Circle of dialogue between local and resident Indigenous Elders, health activists, scholars, and Professor of Anthropology at UC Berkeley, Dr. Charles Briggs and Dr. Clara Mantini-Briggs, a Venezuelan public health physician and Lecturer in the Department of Anthropology at UC Berkeley.
Between 2007 and 2008, mysterious deaths began appearing in indigenous Warao communities in the Delta Amacuro rainforest of Venezuela. In some families, two or three children died. Baffled, the local doctor sent patients to advanced care facilities, where they were seen by specialists, but no diagnosis emerged. Parents pushed local leaders Conrado and Enrique Moraleda to act. When health officials seemed more interested in hiding than solving the mystery, they formed their own investigatory team, recruiting healer Tirso Gómez, nurse Norbelys Gómez, Venezuelan physician Clara Mantini-Briggs, and anthropologist Charles Briggs. The Moraledas could see that a major reason that health professionals had failed to produce a diagnosis was that they had excluded the parents as active participants in producing knowledge. The team held meetings in all affected communities; parents publicly performed narratives that demanded recognition of the value of their children’s lives and the tragedy of their deaths, simultaneously sharing the archives of knowledge they had compiled. Their rich accounts enabled Mantini-Briggs to provide a presumptive diagnosis of bat-transmitted rabies. The team presented findings to the national health ministry in the capital, demanding recognition of indigenous rights to participate in producing knowledge about health and shaping policies and practices.
The parents repeatedly told the team that “we want lots of people to know about our children.” Knowing the power of visual images, they asked Charles Briggs to take photographs. Mantini-Briggs and Gómez treated one young woman, Elbia Torres Rivas, who was dying from the disease; her family requested photo-documentation of her illness, wake, and funeral. Exhibiting these photographs responds to the parents’ calls for recognition and efforts to connect with the struggles of other oppressed peoples, particularly indigenous communities. Bringing this exhibition to Berkeley and holding workshops and performance-oriented events could open doors to rich collaborations with Ohlone and other indigenous and migrant communities, thereby connecting practices of mourning and community-based efforts to create more just health policies and practices.