On Images and the Danger of Drawing Stereotypical Conclusions

Recently, an image had been making its way around on social media. The image showed Chief Raoni, an indigenous leader in traditional dress, crying, purportedly weeping at the Brazilian government’s decision to proceed with the Belo Monte dam. However, that simplistic narrative, while employed for the causes of indigenous rights and environmentalism does a disservice to the actual culture, life, and story of the indigenous man and his people, as Angela Kristin Vandenbroek reported:

The picture is not of Chief Raoni crying and grieving about the Belo Monte Dam. The picture is not a picture of grief at all. His tears were tears of joy after being reunited with a family member, behavior which is customary among the Kayapó. Chief Raoni is not a powerless man fighting an impossible battle. In the fight to protect the Amazon and its people, he is a leader who has been working with local, national and international communities since 1978, when he appeared in a documentary named Raoni on the deforestation of the Amazon. Since then, he has befriended Sting and the President of France, has written a memoir, has traveled around the world, has facebooktwitterand a website, and although he has not yet stopped the building of the dam he and those he has collaborated with have managed to delay, hold up and tie up the project with court battles, controversy and petitions for thirty-eight years. He has also managed to rally the support of 438,707 (and counting) people worldwide using an online petition.

As Vendenbroek points out, the image alone suggests a powerless indigenous man overcome by an all-powerful state; as his actual biography reveals, he is anything but powerless.

Nor is that the only problem. Though Vandenbroek does not extend the analysis this far, the image also reinforces stereotypes that are ensconced in Latin American history dating back to the first colonial contacts with Europeans. The early decades of contact spurred a whole series of narratives and portrayals of indigenous peoples as backwards, uncivilized, and uncouth. Sometimes, these narratives were “positive,” viewing indigenous peoples as living in virtually Edenic existence; more often, they were derogatory, used to cast an “uncivilized” other that stood in contrast to the “civilized” European (a status not all Europeans were convinced applied to Europe). In these narratives, the indigenous peoples were destined (or doomed) to surrender to European notions of civilization and “progress,” be it through extermination or through conversion. Certainly, such tasks were easier said than done, but early in the colonial era, at least, Europeans imagined a world in which the “noble” or “uncivilized” native gave way to European domination of the Americas.

Though the contexts and centuries have changed, the image of Chief Raoni accomplishes a similar task; instead of colonialism or Europeanness, however, “modernity” and technology are the new unstoppable forces, but the indigenous culture defeated and forced to surrender to these new understandings of “progress” is still present. Yes, the tale is now cast as tragic, but the portrayal still draws on stereotypical notions of indigenous cultures as less technological or more “traditional,” and thus, noble, but doomed to fail in the face of “progress” (now defined in terms of “modernity” and technology, but once upon a time defined in terms of “civilization” and Europeanness). Indeed, it is fair to ask:  would the image have resonated quite as strongly with people on social media had Raoni dressed in blue jeans and a t-shirt, or even a business suit? Perhaps it’s cynical, but it doesn’t seem unfair to suggest the answer very well could be “no.”

To be clear, the impacts of the Belo Monte dam will be devastating to indigenous groups and environment alike, and it seems likely that tears have already been shed over its impact on indigenous communities and others who are already being direclty affected by its construction. But that is not what this meme is ultimately about – it’s about a mis-representation of indigenous cultures in order to advance a cause. One can agree with the cause, but it would be better if it did not rely on such stereotypical memes and narratives to bring home its point.

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About Colin M. Snider

I have a Ph.D. in history, specializing in Latin American History and Comparative Indigenous History. My dissertation focused on Brazil. Beyond Latin America generally, I'm particularly interested in class identities, military politics, human rights, labor, education, music, and nation. I can be found on Twitter at @ColinMSnider.
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