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Why is Chief Raoni Metuktire of Brazil’s Kayapó tribe really crying?


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Why is Chief Raoni Metuktire of Brazil’s Kayapó tribe crying? According to a popular meme, it is because he received devastating news about the Belo Monte hydroelectric dam.


While magazines and TV chains report about the lives and love affairs of movie actors and actresses, football players and other celebrities, the Chief of the Kayapo tribe heard the worst news of his entire life:

Mrs. Dilma, the president of Brazil, has given her approval for the construction of an enormous hydroelectric central (the world’s third largest one).

This means the death sentence for ALL the tribes living at the shores of the river because the barrage will flood more or less 988,421 acres of the forest. More than 40 000 natives will have to find other living surroundings where they will be able to survive. The destruction of the natural habitat, the deforestation and the disappearance of several species of plants and animals will be a fait accompli.

We know that a simple image is the equivalent of a thousand words, it shows the price to be paid for the “quality of life” of our so-called “modern comforts.” There is no space in the world anymore for those who live differently. Everything has to be smoothed away, that everyone, in the name of globalization must lose his and her identity and way of living.

If this enrages you, I urge and implore you to “SHARE” this message to all your friends, relatives and acquaintances.

Thank you in the name of life, nature and biodiversity.

This narrative is truly heart wrenching. For the most part, this description is accurate. There is a project to build a hydroelectric dam across the Xyngu River and it is likely to have significant impacts on the the indigenous people in the area and the environment. However, the Belo Monte dam project is not why I chose to make a post out of this frequently shared image. What bothers me is the subtle stripping of Chief Raoni’s agency and power.

What the Meme Says

The image attached to this meme depicts Chief Raoni in tears and clearly emotional. The description says, “Chief of the Kayapo tribe heard the worst news of his entire life,” implying that the image was taken at a moment of intense grief over the devastation of his home and people. The representation of Chief Raoni shows a man who is sad, powerless, and at the mercy of a powerful President Dilma. This is supported by his hunched posture, his hand attempting to cover his face, and his closed, scrunched eyes. The text enforces this representation by speaking of death, destruction and disappearance. It then puts Chief Raoni in sharp contrast with the reader, by describing the reader as frivolous and superficial and to an extent blaming the reader for the devastation, “it shows the price to be paid for the ‘quality of life’ of our so-called ‘modern comforts.’” The text then ends with a call to action to save Chief Raoni and his people.

This is inspiring stuff. The first time I read it, I felt moved by the passion of the text and I swelled with empathy for Chief Raoni. Then, I did some research on Chief Raoni, the Belo Monte Dam, and this image.

What Reality Is

Chief Raoni in Paris presenting his petition.

Chief Raoni in Paris presenting his petition.

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.

The Problem

I find the Facebook meme distressing, not because of the Belo Monte Dan Project, but because the author and all of the people who share it have fed into and bolstered (even if unknowingly) a narrative that depicts indigenous people as sad and powerless and awaiting the benevolence of people from industrialized nations. This pulls into focus our own arrogance and biases against indigenous peoples. It does not help the cause or support Chief Raoni. It only makes us feel better about our lazy attempts to “save” people that we look down upon. (On a side note, Abu-Lughod’s “Do Muslim Women Need Saving” is another excellent example of this phenomenon.)

While far too many have shared this image on Facebook, Twitter and elsewhere – including many anthropologists – Chief Raoni is effecting actual change and wielding real power. But don’t take my word for it; this is what Chief Raoni had to say about this representation of him crying.

“I did not cry because of the authorization for construction and the beginning of the work of Belo Monte. As long as I will live, I will continue to fight against this construction. I want to tell President Dilma, to Lula, to the President of FUNAI, to the President of IBAMA, to the Minister of Energy Lobão, that I am on my way to Brasilia and that I will take along all my warriors to fight against the Belo Monte. I will not stop.

It is President Dilma who will cry, not me. I wish to know who published this picture and spread this information. I would like to see this person. Instead of constructing the dam of Belo Monte, why is President Dilma not taking care of the bandits of Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo and why does she not stop the destruction of the environment? Does she have no authority?

It has to stop. The President Dilma will have to kill me in front of the Palace of Planalto. Only then will you be able to build the dam of Belo Monte. As long as it has not happened, I will fight until the end. I am before the city council of Colider to show who I am : Raoni! And I will also demonstrate it in Brasilia.” [Source]

Update: Apparently, it isn’t just social media that proliferates this. The Washington Post did in 2011 as well.

This article originally appeared on Angela Kristin VandenBroek’s blog, How To Be An Anthropologist.

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