Uncontacted Tribes of Noble Savages

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October 31st 2011
Published: October 31st 2011EDIT THIS ENTRY

As we sit on a grassy bank eating our lunch, the guide exits the house with a man in the small courtyard, just below us, but out of earshot. One of the tourists from the little group I inhabit states, “These people live such a simple life”. Nobody responds, so almost by way of qualifying his statement he continues, “Any person from any of these houses could just go to another house. In Canada we cannot do that – even with my friends I would have to phone them up and arrange a time and place to meet. They have community – these people don’t think about the individual, it’s the community that is important”.
This statement does get a reaction; his wife responding, “You don’t know what they think; you’ve never spoken to them!” “– “I can go ask them right now!” he replies, continuing, “Looking at these people we can see our beginnings …I bet I could leave my bag here and go on the hike and nobody would steal it”.
“You’re not leaving my bag here!” his wife protests. “- Well I know, but they wouldn’t steal it!”
The guide then makes an announcement in Spanish about the
The Noble SavageThe Noble SavageThe Noble Savage

Benjamin West
bags strewn over the grass.
“SEE - I told you! We can just leave them here!” He exclaims, triumphantly.
Not wanting to be seen as taking sides in the discussion I offer rather meekly, “He said we should give them to that guy, and not to leave them here, or else they may be stolen”.

His wife was right; he hadn’t spoken to anyone from Saraguro, and neither had she or any of the group for that matter. These University of Calgary tourists were literally ushered off one bus and onto another when they arrived from Cuenca a little over half an hour ago. Yet Sulley and many of the other visiting tourists I spoke to that day or on subsequent days, had an idealized concept of indigenous people, who symbolize the innate goodness of those not exposed to the corrupting influences of civilization.

Indigenous societies in their most romanticized and essentialized grand narratives are thought to possess an often unique body of cultural and environmental knowledge, community values, interconnectedness and spiritual enlightenment, containing all that ‘Western society’ is thought to have ‘lost’, thus representing the latest iteration of the concept of the Noble Savage, the historical origins of which trace back to Gilgamesh, ancient Greece, and the Garden of Eden.
Yet the visiting tourists could be forgiven for thinking the Noble Savage of lore was alive and well in Saraguro on the same, now familiar tour, some months later. The guide, Raul, dressed to the nines in traditional garb, gave a variant of the speech I had heard him give many times before; highlighting the Incan presence in the region some five-hundred years ago, the indigenous Saraguros own Incaic cultural legacy, and the community’s timelessness due to minimal immigration and outside contact - stemming the flow of new ideas.
At this point Julio, the Oregon group’s grey-bearded professor from Quito, asks Raul if he can say a few words. On receiving the nod, squinting through his oversized thick rimmed glasses, Julio enthusiastically begins: telling the assembled tourists how happy these people are, because they don’t strive for the same commodities we do in the big cities, they live ecologically and this is very rare these days; this lifestyle won’t last for long and, so, the tourists should really appreciate this. Then Raul, seemingly buoyed by Julio’s enthusiasm, veers from his usual discourse:

Nowadays people have
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by Lucas Cranach the Elder.
radios with batteries to know something from the outside, but we don´t have television… During the day you can just listen to the birds or hear the heart beat of the dogs or the cows mooing. It’s very quiet and relaxed and we like it like that, we don´t want for any luxuries, we just need something to eat, we are happy with the life we are living here…
Raul stops and pulls a ringing mobile phone from his pocket, and tells the person on the other end he is “occupied”. This leads to some sniggers and an exchange of humored glances among the assembled tourists… He continues…
Here they don´t close their doors, because they aren´t afraid that people are going to steal anything, because people here respect each other, its different in the big cities. Here nobody has rheumatism, because everything is natural and made from the earth. Nobody goes to the pharmacy because they are in touch with nature. People use medicinal plants to cure illness, they have small gardens where they grow medicinal plants along with the food they need. You don´t need to go to the store. Most importantly is their respect for [the earth deity] Pachamama because they get everything from her…
In this opening example we can witness the “Noble Savage” discourse literally brought to Gera; locally perpetuated, circulated and undoubtedly re-exported, bolstered and crystallized by real experiential “evidence”. Raul the local guide says nothing to sway Julio from his romanticized opinions of how people there live; in fact, he himself appears to be enthused by Julio’s nostalgic yearnings. And in the course of fifteen-minutes mediators, Julio and Raul collectively, have portrayed the residents of Gera as living far from the Western “outside world” of capitalism and modernity. The guide is literally singing from the Noble Savage hymn book, with Raul matching his own imaged version of this local Eden to that of the idyll envisioned by the visiting tourist who has never before set foot in Gera.

