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Sharing Knowledge / Positions

“You need to show that our culture is still alive and thanks to it, we are still alive today.”

Kachipiu Díaz belongs to the Pemón people and is a student and coordinator. Kuyujani Lopez belongs to the Ye′kwana people and has earned a degree from the Universidad Nacional Experimental Indígena del Tauca. Both have played an active role in shaping the “Sharing Knowledge” Internet platform. They discussed their experiences and impressions of the cooperation, and expressed their strong belief in the need to continue cooperation between western institutions and the indigenous communities.
Interview: Michael Kraus

What do you think about the idea of the “Sharing Knowledge” project? Why did you become involved in the project?

Kachipiu: I believe that this project holds great significance to all indigenous peoples, as well as to the rest of mankind. The approach of the project is very good and it should continue and become a lasting cooperation. It shows real progress. I think the Internet platform is a means for us as indigenous peoples to gradually become visible.

Kuyujani: The project is really interesting because it gave us reason to hold discussions within our communities. As a result, this knowledge can then be shared with all of us. The objects that you have here, these handmade objects – they are very important to us as a people. We need to share this importance with others. From us as indigenous peoples. There is much that we can contribute. We also want to incorporate the indigenous communities more into this project. Until now, it’s only been the Universidad Nacional Experimental Indígena del Tauca, but we absolutely need the connection to the indigenous communities because that’s where culture is, not just at the university.

Have both of you been actively working on the platform already?

Kuyujani: I have been working on the project through the university from the beginning. We work on identifying each and every object that is here at the Ethnologisches Museum. If we don’t know what an object is, we consult with the community, with the wise people of our community. What is this object called and what is it used for? Then we upload the data to the platform. It is very important to us that the project continues and we keep working on it. And that we, together with the indigenous communities, help the Ethnologisches Museum. We need to incorporate other peoples who are represented at the Universidad Nacional Experimental Indígena del Tauca and whose objects are located here at the Ethnologisches Museum. New ideas will emerge as the project moves forward.

Kachipiu: I worked on editing the translations from the Pemón language. That includes both the words that the researchers collected and the entries that the Pemón entered on the Internet platform.

What are your impressions about the documentation of the objects that you have seen here at the museum? Are there mistakes?

Kachipiu: Primarily, in the way it is written. The various groups of Pemón need to agree on how to translate our language. I’m referring to the fact that the Taurepan, Arekuna, and Kamarakoto need to agree on a single term for different words in all three groups of peoples. There’s also a lot on the Internet platform that needs to be changed. Likewise, we need to continue gathering as much information as possible. When an institution like the Ethnologisches Museum publishes something, they should also inform us online or some other way, so we as a new Amazonian museum stay up-to-date, as well. We plan to set up a museum at the university in Tauca on the basis of the cooperation with the Ethnologisches Museum in Berlin. It needs to become mandatory that we receive such information.

Have you found objects from your cultural groups in the museum’s collection in Dahlem that aren’t used anymore, or that people don’t know anymore, or that are well-known and still in use today?

Kuyujani: We’ve found objects here that we don’t have anymore. Weapons that were used by the warriors when they fought against the Spaniards, according to our elder. Nowadays we don’t see these items anymore in the community. There are also some objects still used: the waja [basketlike dishes], the baskets, the decorative feathers. These are all everyday items.

Kachipiu: The items we were able to identify are in use. The Pemón typically still use handmade items when preparing their foods and meals. These tools obviously have a limited lifespan. It depends on how they are used in preparing food. At some point they are set aside; you can hang them up, and they’ll eventually deteriorate. They are biodegradable and environmentally friendly. The way I see it, it’s a good way for people to support biodiversity directly where they live. It doesn’t harm the environment. I believe it’s important.

Do you approve of the fact that these collections of items from your cultural groups are housed in Germany?

Kuyujani: These items are here. You need to respect the fact that they are part of the cultural heritage of the museum. If you start to demand that they return items, you need to study the situation well. How did the object arrive here? If the object was sold or presented as a gift, it belongs to you. If you were to have sold something, you cannot just ask to have it back later. What I find interesting is the fact that the museum was the one to initiate this exchange and informed the communities that their objects are here. For me, it’s good and fair. And now there will be an exhibition in the Humboldt-Forum starting in 2019, where the people in charge decided to consult with the communities beforehand. It is an indication of good intentions. It shows respect when you let us know before the objects are placed on exhibit. Up until now they had all been in storage.

