CULTURE: The Protector of Venezuela’s Indigenous Languages

Estrella Gutierrez

CARACAS, Apr 6 1999 (IPS) - There are 65 indigenous languages spoken in Venezuela and the care of their phonetic and grammatical structure is pretty much in the hands of one man – 70-years-old Pedro Juan Krisologo.

Krisologo holds the chair marked with the letter “D” of the Venzuelan Academy of Language, a 23-member branch of the Spanish Royal Academy, in an acknowledgement of his contribution to aboriginal languages.

The Warao linguist, anthropologist and philosopher is the first Venezuelan indigenous person to be member of the language academy, thanks to a bibliography which features dictionaries and language manuals of indigenous peoples.

If Krosologo is satisfied about something, it’s that chance or destiny that have helped him be the successor to Fray Cesareo de Armellada, a Spanish missionary adopted by the Indians and who became known as “Father Indian”, and who also devoted himself to the recovery of indigenous languages.

Krisologo explains that many of Venezuela’s 65 languages have different dialects and are used by only 28 aboriginal groups – a total of about 400,000 people.

“There is an unknown and undervalued wealth” in indigenous languages, says Krosologo, who complains that bilingual education is legally mandatory in indigenous communities, but actually is only taught in a few places.

According to the last indigenous census, 20 percent of the Venezuelan Indians do not speak a native language, only Spanish only. One the other side of the coin 24 percent of indigenous people speak only their native tongue.

The situation is even worse for the rest of indigenous culture: myths, crafts, legends and knowledge. This is in part due to the fact that knowledge among indigenous peoples depends largely on the oral tradition, as writing is recent in many of the languages.

“Every time an indigenous elder dies, it’s as if an entire library disappears,” says Krisologo.

In his writings, he remembers his great-grandmother, who was believed to be 120 years of age when she died. She taught him all the science and myths that are hidden behind the stars.

The Warao, the second largest indigenous group in Venezuela in number of inhabitants, live in the northeastern state of Delta Amacuro, which contains a large part of the Orinoco river delta. Their tradition has a great amount of knowledge about the zodiac and astrology, which governs their activities and destiny.

In fact, his acceptance speech for the Academy was titled “The New Nomenclature of the Sky World, Constellations and the Zodiac in Indigenous Venezuela”, in which he interwove the stories from his grandmother and “Fr. Indian” the tutor of some of his linguistic manuals.

Warao is one of the most musical languages spoken by indigenous people in Venezuela, with phonetics that are very characteristic, though its grammatical structure is similar to other languages, Krosologo says.

“Warao” means “people of the curiara” (the holy vessel made from the trunk of a tree), according to some, and “people of the water” according to others, as they live their peaceful lives among the reeds and canals of the delta’s fragile eco-system.

Krisologo says that the aim of his work is not only to maintain and appreciate indigenous languages, but rather to consolidate the spirit of nationality of the native peoples of Venezuela, in order to recover the knowledge and values of the those ethnic groups for the benefit of the whole country’s 23 million inhabitants.

“Mestizaje” (or racial mixing), he argues, “has marvelous elements for Venezuelan culture”, and should be taken advantage of, such as the ways in which the Indians have managed to survive in the face of domination by another civilization, thanks to “our integration with the land, the roots, and the native and genuine” values, as well as their cosmology.

“When researchers talk about the great Pre-Colombian civilizations, they refer to the Aztecs, the Maya and the Incas,” says Krsologo. But in his opinion, “there also is an enormous wealth of knowledge in the culture of the people from the Amazon, the Caribbean, the mountains and the flood plains of Venezuela.”

In this sense, Krisologo says, the efforts that are being made to recover the planetary knowledge of indigenous culture, such that of the Makiritare, the Pemone, the Yecuanas, and the Waraos themselves are very important.

Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano argues that this ignorance is part of a genocidal neglect towards the native cosmovision and civilization of the Americas.

“The Indians of the Americas are allowed to be objects of study, but not subjects of history. The Indians are said to have folklore, not culture; they practice superstitions, not religions; they speak dialects, not languages; they make crafts, never art”, says Galeano, in one of his writings.

Krisologo argues that is what leads to the consideration of indigenous knowledge as magic, while if it were the work of the dominant Western civilization, it would be considered science.

According to the Warao linguist and anthropologist, the current period is not a favorable one for the Indians, in Venezuela or in any other part, because they are a dominated and unappreciated minority.

He calls for more resources and respect for the maintenance of the culture and way of life of the Indians, beginning with the language.

He stresses that the issue is not to force indigenous peoples to incorporate into the dominant culture, but rather a racial mixing based on co-existence. “All kinds of cooperation, but not integration”, says the academic, whose travels throughout the world and its universities have not erased his Warao features and personality.

His enigmatic gaze, his very soft voice, and his very precise phrases, reveal his ethnic background, even when talking about details in his life, from the remote village of Yawaraco to his current seat in the Academy.

At his first school, he met Father Indian, who was one of the people who supported his move to Caracas, where he received a scholarship to study Philosophy and Letters in Madrid. He later received a doctorate at the Archive of the Indias, in the Spanish city of Sevilla.

He received his Masters in Social and Linguistic Anthropology at the Autonomous University of Mexico, and while on another sojourn in Spain, he also studied Journalism and Art Education.

In addition to his academic activities and time-consuming positions at the Ministries of Justice and Education – where indigenous affairs are dealt with in Venezuela – Krisologo considers his most satisfying work, together with his books, to be the foundation and presidency of the Museum of Anthropology and History in his state.

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