Getting to Know our Guest
Could you please introduce yourself in a few words.
My name is Wade Davis. I'm a writer and an anthropologist, I suppose I'm also a filmmaker and a photographer, but mainly a storyteller.
If you had to pick your favorite Cirque du Soleil show, which one would it be?
It has to be Sép7imo Día - No Descansaré, inspired by the music of Soda Stereo. That’s how I first met Michel Laprise. It was a really fun project in which he asked me to help envision what kind of universe there would be if it was all informed by the metaphors and the symbols of that band. Of course, we suggested all kinds of things, but I don't think any of it got into the show. Somehow, Michel thought it was all wonderful and we became good friends through that. I find him simply inspirational as a creative artist and as a human being.
Getting Interested in Anthropology
Can you tell us a bit about what sparked your interest in anthropology and what motivated you to pursue this field of study?
I always believed that vocation is simply a lens through which you see the world for a while, and only for a time. So, in that sense, I've had many hats in my life, from botanical explorer to hunting guide to park ranger to Whitewater guide to photographer, filmmaker, anthropologist… I think my interest in culture began during my youth. I grew up in Quebec during the time of Two Solitudes, when English and French didn't really speak to each other. I was raised in an English suburb of Montreal, Pointe Claire, which is sort of stuck like a carbuncle on the back of an old Francophone village.
Cartier boulevard literally divided the two worlds. My mother would send me to get groceries or cigarettes in a little corner store owned by a wonderful old Francophone couple on the other side. I would sit on one side of Cartier boulevard, look across the road, and think: “wow, right across there, it's another religion and another language and another way of thinking and being.” I wondered: why can I cross this road? – that prohibition wasn't for my family who were very kind, generous, and beloved in the community. But it was from my society itself. And I think, in a way, I've been crossing that road ever since.
Can you share some of the most memorable experiences that have shaped your understanding of culture and biodiversity?
I had a modest and humble mother who told me, when I was 13, that Spanish was the language of the future. She worked all year as a secretary in an elementary school to earn enough money to allow me to join a small group of students the school master planned on taking to Cali, Colombia in the summer of 1968. Most North Americans had never been in an airplane. And if they did, it would take them to London or Paris. South America was a very far way away at that time and for the other lads going with me. I was the youngest at 14 and the others were around 16, even 17. Perhaps, some of them succumbed to what Colombians call “mamitis”, which is homesickness. As I, by contrast, felt like I had never had. It felt as if I had finally found my home. I became very engaged and turned on by the intensity of life in Latin America, and the quiet sort of understanding of the frailty of the human spirit.
Cultural research can sometimes raise ethical questions, particularly regarding cultural appropriation. How do you approach these challenges, and what advice do you have for researchers working in culturally sensitive contexts?
I've always thought that this term was rather patronizing in itself. We have this idea that indigenous cultures are frail and delicate, and have to somehow be protected from us. My experiences quite the opposite. I've always found these societies to be dynamic living peoples, not drifting away from history, as we would say, but in fact being driven out of existence by identifiable forces.
That's actually an optimistic observation because, if human beings are the agents of cultural destruction, they can be the facilitators of cultural survival. It’s my experience in the field that if any indigenous group, society or culture does not want someone around, they let that be known and the person is pretty much gone by dawn.
The key thing about doing fieldwork with another culture is to find a metaphor or the means through which you can break down the barrier between the people with whom you find yourself living as a guest, and those with whom you'd like to live as a friend. What allows you to do that is never bravado. It's always empathy and love, you know, the same traits that would make one welcome in any village.
Your advocacy for the preservation of cultural diversity has been widely recognized. How do you envision your legacy in terms of inspiring others to safeguard indigenous knowledge and traditions?
Well, I don't advocate the preservation of anything except the preservation of jam! You don't preserve culture: it is, by definition, dynamic. All cultures are always in a process of change, dancing with new possibilities for life. The issue isn't to freeze people in time, like some kind of cultural specimen. It’s to find ways that all people can benefit from the genius of modernity. The issue isn’t the traditional versus the modern, but the rights of independent people to choose the conditions of their lives.
And so, you cannot expect a young Haida boy to be like his grandfather, any more than you'd expect you to be like your grandfather. If you think of the values, for example, that your great-grandfather held in regards to women, race, gender, or sexuality, there's probably not a single one of the certitudes that that great-grandfather held, that you would normally fully agree with, but most of what he believed, you would find to be morally reprehensible today. That doesn't mean he was a bad guy. He was a product of his times and deserving of your affection and respect and love. But you are not like him any more than a young Haida of today is identical to in values and actions to his own great-grandfather.
The whole question is not about preserving anything. It's asking what kind of world we want. To live in a monochromatic world of monotony or polychromatic world of diversity? The gift of indigenous people is not to suggest that they be frozen in the past but rather than the very existence of other visions of life, other ways of thinking, particularly in terms of one's relationship to the natural world, puts the lives of those of us – in our own limited cultural lineage – who insists that we cannot change, when we all know we must change the fundamental way in which we inhabit the planet.
If you're raised to believe a mountain is a pile of rock ready to be mined or a forest just cellulose ready to be logged, you're going to have a very different relationship to that environment than a kid in the Andes raised to believe that a mountain is a deity that will direct his or her destiny. It's how the metaphor the lens plays out, with hugely different consequences in terms of the ecological footprint of a people.