Saturday, April 30, 2005

Cannibal Stories

The following statement was originally produced by CAC editor Pedro Ferbel-Azcarate:

The misidentification of cannibalism for ancestor worship, reported in Columbus' 1493 log, can be seen today as a classic case of cultural misunderstanding.

Using multidisciplinary lines of evidence we can see that Columbus misunderstood the cultural practice of Native people in storing the bones of their ancestors in calabash gourdes in their homes. He mistakenly believed this was a practice of cannibalism. There is scant archaeological evidence of cannibalism in the Caribbean. We would expect to find butchering marks on long bones of human remains if there was a significant practice of cannibalism. The lack of such evidence makes archaeologists reject cannabalism as a common practice in the Caribbean.

It appears that the mythology of cannibalism was promoted by such early European explorers as Columbus as a means to portray the Indigenous people of the Caribbean as savages. This denigration of Native peoples led to the European justification to enslave them, take their lands, and create a racist system whereby people who were not of European origin were given alower social status.

The portrayal of Native Caribbean Americans as cannibals and savages in a new Disney movie aimed at children perpetuates negative stereotypes and a false understanding of colonial history. Disney Corp. should be ashamed by their intentions to put profit above the dignity of human communities. Disney should retract their portrayal of Indigenous Caribbeans as cannibals and savages and should offer a formal apology to Chief Charles Williams and the Carib people of Dominica, as well as to all Indigenous people of the Caribbean.

The real adventure story is about the survival of Indigenous Caribbean people to the present day, a story rarely told. After 500 years years of resistance, the Native Carib (Kalinago) and Taino have survived to the present day.

Cannibalism as Cultural Libel

Claire Meurens Yashar, originally from Belgium, is an Anthropology graduate from the University of Illinois in Chicago, where Claire still lives. For the past two years, Claire has been intensely researching Taino iconography and its connection with the many mythological stories and legends. Claire can be reached at

Claire Meurens Yashar

Unsubstantiated reports of cannibalism disproportionately relate cases of cannibalism among cultures that are already otherwise despised, feared, or are little known.

The ‘blood libel’ that accused the Jews of eating Christian children is an example. In antiquity, Greek reports of anthropophagy were related to distant, non-Hellenic barbarians, or else relegated in myth to the ‘primitive’ chthonic world that preceded the coming of the Olympian gods. In 1994, printed booklets reported that in a Yugoslavian concentration camp of Manjaca, the Bosnian refugees were forced to eat each other’s bodies. The reports were false.

William Arens, author of The Man-Eating Myth: Anthropology and Anthropophagy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979) downplays the truth of reports of cannibalism and argues that the description by one group of people of another people as cannibals is an ideological and rhetorical device to establish moral superiority over them” (p. 3- 4).

Cannibal themes in myth or religion
Cannibal ogresses appear in folklore around the world, the witch in Hansel and Gretel being the most immediate example. On the mythological level, the cannibal mother is magnified to a universal principal, such as the Hindu goddess Kali, the Black One. In one such tale, the gods are up against the demons led by Raktabeeja found that each time he was killed more demons arose from each blood that dropped to the floor.

The story of Kronos in Greek mythology also demonstrates the theme of cannibalism. Some authorities have detected allusions to cannibalism in the earliest religious writings of the ancient Egyptians.

The opening of Hell, the Zoroastrian contribution to Western mythology, is a mouth. According to Catholic dogma, bread and wine are transubstantiated into the real flesh and blood of Jesus, which is then distributed by the priest to the faithful. For this reason, Catholics in pagan times were sometimes accused of cannibalism by suspicious non-Christians (p. 5, from, 6 pages).

Uses and Abuses of Images of New World Cannibalism

From the earliest years of European invasion of the New World, reports that native people ate human flesh provided the conquerors with easy justification for their brutal takeover of native lands and lives. European colonizers saw New World cannibalism as the quintessential expression of savagery and evil. Clearly, any way of putting an end to such depravity could be considered legitimate. The imperative to stamp out cannibalism could counter any criticism about the morality of colonial projects and the brutalities of death, disease, misery, violence, and slavery that Europeans inflicted on the natives.

People with reputation of being cannibals were fair game for exploitation. In 1503, Queen Isabella of Spain decreed that Spaniards could legally enslave only those American Indians who were cannibals (Whitehead, 1984: 70). Spanish colonists thus had a vested economic interest in representing many New World natives as people eaters. Political expediency clearly motivated a number of early chroniclers who wrote about cannibalism, particularly among the Caribs (Caniba) Indians who lived in the parts of Venezuela, the Guianas, and the Caribbean islands. (Columbus’s accounts of the supposedly ferocious man-eating Caniba gave us the word cannibal which has come to be used more widely than the older term anthropophagy.)

The Portuguese who invaded Brazil likewise found that representing the natives as cannibals provided powerful rhetoric to assert European superiority and justify their violent conquest of the New World. The Catholic Church buttressed this position in 1510, when Pope Innocent IV declared cannibalism to be a sin deserving to be punished by Christians through force of arms.
Where people-eating savages did not exist, they could be fabricated. There is little doubt that in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, some Spanish writers spread unsubstantiated reports of cannibalism in certain native populations (especially those that resisted European domination) as a pretext to justify slave-raiding and as a device to head off interference from Catholic clergy or government officials in Madrid. . Many other colonial-era writings also are of dubious veracity, being secondhand accounts based on rumor and innuendo, not the writer’s own observations. Even when there was no supporting evidence, historical documents tended to treat such allegations as facts. (Conklin, p. 4)

(See: Conklin, Beth A. 2001. Consuming Grief: compassionate cannibalism in an Amazonian society. Austin: University of Texas Press, Austin.)

