The Noble Savages: A Not So Noble Perspective?

Recently, I was perusing some information about tribal causes on Google, when I ran into a charity website with a news article – quite urgent at that – about something entitled the ‘Noble Savages’. My curiosity sufficiently piqued, I clicked on the link and read the resulting article. After I was done…well, I can definitely say that I was not amused.

It’s My Publicity And I Will Be As Controversial As I Want To Be!

‘Noble Savages: My Life Among Two Dangerous Tribes – the Yanomamö and the Anthropologists’ is an autobiography written by anthropologist Napolean Chagnon, after he lived with the Yanomamo tribe, in Brazil, for a time. Of course, this is not the only book he has written on the matter, having a series of other works around the Yanomamo tribe. His viewpoints include remarks that the Yanomamo tribe are ‘trapped in chronic warfare’ and ‘homicidal violence’…going as far as to call this behaviour ‘biologically ingrained’. Now, I will point out that this comment offends me both as a rational human being with common sense and a biologist. There is just no way that such behaviour has a solely genetic component, based on Chagnon’s ludicrous statement. Whilst intensity of emotions such as anger may have a genetic component, it is worth keeping in mind that the environment is a stronger factor. But even with that aside, it does not even prove to be an accurate portrayal of the tribe. However, there must be some sort of reason for these claims?

It’s a sad truth that, in the media, they who speak controversial words as loud as possible are those who win the ears of the people, even if they are completely wrong. And that is precisely the case here, as I see it. Chagnon has been heavily criticised about his viewpoint, with some academics going as far as to resign from their posts in certain organisations. The criticisms were many and varied, with many critics pulling him up on how dated and completely misleading his portrayal of the tribe is. One Catholic missionary, who had spent 50 years living amongst the Yanamamo tribe, mentioned that he had ‘never found them to be violent’. But, for Chagnon, the real benefit to his wild claims is clear: he has now received the publicity he desires. What more could he want?

Members of the Yanamano tribe, portrayed as ‘noble savages’ by Napolean Chagnon ©

In a nutshell, Chagnon has shown that, far from portraying the tribe in an accurate light, he has instead revealed his true colours: sly, aggressive, intimidating and trapping him in a chronic state of warfare with his abundant critics. See the irony?

The Lies We Speak, They Sting Like Poison In The Veins

Long ago, when I was completing my GCSE studies here in merry old England (age 15-16), I recall studying the Native Americans in History. I emphasise my use of ‘Native Americans’ as opposed to ‘Plains Indians’ or “Native Indians’…the latter of which only stuck because Columbus had severe issues with reading a map, thinking he had discovered India instead of America. Learning the tragic story of the Native Americans was harrowing to be sure but I vividly remember gorging myself in reading about their culture. It was wonderful! Living a nomadic life on the plains of North America, they lived sustainably and relatively peacefully with each other. They engaged in war games but generally did not kill each other, instead honing their skills to be able to sneak up on an opposing tribe member. They believed that a dead Warrior was no use to his family or tribe so did not really see the point in openly killing each other. However, when the Europeans arrived, they labelled the Native Americans as ‘childish’ and ‘cowardly’, given that they did not kill each other in battle.

The punchline? The Europeans openly called the Native Americans savages.

Today, tribal cultures still exist all around the world. But they are being severely threatened by a variety of human-related threats. For the Yanamano, this includes having their territory encroached by gold miners, cattle farmers and just those who generally want to seize their land. To emphasise the problem, between 1989-1993, one in five Yanamano tribe members died to diseases brought to their lands by gold miners. Politically, Chagnon’s work in degrading this indigenous tribe has been successfully devastating. For example, in 1990, the UK government refused to fund an educational project for the Yanamano, citing their violent nature as the reason for their reluctance. And no, being influenced by a publicity-hungry anthropologist is  not something that makes me particularly proud of my country, but it happens, sadly.

