A new study of six indigenous societies in Venezuela concludes that playing games by children helps promote their growth and the successful transmission of their culture.
The Inter Press Service, a news agency devoted to disseminating news from the developing countries, reported Tuesday that a team under the leadership of Emanuele Amodio spent two years investigating how children are raised in 6 of the 35 Venezuelan indigenous communities. Dr. Amodio, a Professor in the School of Anthropology in Venezuela’s Central University, indicated that during those two years he lived among the six societies and used a variety of techniques for gathering data, such as direct observations, interviews, and polling.
The published study, conducted under the auspices of UNICEF, concluded that the six indigenous communities, located in very different regions of Venezuela, have quite similar practices, beliefs and rituals relating to pregnancy, childbirth, and the care of newborn babies. The investigators also found similarities in the ways the indigenous adults teach skills and fundamental values to their children. They all have to cope with the dominant Creole Venezuelan cultural influences coming from the schools and television.
The six study communities included the Wayúu and Añú, Arawacs of the extreme northwest, the Ye’kuana who are Caribs in the south, the Waraos from the delta of the Orinoco river, the Jivi from the confluence of the Orinoco and Meta Rivers, and the Piaroa of the upper Orinoco. Amodio told the IPS that he chose societies with different patterns of interactions with the dominant Creole culture, different linguistic families, and different ecosystems.
The researchers found that there are differences in attitudes toward pregnancy. Babies are desired immediately after marriage by the Wayúu, but the Ye’kuana hope they will be delayed for two years. Some communities prefer a boy as the first child, so that he can soon help with hunting and fishing, but others prefer to start their families with a girl, who can quickly help out with household tasks. Young Piaroa couples do not make those distinctions, though they want, according to a Piaroa quote in the report, “no more than three or four children, because everything is very expensive and we do not have enough to maintain ourselves.”
During pregnancy and childbirth, all six cultures prohibit both parents from consuming various game meats and species of fish that they believe could harm the health of the child. The indigenous societies generally hope that the baby will remain small in the womb, to facilitate childbirth. In all the ethnic groups the placenta is wrapped up and buried—it is never thrown into the water. Twins are not generally welcomed. The report indicates that the Piaroa formerly abandoned one of a pair of twins in the same place where they had buried the placenta.
Mother’s milk is almost the only food consumed by babies in the first months. The Piaroa transmit myths about struggles by their cultural heroes at the beginning of time to foster breast feeding, according to the report. The first foods children eat other than breast milk include the soft pap of fruits, rice and fish broth. After three years of age, the children in these societies will eat practically the same foods as adults—fish, game meats, bananas and other fruits, yucca, and some industrial foods.
The researchers emphasized the importance of play in these societies as mechanisms for learning, socializing, and preparing for adult life. After the age of three or four, noticeable gender differences develop in the games and toys of children. Their games begin to prepare the boys for hunting, fishing, sowing, and commerce, and the girls for care of the house and family, kitchen work, and weaving. The children have toy bows and arrows, canoes, animal carvings, and dolls made of fibers, wood, shells or clay.
Toys and playing games are also influenced by the surrounding culture, however. In addition to their natural playthings, the children play with toys obtained from the cities made of plastic, glass or metal. The study noted that, particularly in the societies of the south and east, which would include the Piaroa, attending school seems to limit the development of the child’s traditional game-playing, since classes take up the entire morning and half of the afternoon.
The development of children in these indigenous communities is a responsibility of the mothers, the nuclear families, the grandmothers and aunts, grandfathers and uncles, as well as older brothers and sisters. Especially among the Ye’kuana and Piaroa, who live in large communal houses, and the Warao and Añú, who live in lake dwellings connected by walkways, the communities as a whole provide essential support for raising children. The native languages predominate over Spanish among the Warao, Ye’kuana, Jivi and Piaroa. Those peoples transmit knowledge to children in their own languages, although they will send their children to bilingual schools in their territories.
The report indicates that the Indian societies still teach important values to their children: not to say unpleasant things to others, proper behavior, the importance of mutual respect between families, and the value of friendship. But in places where there are electricity and television, children are also influenced by televised comics, films and, dramas.
“These new factors cause the loss of traditional culture,” Dr. Amodio commented. It is similar to the way children were impacted in the past by the introduction of the Christian religions and schools taught in Spanish. He added, “my proposal is to reform the educational programs during the first four or five years of school so the indigenous children study in their own languages.” After that they should be instructed in Spanish too, as a second language.
The Vice Minister of Education of Venezuela, Armando Rojas, said that the study should support the development of new educational policies for the country. Anna Lucía D’ Emilio, the representative of UNICEF in Venezuela, hopes that the report will serve as a “tool for empowering the indigenous organizations, men and women.”