Are You W.E.I.R.D?

Have you ever wondered what it would be like growing up in an entirely different culture, perhaps in another country? Anthropologist and author Inge Bolin wrote an ethnography based on her experience and research with and of the Chillihuani people of the High Andes. For Lauren Visconti’s Comparative Cultures class, Mark Dameron analyzes and highlights differences between growing up in our culture vs. theirs. Get the book here. 

Are you W.E.I.R.D?

In her Ethnography, “Growing Up In A Culture Of Respect: Child Rearing In Highland Peru ”, Inge Bolin observes and analyses the Chilihuani, a herding society that lives in the high Andes. The Chilihuani have persisted since the time of the Incan Empire, due to their remote location and their self-sustaining, egalitarian lifestyle. An ethnography such as Bolin’s “Growing Up In A Culture Of Respect” allows the reader to observe the traditions, behaviors, activities, encounters, issues, etc facing cultures they may be far removed from. For someone born and raised in the United States such as myself, it can be difficult to understand how or why societies such as Chilihuani live the lifestyle that they have maintained for so long. Societies must learn about each other and from each other to observe the world around us not just through one lens which may provide a single explanation or narrative, but through different cultural lenses which allows growth for tolerance, diversity and respect between cultures. This paper will analyze Chilihuani children at play and work, Chilihuani’s relationship with nature, then compare these aspects of Chilihuani culture to western culture, specifically the United States. 

A child’s birthday and age are not typically recorded among Chilihuani families and there are no societal rituals or responsibilities that depend on a child reaching a certain age. Whereas WEIRD (western, educated, industrialized, rich and democratic) countries may promote play at a young age followed by an expected age to begin working, the Chilihuani do not conceptualize play and work to be categorically separate. Chilihuani children play alongside work as they are constantly observing, learning and participating in the everyday activities of adults and their community. There is no true subculture of childhood among the Chilihuani. Children’s songs/poems/dances aren’t common in Chilihuani, nor manufactured children’s toys. Children learn the same songs the adults sing (sometimes changing the words or other parts of a song) and love to listen to stories that the adults tell. Some of these stories are ancient in origin and stretch back to the Incan Empire; this tradition of storytelling serves as preservation of Inca and Chilihuani history. Children exhibit a high level of creativity very early on as they tinker with the raw materials of their environment instead of prefabricated children’s toys. As the children spend ample time with their parents and observe their behavior, they pick up the knowledge and skills necessary for their families’ survival in a marginal environment such as the high Andes. Some skills and knowledge Chilihuani children possess at a young age include “…agriculture, animal husbandry, births, burials, ecological processes, organizing fiestas and faenas (work parties) and traditional medicine” (Bolin 70). The creativity and problem-solving skills these children learn to utilize early in life allow them to excel in academics, such as mathematics and engineering. Chilihuani children begin laboring for their families and community early on due to the extremity of their environment, pride in working, and with most aspects of Chilihuani culture, deep respect for everyone and everything. 

The Chilihuani are constantly subjected to the extremities of a harsh environment, which is a constant factor of daily life. Even though their daily lives are dictated by their marginal environment, the Chilihuani maintain reverence for all life and all aspects of nature – both animate and inanimate. This respect is learned early in life as a child begins to become conscious of their surroundings. The children of this society do not grow up to be bitter or negative as a result of the impoverished material conditions of their upbringing and instead are open-minded, enthusiastic and happy to be a part of their families, their community and the Earth. Children are taught that life is perpetuated by compassion and respect; the Chilihuani people as a whole understand that they do not have dominion over their environment, but that they are a part of the environment and therefore must take great care of it. Every animal is honored and there are village-wide celebrations to honor the llamas and alpacas that many families herd. As a cultural tradition, new parents assign their children one of the mountains in their region of the high Andes to be a godparent for their child. The Chilihuani have been residents of the high Andes for thousands of years and the sustenance of their society has hinged on their understanding, respect and love for their environment and nature as a whole. 

