Marco Bechis's film Birdwatchers urges us to help Brazilian tribes keep their traditional way of life. But is that what they want? And why do we persist in patronising such people as noble savages?
Posted by David Cox
Watch the film, and you'd have to assume it's this. The white farmers whose genetically-engineered soya fields are overrunning the Mato Grosso do Sul should push off. The land they've appropriated should be allowed to revert to forest, within which its rightful owners, the previous inhabitants, would be free to hunt and gather like their ancient forebears, worshipping their Eternal Great Grandfather, Ñande Ramõi, and remaining joyously free from the loathsome temptations of urban consumerism.
Okay to keep stealing?
1) Cox's entire position is based on unsubstantiated speculation about the origins and rights of indigenous people. That makes it worthless from the get-go.
2) Most traditional Natives would deny their ancestors came from Asia. They'd say they've always lived at their present location.
3) There may be some evidence that Polynesians visited South America in the last couple of millennia. I don't think there's any evidence that they arrived here 12,000-plus years ago, when Siberians allegedly migrated across the Bering Strait.
4) Suppose traditional Natives did acknowledge the scientific theories about how the first Americans arrived. Does Cox seriously believe they'd say something like this? "We accept Asians as our ancestors. But if anyone else was here--Polynesians, Africans, Europeans--we repudiate them. We're pure Asians and we deny that any other race tainted our blood."
That's the exact opposite of how a traditional Native might think. Instead, he'd probably say something like this: "It doesn't matter who was here first. Whether our ancestors were Asians, Polynesians, Africans, or Europeans, they all merged into the people you call Native Americans. So the Polynesians were just as much our ancestors as the Asians. We embrace and accept them all.
"Therefore, it's meaningless to say, 'Our ancestors stole the land from someone else." Our ancestors stole the land...from our other ancestors? Whoever was here first, whoever claimed the land first, they were our ancestors."
5) I love how white apologists for genocide use the "two wrongs make a right" defense. "The Indians stole the land from somebody," they say, "so it's okay for us to steal their land." Try that moral defense in a court of law and see how it works.
6) The theory about conquest determining ownership doesn't apply when it's been so long you can't identify who the previous owners were. Or even if there were any previous owners. That's why Indians can rightfully claim their homelands but countries like the US and Israel can't rightfully claim the land they took from others.
7) I'm pretty sure that provisions in international law--not to mention the recent UN declaration of indigenous rights, which Brazil signed--do give Indians a legal right to their land. Nor is the concept of ownership a recent development. As we saw in Guarani Is Brazilian National Hero, Brazil's Indians have always fought to keep their land. So have thousands of tribes throughout the Americas.
Cox's stupidity continues
Bechis implicitly condemns the birdwatchers he shows treating tribespeople as spectacle. Yet he himself regards his subjects in much the way that David Attenborough views chimps. His film treats their ancient habits as sacred, but not, apparently, their hopes of betterment. Cinemagoers who really want to help them and their kind might best do so by avoiding films like Birdwatchers.
Seriouly, Cox can't imagine any middle ground between living like Stone-Age savages on reservations and living like Westerners in cities? How about living like Westerners on reservations, you silly twit? With their own natural resources to develop and technology to make their lives comfortable?
Some readers of this piece ripped Cox about as much as I did. Their comments include:
21 Sep 09, 10:54am
Yeah, the sooner we burn down the Amazon and get these people working in MacDonald's, the better.
21 Sep 09, 11:02am
'Betterment'--what does that mean. Take these tribal boys and compare their lives with the poorest kids living on a council estate in Glasgow. Who has the better life? Whatever the modern world brings to the forest boys, it won't suddenly transform them into cappuccino-sipping MacBook users. They will likely become the poorly paid manual workers of environmentally damaging industry. They may not want to stay in the Stone Age, but that does not mean we should turn the forest into farmland to feed cows which will eventually end up in a burger carton.
21 Sep 09, 11:06am
"Twenty of Brazil's state and federal universities reserve places for indigenous students. Racism is officially opposed, and affirmative action programmes are in place."
...Oohh, that's alright then--as long as that's all sorted there shouldn't be any problems.
The safety net's in place, guys--hurl yourselves from your flimsy primitive plinths, we'll catch yer....
Now, what we gonna do with all these friggin trees....
21 Sep 09, 12:20pm
What a load of tripe.
Your argument is completely illogical: "the tribespeople want their children to obtain educations etc., therefore they don't want them to remain in the Amazonian forests." Perhaps, in reality, they are not so stupid as you assume, have realised their only means of livelihood is disappearing by the actions of greedy companies, and so to survive they must learn to live in the cities.
Your self-serving argument has been used many times by invaders and settlers.
I can't be bothered with the other stupidities in this article--there are too many. e.g.: "only" 10% of the Amazon has disappeared. So how much of the Amazon, think you in your infinite wisdom, should be "raped"? 50%? 90%?
What a newspaper the Guardian has become...where the trolls write the articles....
21 Sep 09, 12:38pm
The reservations for Native Americans were less about "encouraging indigenous peoples to cling to picturesque noble savagery" than herding a troublesome minority into rural mega ghettos where they could be contained and not impeded on those of the European farmers who were taking over the American plains.
The "alcoholism, domestic violence and child abuse" are perfect examples of the damage done when a indigenous population's way of life is transformed and amended at the hands of and for the benefit of a non-indigenous majority.
21 Sep 09, 12:42pm
'A normal way of life.' Seriously do you live on the same planet as the rest of us? Some 35 million Brazilians live below the poverty line and about 35% live on less then 2 dollars a day while less than 10% of the population controls more than 75% of the wealth. A normal way of life in Brazil is a life of misery.
P.S. As usual, I've made minor corrections to the comments to make them more readable.
Below: "Tribes as spectacle ... the Guaraní-Kaiowá in Marcho Bechis's Birdwatchers." (I guess this is the part where Westernized Indians pretend to be their pre-Columbian ancestors for tourists.)