defensive: they were heading for a small mine, not a large one such as the ones along the Orinoco River. He also said they were taking food to their children.

While Sánches was telling his side of the story of the attack, the general coordinator of a local Piaroa organization was presenting a contradictory view. Otilio Santos from the Organización Indígena de los Pueblos Uwottüja del Sipapo (OIPUS)— “Uwottüja” is another name for “Piaroa”—told a press conference that the indigenous guards at the barrier across the Sipapo were trying to prevent supplies from reaching the mine. About 200 people “from our own community” are at the mine.

A Piaroa man working (Photo by Anagoria on Wikimedia, Creative Commons license)
A Piaroa man working (Photo by Anagoria on Wikimedia, Creative Commons license)

Alirio López, also speaking in defense of OIPUS, said that the role of the indigenous guards is to protect the people and the resources of their ancestral territory. Defending the river and preventing supplies from reaching the illegal gold and coltan mines is essential, they feel.

The author devotes the rest of his or her analysis to the relationships between the different rebel armed groups and the broader society. The classic facets of Piaroa life and patterns of beliefs that used to cement their commitment to an entirely peaceful lifestyle are clearly threatened. The presence of the mining operations and of the armed rebel groups that seem to feed on the mining has introduced an entirely new dimension into the Piaroa way of life.

The people obviously disagree about how to cope with the new dimensions that intrude into their lives. The author of the article asks particularly poignant questions, such as who is providing firearms to the different Piaroa factions? OIPUS and the others hesitate to answer. Their peacefulness may not survive.

For the second time in less than two years, the Batek from the small village of Kampung Aring 5 have made the news in Malaysia. The village is located in the town of Gua Musang.

A view of the town of Gua Musang (Photo by Straitgate in Wikimedia, Creative Commons license
A view of the town of Gua Musang (Photo by Straitgate in Wikimedia, Creative Commons license

The Malay Mail reported on May 29 that 50 Batek individuals from that village have registered to get Covid 19 vaccinations. The head of the village, Raina Anjang, told the press that the manual registration process was handled by JAKOA, the Orang Asli Development Department of the Malaysian government.

The news story reported that the process “went smoothly.” Raina added that the villagers had been afraid of registering but when they received detailed information about the vaccination process a lot of people changed their minds. Many of those who signed up to get the shots are seniors and young people.

Another villager expressed appreciation to JAKOA for providing information about registering for a vaccination. While the people do follow the news about the pandemic in Malaysia, and they do adhere to the precautions such as social distancing advised by the government, they were not sure how to get vaccinated. They were grateful for the help from the government.

Kampung Airing 5 was in the news just over 18 months ago when a herd of wild elephants for unknown reasons attacked and mostly destroyed their water system. Village leaders said that the community of 300 did not have sufficient funds to repair the water pipes themselves so they would have to appeal to JAKOA for financial support to fix the damage.

It appears from these two news reports as if the Batek, at least those in Kampung Aring 5, are aware of the value of connecting with the government when the need arises.

A young Zapotec man has gotten a scholarship to attend Harvard University, an achievement that fosters pride among the people in his community, more widely in Oaxaca state, and among Mexicans in general. According to a news report on May 24, the 23-year-old scholar, Ramiro González Cruz, is from San Isidro El Costoche, in the municipality of San Francisco Logueche, in Oaxaca.

Future Zapotec leaders on the Isthmus of Tehuantepec (Photo by Avi Dolgin on Flickr, Creative Commons license)
Future Zapotec leaders on the Isthmus of Tehuantepec (Photo by Avi Dolgin on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

As a child, Ramiro helped his father by working in the fields, caring for animals, and doing other chores that he could fit in with his school work. When he was 16, he moved to Oaxaca City to attend high school at the College of Scientific and Technological Studies of the State of Oaxaca (CECyTEO) where he graduated in 2016.

He wanted to go on to a university but he lacked the money needed so he took time off from schooling to work in the fields of Sinaloa. It was hard work but after a year he had saved enough to return to Oaxaca and resume his studies. He attended the Technological University of the Central Valleys of Oaxaca where he graduated with two different undergraduate degrees in business.

As he begins his graduate work at Harvard, he is phenomenally busy. He serves as an intercultural promoter and interpreter for the Oaxaca Public Defender’s Office and as a member of the International Youth Network of Latin America. At Harvard, he is a fellow in the Crossroads Program for Emerging Leaders 2021. He is one of five people from Mexico who qualified for that program.

