April 22, 2010

Natives in Encounters at the End of the World

You'd think a documentary about Antarctica wouldn't have much to do with Indians, right? If so, you'd be wrong.

The movie is Warner Herzog's Encounters at the End of the World, which I reviewed here. Here are the bits that explicitly deal with Natives or Native lore:

  • It begins unexpectedly with the opening sequence of the Lone Ranger TV show and a shot of the Ranger and Tonto with an Indian chief. Herzog's narration:HERZOG:  The National Science Foundation had invited me to Antarctica, even though I left no doubt that I would not come up with another film about penguins.

    My questions about nature, I let them know, were different.

    I told them I kept wondering why is it that human beings put on masks or feathers to conceal their identity?

    And why do they saddle horses and feel the urge to chase the bad guy?

    LONE RANGER:  Hi-yo, Silver!
  • Actually, Indians don't wear feathers to conceal their identity. At this point I had no idea where Herzog was going with this.

  • Herzog talks to Scott Rowland of the transportation Department at McMurdo:ROWLAND:  Before I came to Antarctica, I was actually a banker in Colorado.

    And after two years there, I changed my pace a little bit and decided to help the people of Guatemala, so I joined the Peace Corps, and there I worked in small business development.

    Just realized that the world's not all about money.

    Where I lived in Guatemala was in the northern part. It's a Kekchi Mayan village, 99% Mayan, and therefore nobody spoke Spanish. I had to learn the Mayan dialect, Kekchi.

    When I first moved to Chisec, I was just out on a normal walk, and before I knew it I had six people with machetes chasing me down, wanting to talk to me. Turns out the little brother told them I was there to steal children. I was, however, not there to steal children.

    They took me back to my--my judge and jury was the 14-year-old boy in the town who could speak both Spanish and Kekchi.

    Luckily, they let me go, and we ended up being great friends over the two years.

    HERZOG:  The jury acquitted you.

    ROWLAND:  I was acquitted. I made it out of there.

    HERZOG:  But it could have been dangerous.

    ROWLAND:  It is, it is. And, you know, a story not too long ago is, a lady was just taking a picture of a child, you know, the same type of group of people with machetes, and she wasn't so fortunate.

    She didn't make it out.

    HERZOG:  What happened to her?

    ROWLAND:  She was killed, by machete.
  • Now I really didn't know where Herzog was going. By including this interview, was he commenting on the savagery of Indians?

    No, I don't think so. Actually, I think it was more of a commentary on the disconnect between Western and indigenous people.

  • People who venture into Antarctica have to learn how to build "survival trenches and igloos." They learn how to cut ice blocks just as the Inuit do it.

  • Herzog interviews David R. Pacheco Jr. Pacheco shows that his middle and ring fingers are the same length, as are his index and little fingers.HERZOG:  David Pacheco works in maintenance and construction as a journeyman plumber. He prides himself on his heritage. He is part Apache but has claims to yet another lineage.

    PACHECO:  It's funny, but I'm revealing my hands and they are very distinct, and I was told by my doctor who operated me that it is from the Aztec and the Inca's royal family.
  • Pacheco adds that his ribcage is long like an Aztec's, and notes that he's a "green person."

  • Herzog interviews William Jirsa, linguist and computer expert.JIRSA:  Yeah, specifically I was in a graduate program, and we had lined up to do some work with one of the people who was identified as a native speaker and a competent native speaker of one of the languages of the Winnebago people, the Ho-Chunk, I think is how they pronounced it, and...

    HERZOG:  To make a complicated story short, he ran into New Age ideologues who made insipid claims about black and white magic embedded in the grammar of this language. Hence, in this stupid trend of academia, it would be better to let the language die than preserve it. He had to destroy his entire PhD research.

    JIRSA:  So just imagine, you know, 90% of languages will be extinct probably in my lifetime. It's a catastrophic impact to an ecosystem to talk about that kind of extinction. Culturally, we're talking about the same thing. I mean, you know, what if you lost all of Russian literature, or something like that, or Russian, you know? If you took all of the Slavic languages and just they went away, you know, and no more Tolstoy.

    HERZOG:  It occurred to me that in the time we spent with him in the greenhouse, possibly three or four languages had died.

    In our efforts to preserve endangered species, we seem to overlook something equally important.

    To me, it is a sign of a deeply disturbed civilization where tree huggers and whale huggers in their weirdness are acceptable, while no one embraces the last speakers of a language.
  • I haven't heard of "New Age ideologues" getting involved in Native language disputes or making claims about "black and white magic embedded in the grammar." Nor have I heard of people having to destroy their entire PhD research. I wouldn't be surprised if there was more to this story.