Tribal societies are a modern preservation of historical traditions and cultures. They provide us insight into how to live sustainably with the land. Yes, all of the aspects of these cultures may not be aspects we necessarily want to live with. That does not mean we have the right to judge them and dismiss them as mere ‘savages’. There is no denying we can learn more from these tribes than the media will ever let us believe. Instead, they prefer to focus on the paltry debate between anthropologists because it is apparently more interesting.

But where does that leave the tribes who seem to be largely ignored despite being at the centre of the debate?

At the moment? It leaves them hanging on for dear life, as we slowly write them as another footnote in the history books.

And we are the only ones who can help to change that.

Two children from just one of many tribes in the world today. Their Survival. Their Future. Our Responsibility. ©

“And I Wonder…Who Are The Real Savages?”

I wish to finish this post with a short piece of writing, taken from ideas for one of my personal novels:

Karosis approached the gates. He felt sick, for reasons he did not know. By request of the King himself, he rode to the war room to hear General Commander Tarius’ report on dealing with the Karkorian dragonkin tribe, a nefarious group of individuals who had once left Karosis for dead. Inches from death after being ambushed by a Karkorian dragonkin, Karosis felt his life ebbing away. As the darkness engulfed him, he felt himself being lifted off the ground. This is it, he thought to himself grimly, I meet the Gods this day. But that was not what transpired. Instead, he had been saved by a passing member of the Yar’gal tribe, sent out by the elders to scout for food to hunt. Karosis was nursed to health quickly by the tribe, who gradually taught him parts of their tongue. And very quickly, he realised that his previous prejudices were completely misguided. These noble nomads paid homage to their own God, who gave them the gift of being skilled huntsmen and craftsmen. Karosis marvelled: far from being the brutal savages he had been led to believe they were, they were kind, intelligent and had their own sense of humour. He cherished those seasons, much more than the petty bureacracy of his own Kingdom.

Tarius was awaiting Karosis, standing to attention at the end of the giant map of the region which sat on the table. The General Commander regarded Karosis coolly. “I was beginning to think that you wouldn’t show.”
“The King sends his apologies, Tarius, but he is quite busy these days. War and all. Your report?”
Tarius nodded, not hiding his contempt for Karosis. “Yes, well…we tracked the Karkorians back to their ritual grounds. The battle was over quickly, I must say. We received a few casualties but no deaths. The hostages the Karkorians took from us were moments away from being sacrificed. They are gravely wounded but the healers tell me they will make it”
“I am pleased to hear that. As I am sure the King is. Is that all?”
“Not at all! After defeating the pathetic dragonkin, we ran into a group of savages. We thought it peculiar that they were so close to our borders. I questioned them but Gods be helped if I could understand their primitive tongue”
Karosis grimaced. Tarius did not hide his hatred for what he called the ‘lesser’ races very well, earning him no great respect with the upper echelons of the Kingdom.
“Anyway, one of them made to approach me an spoke a few words of our tongue. As far as I could make out, disease and conflict drove them for their lands. They sought to find new hunting grounds. I dealt with them as quickly as I could.”
“You allowed them passage to our lands?”
Tarius laughed, a deep and horrible sound to be sure. “Passage? No. They would have destroyed the outer villages without a moment’s hesitation. I ‘dealt’ with them, Karosis. They are no longer a threat…to anyone.”
Karosis’ knees went weak. He gripped the table to steady himself. He spoke in a shocked whisper. “You…did…what?!”
“I did a great service to my King and my realm. Those brutal savages would have done unspeakable things to our people. But I made sure to inflict upon them what they would have done to us. Here, I brought you a present.”
Tarius tossed a decapitated head onto the table, stopping short of where Karosis was standing. Karosis’ mouth fell open. He knew the person who this head belonged to: it was Chieftain Yar’fayn, the person who Karosis spent days and days teaching his Kingdom’s tongue to in return for learning the Yar’galian tongue. 

Tarius laughed as he walked out of the room, leaving Karosis to his own troubled thoughts. As he stared at the head, only one sentence kept looping in his head.

I wonder, Karosis thought to himself gravely, who are the real savages?”


~ by tazjagdev on March 8, 2013.

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