This example also offers a glimpse into how guides learn to perceive or objectify their own culture through the eyes of visiting tourists, to become aware of a tourists preconceived understanding or worldview. Being a tour guide enables the perspective of seeing one’s own culture through the eyes of an outsider, enabling them, and hosts generally, to learn and relay aspects of their own culture the visiting tourist appears to be most enthusiastic about. What interests the tourist feeds into what a good guide will then elaborate upon, leading to the question: Is the guide consciously emulating, as part of the performance, the kind of perceptions and dreams he believes the tourist expects and yearns for, or are Julio and Raul dreaming the same dream,

Marshall Sahlins sees in the appeal of the “Indigenous” a desire to use “other societies as an alibi for redressing what has been troubling us lately” (Sahlins 1999:v). This stems from the Cartesian logic that:
Unspoiled nature is pure; the Indian is part of nature; therefore the Indian is pure. Such purity then becomes associated with the wisdom that Westerners once had but have lost in the deluge of technological progress and its by-product, the destruction of the environment. (Ramos 1998:72)

International tourists are often drawn to places like Saraguro in pursuit of a romanticized, pure indigenous Other. Various scholars have examined how the production of this “global, indigenous Other” in contrast to the corrupted, Western self, is a meta-narrative that informs Western understandings of indigenous peoples. It is my aim in this blog to document these global understandings of indigeneity as witnessed through conversations with visiting tourists, and in the process attempt to mine the archaeology of their origins and their contemporary circulation. First I will trace historical development of the idea of noble savagery; the origins of which stretch back to Gilgamesh, ancient Greece, and the Garden of Eden. From that, I will then explore how the use of the myth of the Noble Savage has been conflated with contemporary perceptions of indigenous people more generally and used throughout history to reflect that which is troubling us lately, some drawing on it as a subliminal belief, others, with particular reference to Jean Jacques Rousseau, who deliberately constructed the myth to criticize the society in which he lived. Then I will examine the present-day usage of imagery of the Noble Savage, illustrating how the intellectual legacy that led to its production has been massified and taken for granted as “truth” in popular culture. Increasing degradation of the planet at the hands of industrial civilization and the resulting growth of the environmentalist movement since the 1960s and 70s has seen the contemporary “reincarnation” of the noble savage, reborn, as the ecologically noble savage.

Through the use of ethnographic examples and interviews I will illustrate in this two-part blog how the formulation and perception of noble savagery throughout history emulates how contemporary tourists see “indigenous people” more generally.

The history of the Noble Savage

His whole body was shaggy with hair; he was furnished with tresses like a woman,
His locks of hair grew luxuriant like grain.
He knew neither people nor country; he was dressed as cattle are.
With gazelles he eats vegetation,
With cattle he quenches his thirst at the watering place.
With wild beasts he satisfies his need for water.
(Gilgamesh tablet 1.)

The Sumerian Gods created Enkidu, a primitive man living in harmony with nature, as a rival to the mighty Gilgamesh. On discovering this, Gilgamesh has him seduced by a harlot who tempts him from the wild, civilizing him through continued sexual intercourse. Thereafter, this mythical representative of humanity prior to civilization falls out of sync with nature, is lured away from his harmonious life, into the city and, ultimately to his doom.

