Book Review: Savages

Savages by Joe Kane. (Amazon)

On a recent class trip to Ecuador's Oriente, we were able to visit a Huaorani settlement in the Yasuni National Park. Any ideas of seeing indigenous peoples "on their own turf" were immediately scuttled by the pervasive presence of oil production, from roads to fenced-off compounds. Across the street (a completely foreign phrase for the Huaorani before oil was discovered and drilled on their land) from the settlement, acres of rain forest was felled for even more drilling. Our meeting with the group consisted of an exchange of songs (they did war songs, we did a Christmas song and a Beatles tune) in one of their traditional, thatch-covered structures. But the giddiness during their performance and the small concrete block buildings ringing the one we were inside gave an unpleasant feeling to the whole affair. It didn't feel authentic. This book by writer and adventurer Joe Kane helps to illuminate the characteristics of the Huaorani and the events that led up to that present-day situation.

By the time Kane met members of the Huaorani, oil exploration and drilling were already taking place in the Oriente. Between that meeting and the end of the book, the Huaorani were given title to a large area of land in Yasuni only to have it thrown open for oil exploration, something they tried to stop. (In Ecuador's laws, indigenous groups only have surface rights.) The situation could be best described as prolonging the inevitable: Ecuador's primary export was, and is oil (making up approximately half of its GDP), so the government was not going to place a moratorium on drilling for a group that comprises an infinitesimally small fraction of the country's population. Fight the Huaorani did, but as Joe Kane documents they didn't necessarily know how to fight against enemies like governments and corporations. Spears might instill fear but they ultimately work against the group in the long run.

Kane's first-hand account illustrates the conditions of the rain forest and the difficulty in surviving in it, but he also shows how the Huaorani are of the forest, in ways that most Westerners probably wouldn't guess. A good example is "grandfather" Mengatohue walking Kane through the forest and pointing out many of the plants, not all growing naturally, without human aid. What we realize is that the Huaorani cultivate the forest, just not in the way we think of the word, via clearing and planting. So through this and other examples, the reader sees the disparity between the Huaorani and who they are up against; it almost seems like an unfair fight. But over time they learn, like the groups in Suzanne Sawyer's Crude Chronicles, how to make their voice heard and get something out of it (schools and supplies, for example), while preserving their dignity, if not their way of life. While neither thorough nor academic -- and falling prey to mythologozing the Huaorani and oversimplifying their conflict with the Company -- Kane's account illustrates the complexities of a cultural clash and the struggles of one group trying to influence the other.