Movie Review: Embrace of the Serpent (2019)

I.

When Christopher Columbus encountered Native Americans for the first time in his life, on October 12 1492 AD, he wrote in his journal: “They should be good servants …. I, our Lord being pleased, will take hence, at the time of my departure, six natives for your Highnesses.” These people were later paraded through the streets of Barcelona when he returned from his voyage. They were Taino, from an egalitarian matrilineal culture that welcomed him and his party with gifts. Their nine year old daughters were traded as sex slaves by the colonists, within forty years of contact the Taino were extinct.

Centuries later, something very similar happened at another frontier, California. The West coast of the United States faced colonization in the 19th century, at a relatively late point in time, so the atrocities that occured there are relatively well documented. In 1848 California was cursed with the rumor of abundant gold. This led to an influx of settlers eager to strike it rich. A local Indian chief had warned the discoverer of the gold, Sutter, that the gold he found belongs to a cruel demon that lives in the lake, a demon that would devour all who search for the gold.

The Native tribes who had their land stolen and their rivers polluted were seen as interfering with the exploitation of the frontier. “Whites are becoming impressed with the belief that it will be absolutely necessary to exterminate the savages before they can labor much longer in the mines with security,” wrote the Daily Alta Californiain 1849.

The Yreka Herald was even more explicit and proclaimed: “Now that the general hostilities against the Indians have commenced we hope that the Government will render such aid as will enable the citizens of the north to carry on a war of extermination until the last Redskin of these tribes has been killed. Extermination is no longer a question of time. The time has arrived, the work has commenced, and let the first man that says treaty or peace be regarded as a traitor.”

Local towns put up bounties. Shasta city offered five dollar for every Indian head, 25 cents per scalp were offered in Honey lake. The huge influx of young pioneer men and the near absence of women meant that after adult Pomo were killed, children were often used as sex slaves. The Bloody Island massacre occurred after Pomo tribesmen killed two settlers who had enslaves their tribe and regularly ordered the girls to their homes to be abused. The US army hunted down the fleeing Pomo and murdered them. The only survivor of the massacre was a six year old girl who hid underwater and breathed through a reed.

II.

It would be impossible for me to document all the atrocities that took place due to colonization, so I have resorted to pointing out a few I’m well familiar with. I should note that Europeans don’t have a monopoly on atrocities and I don’t wish to imply such a thing. The slave markets in the Arab peninsula were abolished in the 1960’s after American pressure. The Ottoman empire is responsible for the enslavement and deaths of millions. However, it is undeniable that our societies’ wealth was made possible by the systematic exploitation and dehumanization of people around the world.

Some people insist the problem we’re dealing with is best described as white supremacythe patriarchy, or a combination of such terms. It is very much the case that the Spanish empire implemented a racial hierarchy with white people on top to justify its colonization, but the problem I see is that it doesn’t strike at the root cause of the problem. When the Netherlands left Indonesia, the Javan government took over West Papua and began exploiting its people and its natural resources in a manner similar to how the Netherlands exploited the archipelago. We also witness the Chinese state now replicating historical colonization. White supremacy is not the root cause of colonization, rather, it is how Western nations institutionalized coloniation.

Rather, I think the most important distinction that we should recognize, is the distinction between extractive and non-extractive cultures. There are cultures and economic systems geared towards cooperation and reciprocal relationships and there are those that are geared towards extraction. This applies both towards our relationship to other humans and our relationship to our environment. In a capitalist society, an elite that owns the capital assets extracts the surplus value from the labor of its subjects. Under primitive forms of capitalism this was done through slavery. In today’s society, the extractive relationships between people have become less explicitly visible.

Equally important to comprehend, is our extractive relationship to our environment. The Netherlands is the world’s largest food exporter. The reason for this is because we buy soy from Brazil, then feed it to our animals, which we proceed to export to China and other nations. This leads to impoverishment of the Brazilian soils, while the enormous subsequent concentration of nitrogen in our soil destroys our ecosystem and also causes global warming, as nitrogen deposited in high concentrations leads to the emissions of large amounts of nitrous oxide.

I think that it’s the contrast between extractive and non-extractive cultures that we should focus our attention on. Throughout history, empires have fallen because of their extractive relationship to their environment. Food is exported from the periphery where it is produced by peasants or slaves, to the center of the empire where it is consumed by elites. In a well-functioning ecosystem nutrients are constantly recycled, whereas in extractive societies they are withdrawn from the periphery to the core. The periphery starves and the core becomes bloated and weak.

What makes indigenous cultures so valuable to learn from is their holistic approach to the environment. Many indigenous cultures have been lost over time due to genocide and forced assimilation, so there are cultural practices that have been lost through time, but one recurring characteristic of most indigenous cultures is the notion that the world is composed of cycles within which human beings as well as other organisms and parts of the Earth play a role. When any of these entities cease to fulfill their role within the greater whole, disaster emerges.