In Greek mythology, circa 700BC, poet Hesiod’s Golden Age is a lost paradise of everlasting spring where primitive communism, trust, simplicity, innocence and peace prevailed. The earth produced food in such abundance there was no need for agriculture, and the people were vegetarians as they had no need to eat meat. However, in succeeding degenerative ages – Silver, Bronze and Iron – there is a course of spiritual decay in which evil gradually replaces good; a story of lamentable decline.

In Genesis, Adam and Eve fall from grace when they commit original sin in the Garden of Eden, and are banished from living off God’s bounty to toiling at agriculture. From that moment onward Christianity agonizes over humanity's ejection from its idyll in the Garden of Eden; in part, a nostalgic folk memory of a pre-agricultural way of life.

In ancient Greece, Homer and Xenophon idealized the Arcadians’ way of life, to the point that “Arcadian” is now a contemporary adage referring to “innocent contentment,” “an idealized country dweller” or relating to “an ideal pastoral paradise.” Setting them up as an ideal example of human society, a host of Graeco-Roman writers, including Ephorus, Strabo and later Horace, similarly eulogized the Scythians establishing a truism which would cast them in the role of “noble savage” from the fourth century BC up until the early 19th century.

Arcadia was a remote mountainous region, Herodotus and Ephorus claiming that the inhabitants of which were Pelasgians, the Greek name for the primitive indigenous people of Greece. The Scythians in contrast were not a specific people but a network of culturally similar nomadic tribes living primarily to the north and east of Greece. The eulogizing of these peoples, it can be argued, was based on their geographic locations outside the realm of civilization, living on the peripheries of the imagination, and with that distance their cultures’ perceived connection to the past, and its purity, from all that we perceive is amiss with our own culture.

However, once prolonged contact was made with these noble savages the romance tended to wear off. In 8 AD, the Greek poet Ovid (a major source for the diffusion of the Golden Age myth) was banished to Scythia, and whilst there found little that was noble about the people. Similarly, the Romans were to ennoble the nomadic German tribes to the north, who Christian authors of later years were to vilify as the pagan murderers of evangelists. And with their eventual Christianization the once distant tribes came into the fold, became civilized, and Europe’s fascination with the noble savage faded.

With the conquest of the New World in 1492, the myth of the noble savage again gained currency as accounts of “savage” lands, and the explorers who had overcome their prejudices about European superiority through contact with their way of life, became commonplace. The newly discovered “Indians” of the New World became the new Scythians of antiquity, and in many cases surpassed even that; comparable to that of the classical conception of the golden age.
They lived in the golden age: they did not know any measure of land; nor did they have any judges, or laws, or letters, or trade. They lived day by day and did not make plans for a longer period of time. (Pietro Bembo 1551 cited in Hertzhauser 1729:353-354)

In the opinion of Michel de Montaigne, in his essay “Of Cannibals” (1580), their lives surpassed even that:

I regret that neither Lycargus nor Plato knew the American Indians; because it seems to me, that which we see with our experience in these peoples surpasses not only every description, with which poetry has enhanced the golden age, and all its fantasies concerning a happy state for mankind, but even the conceptions and desires of philosophy. They could not have imagined a purer and simpler naiveté than that which we see with our own experience…I would tell Plato that there is a people that does not know any form of trade, has no knowledge of letters, no science of numbers, no titles for magistrates nor for political supremacy, no use of servants, no wealth or poverty.…Even the very words that mean lie, treason, simulation, avarice, envy, slander, forgiveness, are unknown. (Montaigne 1580:395 cited in Reinhold 1993:401)