Unlike Chilihuani society, Western nations construct clear distinctions between work and play. In the United States, a child’s birth and age are recorded from the moment they’re born. There are many “coming-of-age” societal traditions; some include starting kindergarten usually at 5 years old, sweet sixteen birthday parties, school as the main priority until they are 18, learning to drive about 15-16, looking for work around 15-16 and “getting out of the house” at 18 as my father would say. When it comes to work and play, it is an almost subconscious notion that play is less important as one gets older and working towards a career and saving for retirement becomes more important as one gets older. Children growing up in the Western world tend to loathe the school curricula forced upon them for years, greatly impacting the choices they have as they become older and a more integral part of society or fetishize competition and perpetuate ideas and behaviors of superiority, individualism and alienation. There is a win-lose dichotomy that informs the children of these societies and competition becomes a pillar of civilization. The youth crisis of adolescence is a phenomenon that is common in the West, but this is not a symptom of children who are raised in societies that regard respect as a backbone of society and can perceive work and play as a single unit. Regarding my own experience through school: there were years I did well academically and years that I dealt with unstable mental health amongst other factors that made school difficult. I did well in some subjects such as English and Biology, while doing horribly in Mathematics; I refused attempts in Physics or Chemistry. I was scared of school and still have a lingering resentment towards the education system in this country. When I was in high school I understood that this regimented system of education and social traditions we experience in the United States does not always allow children to grow to their full potential. Remote societies such as the Chilihuani raise their children to be creative, respectful, and to have a strong sense of pride in work and play – a lesson Western civilization could learn from. 

Western civilization has normalized a myth that humanity, specifically white humans, has dominion over the environment and other forms of life. There has never been a time since the Europeans initiated genocide against the Native Americans and colonized what would become known as the United States, that nature has been treated sustainably or respectfully. Even during the era of protection (the era between 1900 and 1929 known by conservationists for the initial implementation of environmental protections) and the subsequent era of awareness, environmental destruction has been a nonstop profit-churning activity carried out by industry. Not only is our government and industry responsible for ecocide within the United States, but normally industrializes and destroys countries, their people and their ecosystems around the world. Even in a place such as the Pacific Northwest where nature is seemingly cherished and protected, it becomes apparent that many who reside in the Pacific Northwest want to protect it for the white man to cherish, not for all. We cover the land in beer cans and cigarette butts, pave every square inch of ground or farm unsustainably, treat the biota as if we are their masters, push into national parks to extract resources to produce a seemingly endless supply of consumer goods and when we see fit we travel to a different country to repeat this unsustainable cycle. The manner in which the West treats its animals and environment is inconceivable to a society such as the Chilihuani, who treat the livestock and land that surround them with the same respect they would have for each other. To a society such as the Chilihuani, there is no way to perceive a society to be advanced, ethical or decent that treats their animals and environment with such disdain and abuse. Western civilization hides behind a veil of superiority and progress which disregards the looming crisis of resource depletion and climate change which will eventually impact every facet of life if not confronted. The Chilihuani revere all other forms of life and nature because they understand their position in the ecosystem is not superior and that they must take responsibility for their place in the world if they hope to sustain life. 

Respect is the crucial component to play and work, the relationship with nature and all other facets of Chilihuani society. Societies that live in harsh, remote environments often rely on a system of cooperation and respect in order to survive and thrive. As the WEIRD nations become more “technologically advanced”, these fundamental building blocks of respect and cooperation tend to be neglected, but it is important to maintain the significance of these values to remember that the Homo sapiens species is merely a segment of the functioning biosphere, not the owners. Furthermore, the WEIRD nations hinder themselves by regimenting the social construct that is childhood, rather than allowing children to develop the creativity, confidence, collective respect and egalitarian disposition which is commonly understood by children of countries the West might describe as less-advanced or primitive. Knowledge is not a one-way corridor and the idea of progress as unilinear is fallible; it is important to foster respect, empathy and understanding and tolerance which transcends borders to learn from those we share the Earth with and become legitimate stewards of our home.

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