He is taking his Harvard classes online due to the pandemic. His goal is to support young entrepreneurs in their efforts to come up with images and brand recognition for the products they have developed.

This report and other recent articles about the young activist reflect the pride many Mexicans feel toward the Zapotec man and his many accomplishments.

On May 15, one of India’s major newspapers, the Daily Pioneer, published a report about the death of an 18-month-old Birhor boy. With the news media in India crowded by stories about the devastation of the pandemic, the coverage of issues in a remote Birhor village was interesting enough. More than that, the story was significant because it pointed out the neglect of medical services in the village and the active responses by officials to the crisis that the neglect had caused.

Birhor woman with children (Screen capture from the video “Birhor—a Tribe Displaced for Nothing” by VideoVolunteers on YouTube, Creative Commons license)
Birhor woman with children (Screen capture from the video “Birhor—a Tribe Displaced for Nothing” by VideoVolunteers on YouTube, Creative Commons license)

In the Kadasar Birhor tanda (village), the Katkamsandi Block of the Hazaribagh District, the child, Ranjeet Birhor, had a cold with a cough and a fever. The village lacks any medical facilities so the father, Raj Kumar Birhor, took the child to the hospital for the block. No one there took care of the sick kid, who died in his sleep during the night.

Raj Kumar noted that the tanda lacks any vaccination facilities. Furthermore. he complained that the people had not received the free food which they were entitled to for the last several months.

When she heard about the events at the tanda, Renu Kumari, the Block Development Officer, decided to visit the Birhor village accompanied by several other local officials. As a result of their visit, she ordered the medical officer for the block to visit also. The medical team assessed the health of every Birhor there. While they were in the community, the medical people distributed free medicines to the villagers.

When news of the death of the child reached officials at the next higher level of government, the state of Jharkhand, the agriculture minister called a meeting with other officials. They reinstated the supply of free food grains and other free supplies to the Birhor tanda, which they are entitled to anyway.

Considering the responses by so many officials, is it any wonder that the death of a young child should be covered by one of India’s leading newspapers?

The Perak High Court in Ipoh, Malaysia, recently extended a temporary restraining order that prevents two companies from proceeding with the construction of a hydroelectric dam on a river that is part of the ancestral territory of the local Semai people.

Semai kids in Gopeng
Semai kids in Gopeng (Photo by in Flickr, Creative Commons license)

A news story last year on November 13, as well as a more recent one on April 28, provide the background. The Semai claim that the developers do not have the right to dam the Geruntum River. Their work on the project so far in the town of Gopeng is illegal, they argue. Three years ago, the Semai filed a court suit that named the two private companies— Perak Hydro Renewable Energy Corporation Sdn Bhd and Conso Hydro —plus a range of government agencies as defendants who had illegally taken away their land. Last October they also filed an injunction to stop all work by the companies on the project.

Furthermore, the plaintiffs claim that the companies, while trespassing on their lands along the Geruntum River doing their preliminary work, destroyed some plantations of fruit trees. They also destroyed 50 burial grounds of Semai ancestors, and they contaminated the water used by the villagers. The government agencies were named as defendants in the suit because they failed to uphold the provisions of the Malaysian Constitution and the Aboriginal Peoples Act of 1954.

The High Court of Perak in Ipoh
The High Court of Perak in Ipoh (Photo by Miss Prema Darshini 0Wikimedia, Creative Commons license)

The High Court in November 2020 issued an order temporarily blocking any more construction work until the issue could be heard in detail by the full court. On April 28 the court made it permanent. It extended the block against the developers until it can review the entire matter and rule on the merits of the Semai case. As one of the lawyers involved in the issue summarized the latest development for the newspaper, “the application for an interlocutory injunction by the Orang Asli has been allowed pending the outcome of their suit.”

To a non-Malaysian observer, it appears as if the Semai have a good chance of preserving the river and the lands it drains.

To judge by a news report on May 2, religious authorities in Malaysia’s Pahang state have been pressuring the Batek to abandon their plan to renounce the state-supported Muslim faith.