The term “Noble Savage” is habitually accredited to Jean-Jacques Rousseau, yet Rousseau's purpose was to criticize French society, not to laud natural states. Rousseau was engaging in a thought experiment based on hypothetical humans; the phenomenon of savagery had long been viewed as negative, juxtaposed as it was to “civilized” like “infidel” to “Christian”. This provided for no criticism of “self”, and so Rousseau attempted to create the savage Other, a new stereotype which could be portrayed in a good light thus allowing a comparison suggesting room for civilization’s improvement. A return to savagery was neither desirable nor possible. The idea was to implant the belief that we the “civilized” are not good enough yet. Rousseau consciously created a reproach to contemporary society. And looking back to Gilgamesh, Genesis and Greek mythology, Rousseau was simply continuing the trend of seeing the noble savage not as living breathing man, but a utopian idyll.

As the 19th century wore on, however, the idea became less credible. With religious and commercial colonial expansion, progresses in geology, and anthropology and the new science of evolution throwing new light on these “primitive peoples” who, Steeves argues, remained curiosities, the positive luster began to give way to more negative treatments of non-Western peoples to the extent that they began to appear decidedly ignoble.

Early modern explorers, colonists, and missionaries who actually lived among the peoples of the New World demonized them (sometimes literally) more often than they ennobled them. (Carhart 2004)

This romanticized figure began to be attacked. And since much of the evidence to support him was based on romantic theorization he became a sitting duck for anyone who wanted to take a shot. The fact that the actual physical representation of him was a theoretical mirage in many ways made it easier for his authors to shape him into any image they desired. The native of the New World had to be proven to be inferior “lest the European conquistador incur the sin of doing unto others what he would not do unto himself” (Ramos 1998:59). The more dishonored was the Indian the more honored his creators became.

Yet despite this concerted attack on the myth of the noble savage, he hasn’t disappeared from the popular imagination; far from it. In fact, in his absence from the collective conscience he has gained an attribute which one could argue contemporarily defines him upon his rebirth above all else:

The ecologically noble savage

Sylvia, a Finnish woman who was in Ecuador volunteering at a fair trade banana plantation on the Pacific Coast near Machala, believed that indigenous people lived closer to nature and were kinder to animals. Jean Pierre said the main difference between indigenous and non-indigenous was the former’s connection to the natural. After he told me this I pointed out to the fields, where maize crops grew, greenhouses stood and cows grazed the pastures and asked him if he thought this was really much different from rural France. He said indeed it was, because the methods here were more ecological, which in modern jargon I translated as more organic.

This belief was echoed by another French tourist, Aurelie, who said in her experience indigenous people lived “more naturally”. I asked if she thought there were any people in France who live like this, and she said yes, in the centre of France she personally knew a man who lived on a small farm without electricity and running water, and that it was possible to visit him on the weekends and buy food, as she had done on occasion. “More naturally” in these cases seemed to translate as a more rustic, rural, ecological lifestyle, with Jenny from Calgary believing:

We think we have the right to see indigenous people as inferior; it happens in Canada, they think they are superior.... We must remember that indigenous people are in tune with nature and we can learn a lot from them.

“We” can learn from “them” – they can provide a potential antidote to our discontents. They possess redemptive possibilities, something which people in Canada, or the west at large, have lost or been corrupted away from. Indigenous societies in their most romanticized and essentialized grand narratives are thought to possess an often unique body of cultural and environmental knowledge, community values, interconnectedness and spiritual enlightenment. As Sulley said:

We think we know it all “hey, we manufactured this.” We know for a fact that the practices of indigenous people have always been making do with what is available to them. There is a rare chance that an indigenous community is going to do something to destroy mother earth. They believe tsunamis are because the earth is being maltreated; this is how God is punishing....They live and believe in nature, they get everything from nature, and they don’t question things: they attribute it to either punishment or blessings of the Gods…non-indigenous people like me and you have gone beyond this to a state where we’ve allowed reason to come into everything we do and we rationalize everything.

