The story is always being told. But how we tell it and who gets to tell it changes. The details we notice, perceive because we place value on them also change, changing the story. Or we have learned to notice particular details and reward our perception by imbuing these with value. Forthcoming narratives grow from ancestral grounds, some acknowledging their roots, others erasing through their telling. Embrace of The Serpent (dir. Ciro Guerra, 2016) reckons with the power and responsibility of the custodians that observe and perceive and listen to transfer knowledge through their practices of storytelling.
There is an epistemological debate orbiting the differences between colonial and decolonial systems of knowledge and truth claims. One side argues that oppression is at the foundation of modern Western thought, grounded in that tendentious proclamation, cogito, ergo sum, I think, therefore I am; Cartesian thought severed the mind from the body and made subjects and objects out of the world. Objects were to be studied by subjects. Subjects were to subjugate objects, even when these were persons. And Western objectivity became the beacon guiding the Western scientist toward a progress as elusive as the retreating horizon line–––the collateral damage, less fugitive. The other side argues that while there are ideological dimensions to the scientific method, objective thought can be yielded. And the culprit of colonialism and capitalism with their exploitive practices grounded in racism is political, sociological, and economic.
To avoid going down a path of contentious claims, I have chosen two scenes from Embrace of The Serpent that illustrate moments of colonial and anti-colonial thought and offer my observations. Both scenes occur in the first half of the movie. The first bloke of dialogue is between Theo and an Indigenous community that he has spent a convivial night with. As he is leaving the next day, Theo realizes his compass is missing. The following interaction ensues:
**The dialogue in both scenes unfolds in Ocaina, Karamakate‘s mother tongue.
Theo: Did any of you take my compass? Did any of you steal my compass? Give it back.
His irritability is met with laughter.
Theo: “Give it back, you thieves! Which one of you has it?”
He aggressively grabs the face of an Indigenous community member.
Manduca: “Leave him, Theo.”
Theo: “I can’t leave a compass here, Manduca. Tuschaua, tell them to give it back.”
Tuschaua, the cacique (leader) figure, reveals that he has it. Not the adolescent Theo was accusing. A piece of pottery is offered in exchange.
Theo: “I’m not going to exchange it. Please give it back. Please Tuschaua, I need it.”
When Tuschaua refuses to give it to him, Theo lunges towards him, Manduca pulls him away.
Manduca: “Let’s go.”
Theo: “I told you, I can’t leave a compass here.”
He says, looking at Karamakate, who is staring back with fierce disapproval.
Karamakate: “you’re nothing but white.”
Theo: “Their orientation system is based on the winds and the positions of the stars. If they learn how to use a compass, that knowledge will be lost. “
Karamakate: “You cannot forbid them to learn. Knowledge belongs to all men. But you can’t understand that because you are nothing but a white.”
The scene illustrates the misguided goodwill of the privileged Westerner who gets to choose between systems of knowledge and the power that lies there within. The presumption that Indigenous Peoples will always succumb to Western technologies is a disservice to ancestral knowledge that is the product of generations of observing, analyzing, and transmitting knowledge. A hubristic belief in the superiority of Western technology leads Theo to assume that when presented with a compass, Indigenous Peoples will choose the compass as a way of navigating rather than their ancestral knowledge, science, and technology that has allowed them to cohabitate with their environments for centuries. There has been an outcry because of the loss of Indigenous knowledge and practices. But the loss of Indigenous knowledge, technology, and science has less to do with Indigenous Peoples opting for Western systems of thought than it does with the decimation of Indigenous populations wrought by colonialism and capitalism. Colonizers’ institutions and practices have devalued these systems of knowledge by confining them to the natural history wings of museums as artifacts. And in other cases, colonial tendencies have rendered the reproduction and dissemination of Indigenous knowledge difficult, if not impossible.
Revisiting the scene from the last article I wrote, Karamakate and Evans sit by the river’s riparian. A gramophone—that Evans brought and won’t give up—is playing Handel’s “Creation” over the teeming sounds of the forest. The following dialogue unfolds:
Karamakate: “How many edges does this river have?”
Karamakate: “How do you know that?”
Evans: “There is one and there is another; one plus one equals two.”
Karamakate: “How can you know that?
Evans: “Because! One plus one equals two”
Karamakate: Well, you are wrong. This river has three, five, a thousand edges. A child can understand that easily, but not you. The river is the anaconda’s son. We learn that in our dreams, but it’s the real truth, more real than what you call reality…the world speaks I can only listen. Hear the song of your ancestors. This is the way you are looking for. Listen for real. Not only with your ears.”
Karamakate invites Evans to question his Western objective reality by proposing that it is not necessarily synonymous with truth. Throughout this piece, I have often prefaced “objective” and “science” and “truth” with the modifier “Western—”a deliberate choice to highlight the cultural aspects of scientific language that beguiles by positing itself as neutral and without culture. But a practice of science that uses the scientific method to arrive at objective conclusions is as much of a cultural framework as the framework that enables Karamakate to see a thousand edges where Evan sees two.
Opaqueness is a term used in decolonial studies to resist the Western temptation to deploy Western scientific practices as the steadfast path to understanding; it challenges the presumption that everything should be studied with tools and approaches that are often invasive. “And I am profoundly indifferent to his old way of theorizing-of piercing, as he often claims, through the sediments of psychological and epistemological “depths.” I may stubbornly turn around a foreign thing or turn it around to play with it, but I respect its realms of opaqueness. (Woman, Native, Other, Trihn Mi-Ha). Trihn Mi-Ha invokes a state of respect when encountering what is unknown (to some) or what might be foreign (to the foreigner) that science often transgresses. With curiosity at its helm, Westen science justifies making that which is unknown (to it) and foreign (to it) objects of study onto which it imposes oppressive practices to extract knowledge.
Growing up with geneticist scientist parents who collected and classified fish (amongst many other tropical organisms), scientific language did not seem to belong to anyone. It ostensibly transcended culture with its reason-based approaches to discovering knowledge. But I am now skeptical of words like discover and the neutrality of Western scientific language. Much of discovering is putting knowledge that has been around for centuries into new knowledge-frameworks with different lexicons, creating new verbiage around old knowledge. While much can be learned from Western science, just like much can be learned from Indigenous science, acknowledging the practice of translating existing knowledge from non-Western to Western frameworks is critical in preventing the erasure of non-dominant cultures. Too often, “neutral” language is a hegemonic language belonging to a hegemonic culture, making it appear neutral to anyone enmeshed. And by positing culture as being in opposition to science, non-Western systems of knowledge are devalued. Highlighting the cultural foundation of Western science generates opportunities to scrutinize oppressive, exploitive, racist, and sexist practices that exist and proliferate within Western scientific approaches to generating, archiving, and disseminating knowledge. To echo Karamakate is to end with Audre Lorde’s proclamation “The white fathers told us: I think, therefore I am. The black goddess within each of us – the poet – whispers in our dreams: I feel, therefore I can be free.” (Sister Outsider, Audre Lorde).
“Ciro Guerra by Andrew Bourne – BOMB Magazine.” Bombmagazine.org, bombmagazine.org/articles/ciro-guerra/. Accessed 24 Feb. 2021.
“Embrace of the Serpent.” Microsoft, http://www.microsoft.com/en-us/p/embrace-of-the-serpent/8d6kgx0gkx78. Accessed 11 May 2020.
Lorde, Audre. Sister Outsider. S.L., Penguin Books, 1984.
T Minh-Ha Trinh. Woman, Native, Other : Writing Postcoloniality and Feminism. Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1989.