Kachipiu: It’s important to preserve as many items as possible here in the museum, but you cannot expose some objects to the public, as they are sacred. Only our wise people, our shamans, know how to use, those who have gained experience over time.

So there are objects that you wouldn’t want placed on exhibit?

Kuyujani: For example, the shaman’s bench. No one should be allowed to view this object because it is special in the world of the indigenous peoples. The shaman is the person in charge of the community’s well-being and who takes care of it. Last year, together with one of our elders, we viewed everything in the museum’s collection and said that this object could not be exhibited. Therefore, for the Ye′kwana, there is this specific case where we found an object that cannot be exhibited. On the other hand, you can exhibit handicrafts. The wise people are in charge of handling this sacred knowledge. There are some things that are not passed along to younger people. You need to limit access to the information. For example, if I show things to a young man, and if he uses them the wrong way, he can cause harm to others when he uses this knowledge. For this reason, you cannot place objects on exhibit that are related to this knowledge. They hold great significance and they have a strong spiritual connection that is handled only by the elders. I’m sure there are younger people who would be interested in this sacred knowledge, but you need to choose who will be trained in using it. It’s not for everyone.

If you were curators of an exhibition in Berlin, what objects would you like to place on exhibit and on which topics would you like to focus to enable the public to better understand the situation of the Ye′kwana and Pemón peoples?

Kuyujani: We would like to show the indigenous art, the artesian objects, the decorative feathers, the baskets, how to weave a waja. It’s artistic knowledge, it’s something you can exhibit. They are in common use around the communities.
We strongly believe in our culture, in our spirituality, and this remains the case to this day. It would be good to show that it is not something dead. Rather that it is still alive and thanks to it, we are still alive today. We wouldn’t exist without our culture. It would be great if the labels used in the museum would indicate whether the objects are historical pieces or are still in use today. By stating that the objects are still in use, it would be a way of communicating to the world that indigenous people still exist. There are many people who don’t know that we indigenous people exist. They think that we are nothing but a legend, that we are extinct. It’s good for people to see that our peoples are still active and our culture is different and deserving of respect.

Kachipiu: It’s a living culture and capable of adapting to changes. It would be important for our peoples to learn about this living culture. It can act as a bridge that connects indigenous knowledge with the western culture. In my opinion, it can be enriching for both cultures.

There is much talk in the realm of museums about cultural heritage, as well as the concept of a “shared cultural heritage.” Do you think that a European museum’s collection can be considered a shared cultural heritage?

Kachipiu: Yes, it is a shared heritage because I as a young person and as part of this conversation can state that it enriches both cultures. If we don’t share the knowledge of both cultures, we won’t get anywhere. For this reason, it is important for us as indigenous peoples to cooperate with other countries. This can be seen as a cultural heritage of both cultures. We Pemón say that a shaman, a wise man, is our “living cultural heritage.” He holds all this knowledge and knows how to explain the direction in which we humans are going, in particular the Pemón. The wise person is living cultural heritage. That is something we have heard our wise people say, as they store our memories. We are indigenous people who learn through oral tradition and we work with the organic world around us, with nature. We also need to write things down what can be written down. And the things that cannot be written down, spiritual ideas, is the knowledge that only a Pemón can use. There are stories about researchers who learned something from the Pemón, but they applied it improperly. That’s why you should add the comments of the wise people in various places. That’s how I see it.

Kuyujani: That’s how I see it, too.

The conversation took place in Berlin in September 2015. Transcription by Sebastián Messina, translation from Spanish by David Fenske.

Dr. Michael Kraus is an ethnologist and exhibition curator and an academic officer at the Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität Bonn. His research work centers on the history of academics, indigenous cultures of the Amazon, museum ethnology/practical museum work, visual anthropology, and material culture. He curated the “Touching Photography” project for the Humboldt Lab Dahlem.

