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Review of 'Savages'

Review of 'Savages'

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This was the forest Kane and the Huaorani saw being destroyed by dynamite, bulldozers, helicopters, barbed wire and oil-spilled into the rivers and poisoning the earth until some areas looked like "one big toxic sponge"-while missionary-run schools invaded their villages, destroying their language, culture and way of life. When Kane encountered them, in the early l990s, a generation of Huaorani had already been to such schools and had some experience working for the Company, but the young men like Moi and Amo and Enqueri were trying to use that experience to save their villages and values. What they were seeking, Kane learned, was "a Huaorani synthesis: a traditional way of living enhanced by certain modern tools that offered access to an abundancia not found in the forest and on which, increasingly, they had come to depend." Paradoxically, one of the most important of those tools was literacy. The Huaorani had found that delivering a written demand to the Company, "particularly when it . . . invoked threats of violence and when the authors appeared in person brandishing spears," often produced a host of goods-tools, food, radios, boots and the like. Literacy, Kane observed, raised the traditional Huaorani practice of hunting and gathering to an entirely new level.

As Kane watched, however, neither spears nor literacy could keep the Company out of the Huaorani forests. One tribal leader was mysteriously assassinated, another seduced by bribes, and with the help of some anthropologists and missionaries, oil executives organized new elections and lavish ceremonies to legitimize their juggernaut. On a visit to Coca, Kane talked to a veteran Capuchin monk who posed this question: "When the Huaorani kill, there is a spiritual discipline to it. Americans kill without knowing they are doing it. You don't want to know you are doing it. And yet you are going to destroy an entire way of life. So you tell me: Who are the savages?"

After Kane returned to the United States, he saw Moi one more time, in Washington, D.C. The Huaorani warrior came to talk to the diplomats on the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, who applauded him but offered no help. Moi carried a letter inviting the President of the United States to visit the Huaorani, and telling him, "We do not want to be civilized by your missionaries or killed by your oil companies." Wearing a crown of bird feathers made from owl, eagle, toucan, parrot and wild turkey, Moi went to the White House gate to deliver his letter. But the gate was closed, and Kane barely dissuaded him from climbing over it. ("I will climb the trees and hide," Moi argued. "I will pretend I am hunting monkeys.") Moi returned to his rain forest, less a hero than a tragic figure, going home to take up spears against the Company.

Several months after Moi's journey to Washington, the first pipeline on Huaorani land was opened. Disaster ensued almost instantly: at a bend in the river where Kane often had canoed with his Huaorani companions, another pipe-line ruptured, dumping so much oil into the river that the slick extended for more than 30 miles.

"But that was nothing," Kane writes, to "what happened a few months earlier, in the same place: One of the wells in the Cononaco field burst into flame and burned out of control for nearly a week. It was, by most accounts, the biggest fire ever seen in the Oriente [region]. The oil-fed flames were said to have leaped so high that they dwarfed the great forest itself, and to have spread so fast that no man could outrun them."

Kane also draws lucid portraits of the oil executives, missionaries and environmentalists who the Huaorani speak of, collectively, as cowode, their word for cannibals. And through Kane's eyes, we can see Moi and the Huaorani's fate as a tragedy in which we have all indeed played a part.

Paul Trachtman is a reviewer living in rural New Mexico.

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