In contrast, the Western perspective is in its fundamental nature, extractivist. The Bible begins by telling us that we were given dominion over the entire world.  Instead of a chain of beings, there is a pyramid, with humans on top. There is a male God external to the world to whom humans must submit, but every other organism in the world must submit to humans.

III.

There’s an atrocity ongoing today that you might have heard of. Brazil elected a far-right president who has a long history of endorsing the ongoing genocide against the indigenous people of the Amazon. Bolsonaro is convinced that people have no right to live on land if they do not somehow economically exploit it. His plan is quite simple: Give the ranchers guns, look the other way as they commit genocide and torch the Amazon, then pursue economic development of the land.

Compare Bolsonaro’s words with those of American proponents of genocide:

“The Indians do not speak our language, they do not have money, they do not have culture. They are native peoples. How did they manage to get 13% of the national territory?”

“The idea, strange as it may appear, never occurred to them (the Indians) that they were suffering for the great cause of civilization, which, in the natural course of things, must exterminate Indians.”

– Special Agent J. Ross Browne, Indian Affairs

“[The Native Americans] didn’t have any rights to the land and there was no reason for anyone to grant them rights which they had not conceived and were not using…. What was it they were fighting for, if they opposed white men on this continent? For their wish to continue a primitive existence, their “right” to keep part of the earth untouched, unused and not even as property, just keep everybody out so that you will live practically like an animal, or maybe a few caves above it. Any white person who brought the element of civilization had the right to take over this continent.”

-Ayn Rand

Zizek has argued that Ayn Rand is an embarassment to the American upper class, because she so explicitly voices the mentality that underlies their worldview, without any embellishments. She is too honest for them.

The Pataxó have been faced with an ongoing campaign of genocide for generations. I found an article from 1999, when the Dutch news reported on how they are subject to forced sterilization and murdered by ranchers who seek to steal their land. They are subject to terrorism, the people are mutilated before being murdered.

What happens here is simply a microcosm of what has happened throughout America for generations. Cultures that pursue a balanced and reciprocal relationship with the ecosystem they inhabit, are destroyed by invaders, who manage to swell their own numbers and strength through an unsustainable extractive relationship with the land.

The ranchers, like Western civilization as a whole, are living on borrowed time. Our soils are poured into the ocean, where algae blooms kill the fish. The minerals we mine and use to build guns, automobiles, bulldozers, are scarce and non-renewable. The medicine we use to stay healthy ends up in our water and makes other people sick. The lack of genetic diversity in our crops ensures that our food supply is at constant risk of being wiped out through disease. If there is any future left after our civilization has run its course, it will belong to people who pursue non-extractive relationships to their environment.

For this reason, I think it is worthwhile to revisit a movie I have watched previously, Embrace of the Serpent. Cinema is an instrument that is made possible by the luxuries afforded to us by Western civilization, so it is generally used to tell our stories. Consider the Wolf of Wall Street, a movie about a bunch of men who sell abstract financial products at inflated prices to naive people struggling to get by. Or consider the endless costume dramas, about young governesses desperate to end up as wives of wealthy aristocrats. Those are our stories, stories of people who behave like crabs in a bucket, desperate to climb to the top and step into other people’s eyes in the process.

This is why Embrace of the Serpent is so valuable, because it tells the story of people who live in the Amazon rainforest, people to whom money does not even have any meaning. It tells the story of a shaman, Karamakate, who is visited by Western explorers eager to learn about a sacred entheogenic plant, Yakruma. Karamakate is the last surviving member of his tribe and has little desire initially to help out these Western explorers. The explorer’s native guide tells Karamakate however, that if the explorers are not informed of the wisdom from the plant spirits, they will end up destroying the world through their ignorance.

I am Dutch, which puts me in the peculiar position of having ready access to most of the world’s entheogenic organisms, without having direct access to the cultural context within which people took these entheogens. It’s theoretically possible to fly to the Amazon rainforest, but besides the enormous ecological impact of such a journey, the consumption of Ayahuasca there by Western tourists has also been stripped of its cultural context and become interwoven with a capitalist system, within which Shamans need to earn money and make ends meet.

The film reaches its climax when Karamakate encounters indigenous children in a Catholic missionary outpost, who are physically abused by the clergymen. Karamakate takes the children apart and tells them:

When the Caucheros razed my village, the priests took me in as well.
My people did not surrender. They fought. You must do the same.
Do not believe these madmen that eat the bodies of their gods.
They give you food, but do not respect the prohibitions.
One day they will end by killing the jungle.
You are still young, the jungle will forgive you.
The caapi master will guide you.
Every plant, every tree, every flower is full of wisdom.
Never forget who you are and where you came from.
Don’t let your music fade.