  • Finally, Herzog talks to a scientist launching a neutrino particle detector. The instrument has Hawaiian words and images on it.HERZOG:  Not surprisingly, we found this incantation in Hawaiian language on the side of his detector.

    It was as if spirits had to be invoked.
  • More End of the World clues

    Herzog offers other clues about his theme:

  • He talks repeatedly of the Shackleton expedition and how it was doomed, the ship crushed by the ice.

  • Herzog's initial impression of McMurdo: "Of course, I did not expect pristine landscapes and men living in blissful harmony with fluffy penguins, but I was still surprised to find McMurdo looking like an ugly mining town filled with caterpillars and noisy construction sites."

  • Why he dislikes McMurdo: "McMurdo has climate-controlled housing facilities, its own radio station, a bowling alley and abominations such as an aerobic studio and yoga classes. It even has an ATM machine."

  • He films a survival class where people wear buckets on their heads to simulate a blinding snowstorm. They get lost and wander in circles, unable to find their way.

  • He records seal calls under the ice, which sound unearthly and even inorganic.

  • "Do you think that the human race and other mammals fled in panic from the oceans and crawled on solid land to get out of this?" Herzog asks a diver. The diver answers, "Yeah, I think undoubtedly that's exactly the driving force that caused us to leave the horrors behind. To grow and evolve into larger creatures to escape what's horribly violent at the miniature scale, miniaturized scale."

  • Herzog notes the folly of trying to be first to the South Pole. "It was for personal fame and the glory of the British Empire. ... But, in a way, from the South Pole onwards there was no further expansion possible, and the Empire started to fade into the abyss of history."

  • He finally states his message explicitly: "For this and many other reasons,
    our presence on this planet does not seem to be sustainable. Our technological civilization makes us particularly vulnerable.

    "There is talk all over the scientific community about climate change.
    Many of them agree the end of human life on this Earth is assured."

  • To bolster this message, Herzog uses religious music for his nature footage, which he films slowly and reverentially. Unlike civilization, nature is holy, sacred.

    So the basic theme of Encounters at the End of the World is civilization and technology vs. the indigenous and nature. I don't know if Herzog literally thinks the earth is doomed, but he clearly thinks it's headed in the wrong direction. His solution is like mine--i.e., to encourage dreams and alternate modes of thinking. To appreciate nature and the indigenous and unexplored places of the world and mind. To note the ugliness and sterility of modern-day life, where people visit Antarctica only to set pogo-stick records.

    I should've guessed Herzog would use Antarctica as a pretext for sending a message. In works such as Aguirre, the Wrath of God, Fitzcarraldo, and Where the Green Ants Dream, he's dealt with these themes before. His previous documentary, Grizzly Man, was about a guy who thought he could coexist with grizzly bears. A bear ended up eating him, of course.

    For more on the subject, see Review of Encounters at the End of the World and Native Documentaries and News.

    Below:  Humanity is small compared to the mysteries and wonders of nature.

  • 1 comment:

    Apache Man said...

    There is the Canadian film called, "The Snow Walker" (2003) about a pilot (Barry Pepper) who crashes in the Northwest Territories and surivives by the aide of a native girl (Annabella Piugattuck) on the frozen tundra.

    Although the "end of the world" is actually about the opposite pole, there must be some similiarities in dealing with surviving both climates.

    Why does the so-called "modern man" keep himself divided from the environment and feel the need to "destroy" the planet?

    The answer is because "man sees himself as SUPERIOR" over all other life forms on the planet the same way he sees himself as superior over other men and places a hierarchy with race relations.

    This has been the historical difference between indigenous cultures and the "industrialized" man. Where one cultures wealth and value is intertwined with the spiritual and physical environment in living matter created by God, the latter interprets superior value of the spiritual and physical realms in books, buildings and wealth created by man.

    In the film, "The Snow Walker", the pilot survived the war and learns quickly that the values he placed on so-called "civilization" mean nothing against the raw elements and nature and that his true value(s) as a human being surface only when guided by his indigenous counterpart, whom at the beginning of the film, he despised.

    Sound familiar? I can imagine what the American colonists were thinking when they were freezing, praying and starving to death when the "savage heathens" came to their aid, taught them how to hunt and farm, then harvesting the bounty as the first Thanksgiving.

    What became of those Indians that saved the colonist can be found in themes like, "The Lone Ranger" where the Natives always save the whiteman and end up being packaged and sold as mascots and commodities to exploit and profit. And now that Indian Nations try to reap a little "capitalism" themselves, Americans suddenly become communists and socialist out to regulate and legislate what they cannot touch if they do not get a piece of the "American" pie!

    How is this for the "Greatest Nation on Earth?"