Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Book Review: Savages

Posted by Kirk
I've had the paperback of Savages sitting around in my "to read" pile for ages. Actually, it went from my old house to my new house to my car and finally to my garage where it sat for two years. I finally had some time this week so I sat down and plowed though it while I sat in the last warm rays of summer sun. Author Joe Kane spent time with the Huaorani, a tribe living in the deep Amazon in Ecuador while oil companies were closing in on their ancestral lands. The Huaorani are nomadic hunters and gathers who still live mostly as they have for centuries. Kane follows along as they work to hold onto their identity while they face pressures of modernity, big oil and even missionaries who vie for their souls.

The book is clearly a story about the struggle of the Huaorani people and not an anthropological study but the window Kane opens to their world is simply fascinating. Some have directly criticized the work on anthropological grounds saying his work wasn't up to their standards but he did not set out to write an anthropological treatise on the Huaorani. Joe Kane is a journalist. Complaining that Savages is not a good anthropology book is like complaining that Bill Bryson's A Walk in the Woods is not a good guide to hiking the Appalachian Trail. Kane follows the ethical rules of journalists not anthropologists. Had he been an anthropologist he likely would not have been given the access he had to their lives. The oil companies used people they called "anthropologists" to divide and control the various Huaorani groups and they have grown to deeply distrust anyone claiming to be an anthropologist.

The book isn't perfect, some parts get a little confusing and in other places we are left wanting more information but it is an enjoyable if not slightly disturbing read. The oil we consume daily has many prices and this book helps open our eyes to one of them. Kane talks not just to the Huaorani but also executives from the oil companies who sit behind their desks and claim that they follow the highest environmental standards. When Kane reveals to them that he has just come from their sites with almost unimaginable pollution they tell him they'll have to get back to him and have him escorted out of their office.

Savages is a short book and does not answer all the questions the reader has about the subject but it is marvelous at opening eyes to a world we largely choose to ignore.