Every time western civilization begins to develop ailments it considers to be harmful or destructive, the antidote - it seems - can be found in a nostalgic past, lost in time, sheltered from our culture’s corruption living out their utopian existence in some isolated jungle or forgotten valley.

…When we dream of the ecologically noble Indian whose knowledge will save us from the consequences of modern development, we dream an old dream, whose roots stretch back to the Garden of Eden and beyond. (Redford 1991:29)

The destruction of the planet, deforestation, over-fishing, and global warming, are now generally considered to be symptoms of the western culture of industrial civilization. If the culprit behind this is progress, economic development or modernity or even civilization itself, then the remedies for its shortfalls cannot be found in the culture of perpetuator, but in the past.

Instead, Western society engages in a nostalgic search for a lost past where people lived sustainably in harmony with nature. There we find an indigenous people living simple sustainable lives and see a glimmer of hope; the answer lies here, in how we used to live; only by returning to this can we save the planet and ourselves from our modern selves. The portrayal of indigenous people in the role of earth savior is a sign of desperation, of nowhere else to go.

The “Noble Savage” has consistently reemerged in various incarnations in the latter half of the twentieth century onwards; with movies, including, Jeremiah Johnson (1972), The Emerald Forest (1985), the eco-pacifist Lakota in Dances With Wolves (1990), At Play in the Fields of the Lord (1991), the Disneyfication of Pocahontas (1995), Princess Mononoke (1997), John the Savage in the novel Brave New World and popular science magazines like National Geographic, to name but a few. Its most recent proponents are the Na’vi in James Cameron’s Avatar (2009). The creators of the movie thought it pertinent to leave Earth altogether, for Pandora, where they could create the noblest savages of our wildest dreams. Indigenous people of earth, no matter how “uncontacted,” apparently just don’t make the grade anymore.

In Avatar we revisit the crime scene of the New World explorer, where savages roam noble, and greedy colonialists kill edenic lives for valuable minerals. In the movie, the human white man makes contact, becomes accepted and seduced by the sapient humanoid indigenous inhabitants of the fictional moon Pandora, switches sides, and becomes one of their most respected warriors. The ex-marine ultimately leads the subaltern to victory against the evil excesses of homosapien capitalist civilization. In the process he redresses the evils of civilization’s colonial history, and we feel elated that we have been vicariously absolved of our collective guilt. Doubtless, audience members around the world connected the Na’vi with indigenous peoples past and present. Evo Morales, Bolivia's first indigenous president, praised the film for its "profound show of resistance to capitalism and the struggle for the defense of nature". Avatar is simply following in the tradition of Heriod and Rousseau; romanticizing a fictional scenario in an effort to highlight and criticize the perceived problems of contemporary society.

In the second part of this blog I will demonstrate that Tourists in Saraguro commonly held the view of “civilization as pollution” where they believed in the power of “modern society” as a source of contamination and corruption of traditional culture, an idea which highlights the perception of indigenous passivity. And in the tourists’ preoccupation with preserving indigenous authenticity we see in this desire the belief indigenous people are thought to possess an inherent generosity and anti-materialism, communalism and community, attributes the increasingly alienated western tourists see as absent in their own society and as such construct, admire and covet in others. Finally I shall explore how having unwittingly been elevated to represent the utopian idyll in the imaginations of visiting tourists, indigenous people are placed on a pedestal, which ultimately risks their fall from grace to ignoble savagery should they then fail to live up to the visionary standards others have entrusted upon them.


31st October 2011

As is usual, your blogs provide a thought-provoking read replete with astute analysis. Will await the concluding part of your research and observations with anticipation.
1st November 2011

Great blog
I echo Shane\'s comment - such thought-provoking writing is rarely seen on this site or anywhere else for that matter. Well-written and interesting. I look forward to the next instalment!
1st November 2011

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Hi I am a big reader, would really appreciate an invite. Your blog is very nice and I really enjoy the style and content. THanks

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