Expanding the Contact Zone

by Wolfgang Kapfhammer

Collaboration and mindfulness as urgent actions

Judging from recent debates, the task of providing cultures of the global South with a “decontaminated” forum, i.e. one that has been wiped clean of its colonial baggage, all in the heart of a European metropolis, appears to be developing into a Sisyphean trial. Attempts by the Humboldt Lab Dahlem to negotiate the related issues of representation, indisputably of critical import for museums, span the gamut from discourse to experimental design. The subproject “Sharing Knowledge” shows that expectations directed at the post-colonial museum include new forms of cooperation and action that extend to the source communities where collections originated. The post-colonial debate that surrounds ethnological museums must, however, avoid the trap of holding onto the same “mental infrastructures” (Harald Welzer) as those organizational forms which they rightly criticize. Because the debate ascribes such a totalizing role to colonialism that even subsequent attempts at “reparation” must necessarily be called into doubt, it ultimately denies subaltern groups any and all possibility of participating in the interpretive monopoly claimed by European museums, both then and now.

One idea for responding to the criticism aimed at ethnological museums was to establish them as “contact zones” (James Clifford) in which metropolitan institutions and peripheral source communities could meet “as equals.” Due to the institutional inertia of ethnological museums, this idea of meeting was rapidly exposed to critique, i.e. the “preserves of colonialism” (Christian Kravagna). The project “Sharing Knowledge” offers a possible solution to this Catch-22 conundrum. With the online platform, a virtual middle ground between Berlin depots and indigenous partners in the Venezuelan savanna emerges, one that resembles the meeting spaces that Mary L. Pratt was referring to as she introduced the term “contact zone” into the ethnological debate on “imperial eyes.” There is a distinction to be made between the contact zone in the metropolitan museum repository where encounters take place today with the producers of the objects (James Clifford’s contact zone) and the contact zone at the periphery where the real activity of collecting occurred (Mary J. Pratt’s contact zone). The latter middle ground was a place where colonial and imperial scholars did the actual work of investigation and collection, guided and shaped in large part by the authoritative knowledge of local indigenous experts. Colonialism and colonial self-image, however, denied this extreme dependence on indigenous expertise in the field and attempted to cleanse any traces of indigenous influence from the hybrid epistemologies emerging in the contact zone.

One might speculate that especially the older collections provide the clearest matrix of indigenous knowledge, since their contents still remained largely uninfluenced by Western pursuits of order. From this perspective, indigenous knowledge harbored in colonial collections offers the possibility of reviving the transcultural dialog through collaboration between museums and source communities. In “Sharing Knowledge” this dialog started, tellingly enough, with the development of classification categories and rules based on indigenous life worlds.

This kind of collaboration contains no traces of crypto-colonial hypocrisy. As “Sharing Knowledge” plainly shows, an “epistemic decolonialization” (Larissa Förster) of museums can be found precisely in the recognition of the efforts of local experts for “traditional ecological knowledge” (Fikret Berkes), who now meet their descendants in the new “contact zone.”
This collaboration generates the desired polyphony in the metropolis, while the collections are able to extend back to their remote indigenous origins, where they can break the silence surrounding indigenous culture imposed by local discrimination. According to Pratt, the “autoethnographic discourse” initiated in this process is one of the characteristic genres of the “contact zone,” where critique and resistance make their way into the intellectual domains of the hegemonic culture. The online platform of the project is open to objections and the possibility of voicing concerns.

Even more important than being heard in the metropolis, however, is the fact that “Sharing Knowledge” creates opportunities in Tauca for communities to engage in various ways with the products of their own culture. The act of breaking with a “culture of silence” (Paulo Freire) can then become a “culture of mindfulness” toward the aesthetic of collection objects embedded in local environments. Finally, mindfulness forms the prerequisite for the resilience of these different ways of life. The current situation in many indigenous territories of the South American lowlands is extremely precarious. In light of these circumstances, a project like “Sharing Knowledge” becomes an urgent intervention, since sooner or later the window of opportunity for reconnecting with this local (material and other) culture will have closed. With this in mind, the representation debates in the metropolitan institutions, often plagued by narcissism and self-referential tendencies, may find reason to take a step back and reflect.

Dr. Wolfgang Kapfhammer is an anthropologist and lecturer at the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München (LMU Munich), with a focus on Amazonia. He has researched the Sateré-Mawé of the Lower Amazon in Brazil since 1998, as well as topics in the anthropology of religion and the environment, and collaborated with Sateré-Mawé representatives as part of the exhibition “Beyond Brazil” at Vienna’s Weltmuseum.