February 13, 2012

Indians in The River

I wasn't sure what ABC's new TV series The River was about. Other than a river, of course. As I watched the premiere (airdate: 2/7/12), I had the following thoughts:

OMG...The River is about the Amazon. If it features savage Indians, or the missing naturalist has joined a "lost civilization," I'm gonna blow a gasket.

Dang! I thought it was going to be about a white boy and a black boy rafting down a river in search of the timeless pastoral values that made America great.

Nope. When naturalist Emmet Cole goes missing in the Amazon, his family and film crew set out to find him. Inevitably they encounter supernatural forces that challenge and test them.

The Native aspects

Among the crew members are a father-and-daughter maintenance team. They're supposed to be locals; the girl is the one who knows all the local legends. But they speak Spanish, not Portuguese, the language of Brazil. Oops.

On their trip down the Amazon, the crew passes one village. The inhabitants could be Latino or Indian, but they speak Spanish. Oops again.

After that there are no further signs of civilization. No villages, no boats, no people. Not to mention the large-scale devastation happening throughout the Amazon: the clearcut forests and mining operations. None of this is evident in The River.

The crew refers to "the locals" without specifying who the locals are. The girl tells the "local" legends without saying if they're Latino, Indian, or something else. As with the series Off the Map, The River is trying to present a story free of political, cultural, and racial issues. In other words, it's trying to ignore or erase the presence of Indians.

Only a couple of concrete references to Indians occur in the first two hours. In one case, someone mentions the British rubber plantations that "slaughtered the Natives." As you may recall, I covered this subject in The South American Genocide.

Finally, we get a brief glimpse of the "Kraho," a primitive Indian tribe, on tape. As usual with Amazon tribes, they're scantily clad and dancing around a fire. Cole is with them and apparently taking some hallucinogenic drug. He says "there's magic out there" and calls the jungle a place where the laws of physics break down.

Fiction vs. reality

The Kraho tribe actually exists. I couldn't find much about them on the Web, but here's the most substantial posting:

CNN Live Event/Special

Planet in PerilThere are some 100,000 indigenous people living in Brazil's Amazon rainforest.

We've arranged to visit one small tribe, the Kraho Indians in the Tocantins state of Brazil. We're told by the chief it's a first time a helicopter has ever landed in the village.

(on camera): These are the Kraho. They're an indigenous people here in the Amazon rainforest. There's about 200 or so who live in this village. It's a protected reserve. We've just arrived here to find out how they're struggling to protect their habitat.


COOPER (voice-over): The Kraho always celebrate the arrival of visitors with a ceremony. (on camera): They're saying that very few people have come to this village, very few outsiders. So, to welcome us, they want to baptize us. That's the term they're using. They want us to--they want to give us local names, names in their language, and also give us tribal markings.

(voice-over): They name Jeff "Running Deer."

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Thank you. I'm honored by that. Thank you.

COOPER: And me, I'm "Regal Bird."

(on camera): Thank you very much. I'm very honored. Thank you.

After the festivities, we join the tribe for a meeting where they share grim news of what's happening to their home.

A tribal elder tells us they fight hard to protect their land and keep their traditions alive. But he says they're angry and scared by what's happening. There are about 3,000 Kraho Indians left in the Amazon basin, spread out in villages across 750,000 acres of protected land, given to them by the government.

But part of the Kraho's land has already been illegally clear- cut, and there's little to no law enforcement to stop it. Kraho are trying to take matters into their own hands.

(on camera): The Kraho are very concerned about illegal logging on their territory. Every day, they go out on patrol armed with bows and arrows, just making sure no one is cutting down trees.

(voice-over): They say they run off poachers on these patrols before, where their territory is huge and their numbers small. So the poachers keep coming back.

As hunters, gatherers and farmers the Kraho rely on the rainforest for food, water, shelter, everything. The Amazon is a vital resource for the world as well.
So the Kraho haven't had much contact with the outside world. But still, they're concerned about poachers cutting down their forests. They aren't superstitious savages; they're aware of the political and economic forces encroaching on their lives. They're sophisticated enough to fight the attempts to colonize and occupy their homelands.

Another posting shows a Kraho youth participating in Brazil's Indigenous Games. Again, that suggests a keen engagement with the outside world. Even if the Kraho do dress and dance as shown in The River, their lives are much more complex than that.


Apparently the show is going for a whole "Heart of Darkness" thing. You know, a place where civilized beliefs and values break down. Where mystery, magic, and madness rule.

These days you can't put savage tribes and lost kingdoms in Africa, the original "heart of darkness." People would rightly denounce that as racist. But the Amazon is still partly unexplored, and the jungle canopy can cover a multitude of sins. It's the perfect place to find cannibals, headhunters, and other kinds of savage and barbaric "evil."

Once again, Hollywood has given us a racist view of Indians. Everyone else has joined the 21st century, but not these superstitious creatures. They're still boiling people in oil, sacrificing virgins, or whatever else it is that beast-men like to do.

If you're going to do a series steeped in Indian mysticism, how about having a Native guide on board? You know, rather than a Spanish girl who's unconnected to anything Brazilian or indigenous? But no...to executive producer Stephen Spielberg and company, Indians are literally out there in the wilderness, untouched by civilization.

For more on Amazon Indians, see Brazilian Indians Protest Site Conversion and Amazon Worldview Influences Avatar 2.

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