Over the years, I have consumed San Pedro cactuses, Psilocybe mushrooms and Salvia Divinorum, as well as other psychoactive plants that properly complement these entheogens. When you consume these entheogens, you are inevitably confronted with the fact that these are entheogens that serve as sacraments, for cultures that are threatened by Western civilization or have already been destroyed. Although the entheogens have benefited me greatly, I am exposed to them divorced from their cultural context.

V.

Like many young people in Western society, I find myself confronted with the perplexing condition of being the benefactor of an extractive economic system that will annihilate most lifeforms on our planet. I’m not in a condition where I can put a stop to it and exploitation and destruction is intrinsically tied to almost every product I buy.

I need to emphasize that I’m not suggesting here that modern Europeans are unique in the collective exploitative relationship towards nature and indigenous people. China is engaged in genocide and building up a colonial empire for itself, Middle Eastern nations depend for their wealth on the exploitation of guest workers and the pollution of our atmosphere. To brush over such things would undermine the credibility of the problem I want people to consider.

However, the fact that some other cultures witness some of the same problems, does not change anything about the fact that our historical legacy has been a conscious decision. What happened was not a historical inevitability. We were born into a culture that was formed by people who sought to dominate and exploit others. However, throughout history, we have had people who recognized the absurdities and cruelties their contemporaries engaged in. Thoreau was active as an abolitionist in an era when the American judicial ruling was that slaveholders could legally rape their slaves. Columbus lived in an era when Bartolomé de las Casas sought to persuade royalty to end his slavery and genocide.

I think the first step is recognition of this historical legacy, followed by disavowal and dissociation. The second step is to recognize and resist the injustice where it continues to this day. We should not see the struggle against climate change separately from the struggle of indigenous people against imperialism, because the fundamental problem we face is a deep pervasive aspect to our culture. It requires an extremely extractive and unrecipocal relationship with the environment, to cause the kind of catastrophic change in the climate that we witness around us today.

In fact, I think the argument can be made that climate change began together with capitalism, in the Netherlands. Before the British began using coal, the Dutch began using peat. The Dutch destroyed our landscape in the same era when we set up the world’s first corporations, which were used to transport slaves from West Africa to the Americans. Large parts of Utrecht and Holland are littered with lakes, because the peat there was dug up and burned in our industries back then. In the Eastern part of the Netherlands, almost all peat was lost. The great thing about peat however, is that it stores excessive water during downpours and releases it during droughts. If we had not removed all the peat, the Dutch forests would now be better capable of coping with the unprecedented droughts we face these days.

In Europe today we have an active movement of resistance, Extinction Rebellion, against the economic and political system that is causing the global climate change catastrophe and ecological disaster. People are abandoning their jobs, people are going to jail, because they do not wish to be complicit in a system that eventually leads to the irreversible annihilation of entire ecosystems and the deaths of billions of people. Capitalism was born in the Netherlands, but even here, in the belly of the beast, there are people who want this catastrophe to end.

In West Papua, the indigenous Papuans are faced with state orchestrated colonization by the government in Java, to economically develop their land and open up the island to mining. The activists there risk torture and death. The indigenous Amazonians are threatened with genocide, because ranchers are given green light by the Bolsonaro regime to invade their homelands. In Canada, under the Trudeau regime, the exploitation of tar sands means that fathers are forced to feed their children toxic fish they wouldn’t feed to their guests.

The industrial system can not sustain itself on its own landbase, so it is always forced to look abroad, for the lands of other people. Those people have been fighting this fight, long before we called it climate change. As huge as the problem is, the climate change problem is ultimately a symptom, a symptom of the fact that this extractive economic system has run amock for so long that our living planet is now struggling to sustain the climatic conditions that allowed life and human culture to flourish during the Holocene.

There is not going to be a technical solution to the problem we face. We have known about the impending damage to our climate since the late 19th century and we have had thirty years of climate conferences even as emissions continued to rise. What’s necessary is an entirely different way of looking at the world.

Equally important, we in the industrialized world need to demonstrate our solidarity with the world’s indigenous people and do what we can to end the extractivist system before it ends life on Earth. To me as a Dutch man this means standing up against a multinational corporation that is openly planning on disregarding the Paris agreement and paid the Nigerian military to deal with Ogoni protestors who were resisting the pollution of their soils. On May 19 in the Hague, we will prevent Shell’s shareholders conference from taking place, which will be the first step in dismantling this evil empire. We need as many people as possible to show up that day. You do not need preparation to join us, you can simply show up on the day itself if you want to. I hope to see you there.

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


*