A Batek boy (Photo by Cleffairy that was on his blog Over a Cuppa Tea with a Creative Commons license)
A Batek boy (Photo by Cleffairy that was on his blog Over a Cuppa Tea with a Creative Commons license)

Siti Kasim, an attorney who has been helping the Batek, uploaded a video to Instagram in which she argued the Batek point of view. In the 1990s they were pressured into abandoning their traditional beliefs and converting to Islam. They claim they still did not really accept the tenets of the new faith. They were not really practicing Muslims. But the villagers feared being evicted from their homes if they were to renounce Islam, which is the state-supported religion of Malaysia.

This Batek community is now considering taking their anti-Islam issue to court but the authorities are trying to discourage them from doing that. Religious figures and government officials have recently been visiting the community with offers of rice. Siti urged the officials to ease off the pressure on the Batek. Let them alone.

This brief news report raises the obvious question, what is it about the traditional Batek beliefs that provokes concern among the Malaysian secular and religious authorities? A first step in answering the question is to consult major ethnographies on the Batek.

Kirk Endicott speaking at a conference in 2011
Kirk Endicott speaking at a conference in 2011 (Photo by Bruce Bonta)

Kirk Endicott’s 1979 book Batek Negrito Religion describes their religious beliefs: their deities, shamans, rituals, views of the cosmos. Their beliefs allow them to understand their world and cope with the forces that surround them. While Endicott’s primary focus is explaining the breadth and depth of Batek religion, he does provide some interesting insights into their peaceful social structure plus their relationships to one another and the earth.

Lye Tuck-Po reported in her 2004 book that until about 100 years ago, Malay slave raiders came up the rivers and decimated the Batek communities. Their caution towards outsiders, even today, is understandable. The Batek fear of outsiders persisted through the 1960s. They would flee settlements along the rivers at the sound of an approaching motorboat.

Those attitudes persist, according to the anthropologist: they socialize their children to conflate fears of strangers with their fear of tigers. While barriers and suspicions are gradually diminishing in communities where Batek and Malays live close to one another, the Batek realize that they are always the subordinate people.

Periodically, she writes, tensions will flare up, particularly when the Muslim Malays become intolerant of the animist beliefs of their neighbors, who continue to resist converting to Islam.

On April 27, the St. Louis American published an article analyzing the history of the Nubian people in the context of a landmark exhibit of Nubian art that is currently on display at the St. Louis Art Museum. The author of the piece, Kenya Vaughn, argues that racism has played a critical role in the couple thousand years of relations between the Nubians and their rivals in northern Africa, the Egyptians.

Nubian jewelry piece in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (Photo by Hans Ollermann in Flickr, Creative Commons license)
Nubian jewelry piece in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (Photo by Hans Ollermann in Flickr, Creative Commons license)

The curator of the exhibit, Denise Doxey, told the reporter that the Nubians had no written language during much of their history, so their story was recorded by the Egyptians, and not always in friendly terms. Doxey, who is a curator at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, described the relationship between the two peoples as “frenemies.” They hated each other at the same time as they respected one another. They conquered one another in their different wars: neither was particularly peaceful during much of their history.

Since the Nubians had no way of telling their story except through their artistic productions, the Egyptian view of the Nubians has tended to prevail. And the early 20th century views of outside scholars, colored by their interpretations of Egyptian writings, tended to perpetuate the racist stereotypes about the Nubian civilization.

The exhibit at the art museum, “Nubia: Treasures of Ancient Africa,” presents the richness of the history for observers who are willing to abandon their stereotypes. The racist views of early Egyptologists—that the Egyptians had the superior civilization—began to be modified when serious excavations got underway in the 1970s in Nubia. The current exhibit strengthens the reality of cultural equality between the two civilizations.

The St. Louis Art Museum (Photo by Bill Onasill on Flickr, Creative Commons license)
The St. Louis Art Museum (Photo by Bill Onasill on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Doxey analyzes for the journalist the incredibly fine details of some of the objects displayed. For instance, she points out the fine, almost microscopic, details on a tiny pendant. It includes both an Egyptian goddess and a Nubian queen. The thousands of objects on display include giant pieces of art as well as very tiny ones reflecting almost every aspect of Nubian life.

They also represent the fact that the Nubians had a very cosmopolitan civilization with highly developed trade routes all over Northeastern Africa and adjoining Middle eastern lands. Doxey concludes that the Nubians had “the greatest civilization you’ve never heard of.” The exhibit “Nubia: Treasures of Ancient Africa” will be on display in St. Louis until August 22.