Book Review by Cheryl Musch

Savages by Joe Kane (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1995) 273 pages, full-color photographs, map, bibliography.

The cover of Joe Kane's Savages promises the sensational story of "how one small band of Amazonian warriors defended their territory against hell-bent oil companies, dogged missionaries, and starry-eyed environmentalists." It is dominated by a striking black and white photograph of Moi, a Huaorani carrying his blowgun darts, his long hair wrapping around his bare shoulders and chest--the Huaorani poster child for the environmental movement. Kane delivers a sometimes sensationalistic, sometimes activist, sometimes travelogue view of Huaorani life and the Huaorani's struggle to save their environment from unscrupulous oil companies. By his own admission, he "crossed the street" from being a journalist and "tried to become an activist." The result is neither journalistic, nor activist, nor academic, but rather a novelized portrayal of the Huaorani.

The Huaorani are a relatively small indigenous group, numbering less than 2,000, living in the Ecuadorian Amazon. Historically they have been called "Aucas," a Quechua word meaning "savages." By his own admission, the Huaorani consider this name "a gross insult," and it is mystifying why Kane befriended the Huaorani and then plastered this "gross insult" on the cover of the book. The Huaorani have always been determined to keep intruders out of their territory. Invasions by their indigenous neighbors, the Shuar and the Quichua, encroachments by oil company personnel, and intrusions by missionaries have been met with spear killings. And the Huaorani frankly state that if these violations of their land continue, they will respond with "spears from all sides."

Because of their perseverance in remaining isolated, the Huaorani have remained somewhat of a mystery. Savages provides some good basic anthropological information about the everyday life of the Huaorani. Periodically, however, Kane is guilty of imposing his own North American cultural constructs on Huaorani thought. For example, when Kane is leaving the Quito bus station in a cab, he surmises, "Moi watched me as carefully as he would a monkey in the treetops."

In September of 1993, the New Yorker published Kane's article "With Spears From All Sides." This hard-hitting, well-written article dealt with issues of who had the right to speak for the Huaorani. In his subsequent New Yorker article "Moi Goes to Washington" Kane began writing about the Huaorani as subjects, rather than actors in their quest for self-determination. A major fault of Savages is that Kane continues to write about the Huaorani as subjects, peppering the book with cute stories about the silly Huaorani. Ultimately, the book winds up being about Joe Kane and his travels among the Huaorani, rather than issues of self-determination and representation.

Savages is divided into three parts entitled "East," "West," and "Among the Cannibals." In the first two, Kane deals with oil issues somewhat peripherally. In the third, the focus centers on the Huaorani's fight for control of oil-related decisions in their territory. In 1967, Texaco discovered oil in the Ecuadorian Amazon and began oil exportation. By 1972 they had constructed a pipeline from the Amazon to the Pacific Coast. Since that time, oil company abuses from Texaco and others have brought environmental devastation and serious health problems to the Huaorani homeland. Open oil waste pits, spills, and diseases brought by oil companies and their employees seized the attention of the international environmental community and boosted the Huaorani's determination to terminate oil exploration and exportation from their territory.

Ironically, in this indigenous group where community is of utmost importance, Kane focuses on half a dozen male Huaorani leaders. Of those few, he ultimately pegs one, Moi, as the "natural leader," the savior of the Huaorani in their struggle for survival. It seems the peak of insensitivity for an outsider such as Kane to identify a single leader in a community-based group seeking self-determination.

Savages is an easy read, often reading like a novel. For anyone seeking information on the Huaorani and oil exploration in the Ecuadorian Amazon, this book provides a broad sweep of the history and issues currently at hand. However, the wise reader will be alert to the sometimes subjective interpretations of the author.