Learning from Tribal People: Book Review

I’ve read a few really excellent books recently which I want to share with you all. I’ve just finished reading Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes by Daniel Everett. This book defies categorisation, on the back it says “Travel/Linguistics”, both of which are correct, but this book covers so much more than that. Daniel was a Christian missionary who went to try to convert an Amazonian tribe, the Pirahá, to Christianity. To do this, his first task was to learn the language and then translate the New Testament of the Bible to the Pirahá language. This might not sound too difficult, but Pirahá doesn’t have a written form, no-one else speaks it, there are no dictionaries or teach yourself courses, and the Pirahá people don’t speak any other language (apart from a few words of Portuguese). So Daniel moves, with his family, to a Pirahá village to live with these people and learn their language. (Daniel is a trained linguist so he does know how to go about the task.)

The book is in three parts: Life, Language and Conclusion.

Part 1, Life, which is the largest section of the book, is a selection of experiences, challenges and insights during Daniel’s life while living with the Pirahá people. One of the most fascinating things about the Pirahá is that they seem to live in the present moment, much more than us westerners could even imagine possible. They have a very minimal amount of personal possessions. In general, they do not store food – they go out hunting/gathering almost every day, if they don’t, they don’t eat that day (which is ok by them, a self imposed fast).

The Pirahá people will only talk about things that they themselves have experienced, or that someone else they know who is still living has experienced. This was one of the major challenges Daniel encountered when attempting to talk about Jesus – once the Pirahá realised that Daniel had never met Jesus, and that Jesus died a long long time ago, they weren’t interested!

The second part, Language, goes into much more detail about the Pirahá language. I found the first half of this interesting and easy to read, although the second half started getting much more technical and possibly only interesting to linguists. But even if you skip part of this section, it doesn’t detract from the rest of the book, and it is only a small part of the whole book.

The conclusion contains the information that convinced me to read this book in the first place – after living with the Pirahá people for many years, Daniel didn’t manage to convert a single Pirahá, and in the end Daniel stopped believing himself. To ‘save’ someone by converting them to Christianity, they would need something to be saves from, and Daniel found that the Pirahá were the happiest people he ever met, and didn’t need saving!

I highly recommend this book, there is so much to be learnt from the Pirahá people.

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