Indigenous Protest Against Disney

This editorial appeared in Indian Country Today on April 14, 2005, and is reproduced here with the written permission of the editorial department of the newspaper. The original version can be found at The CAC Review's Creative Commons license does not apply to this article.

Disney's Carib Indian cannibals deserve boycott

Posted: April 14, 2005
Editors Report / Indian Country Today

Walt Disney Pictures is premising its sequel to its film ''Pirates of the Caribbean'' on the supposed cannibalism of Carib Indians. This is disgusting. It is a bit beyond the time when the present-day children of the Carib people of the Antilles need to be hit in the face, one more time, with the wanton and highly-disputed idea that they descend from cannibals.

Leaders from at least three communities of Caribs - Salybia in Dominica, Santa Rosa in Trinidad and a community in St. Vincent - have registered their strong objections to Disney executives, who have not responded in any positive way to the critique. Scholars and others are adding their voices to the challenge.

While the controversy over the Caribs' alleged cannibalism is as old as the conquest of the Americas, most observers agree that the Disney movie, slated for worldwide audiences, is beyond the pale as a vehicle to inculcate the historical stereotype upon even more generations of Carib and Caribbean children.

Filming of the sequel is scheduled to begin this month in Dominica. Its predecessor, the first production in the ''Pirates of the Caribbean'' series, was a 2003 blockbuster that grossed $653 million worldwide. Some 3,000 Caribs live in the Carib territory on the island of Dominica, which has a population of 70,000. Tens of thousands of Carib descendants, now known as Garifuna, live on the coasts of Belize, Honduras and Guatemala, as well as in the North American diaspora.

Chief Charles Williams of the Carib community in Dominica has denounced the concept of his people being depicted as cannibals. This stereotype has ''stigmatized'' Caribs for 500 years and is still used both as a form of personal insult and as justification for mistreating his people, Williams said; the movie will further ''popularize'' the historical insult against his people.

Among other Native leaders, the chief of the Carib community at Arima in Trinidad, Ricardo Bharath, also strongly condemned the planned movie. He was joined by Adonis Christo, the community's shaman or medicine man. The oral tradition among their people doesn't support cannibalism as a historical fact, they asserted.

''Do you want to know who the real cannibals are?'' Bharath asked the Inter Press Service. ''They are the ones in modern-day society who are eating down our mountains, raping the environment, polluting the waters,'' he said. Stated Christo: ''Our people defended their families and friends. They defended their homes. They defended their lands.''

There are early references by Europeans to ritual cannibalism among the first encounters with the Caribs. But Brinsley Samaroo, head of the History department of the St. Augustine campus of the University of the West Indies, is among those who believe the claim is largely a European invention of ''manufactured history.''

In the historical record, one finds a letter from a Dr. Chanca, who accompanied Christopher Columbus during his second voyage to the Caribbean. Chanca speculated that some young men held prisoners by a Carib group were being fattened to the slaughter for feasting.

Neither the wanton killing and rape by Spanish colonists of the first group of Caribs encountered - recorded during the same trip by others on the ship - nor the Caribs' fierce, valiant defense of their territories and people are apparently proper subjects for a Disney movie.

The St. Vincent and the Grenadines Historical and Archaeological Society has called for a boycott of the sequel by moviegoers if Disney does not modify the script. Paul Lewis, the society secretary, charged that perpetuating the image of Caribs as cannibals sets back a serious effort in the region to provide a more ''honest share of [Caribbean] history'' to the indigenous people.

The governments of St. Vincent and the Grenadines and Dominica, who will benefit somewhat from the production activities in their countries, have not objected. In fact, the tourism minister of Dominica has defended the proposed film, which would bring some economic benefits to people on the island and which is, as he put it, only a ''work of fiction.''

Some Caribs, as can be expected, have applied for work as extras in the movie, a fact that has made some crow that this somehow exonerates Disney for its production. But that is all just public relations. Reality is that a huge company like Disney should know better in 2005 than to besmirch a living people with its most negative historical stereotype.

Clearly, Disney moviemakers need to consider the negative impacts of the dramatic storylines they choose to project to such a huge audience. It is not acceptable to create and recreate villains out of Native people while exulting and romanticizing the lives of pirates who in real life were murderers and thieves without regard for anyone. Call it what you may, ''fiction'' or dramatic or poetic license, it smacks of racism to us.

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

"Extinction" isn't what it used to be

The Caribbean is often treated in commonly cited literature as a zone of aboriginal extinction, a place where indigenous peoples are absent except as a memory or in the form of a museum piece. Just as often, what is ignored is the history of unequal power relations that allow some, a ruling colonial minority, to pronounce the death of others, to proclaim them to be gone. This process, unfortunately, was never limited to the Caribbean alone. There also are zones of "extinction" in places such as Canada. Extinction, however, isn't what it used to be. In the article below, from CBC Canada, an allegedly extinct First Nation has come forward to reclaim the remains of ancestors.

CBC News: 'Extinct' First Nation gets ancestral bones back

This "extinct" First Nation also has a website, which if read closely, bears some remarkable parallels with discourses and histories to be found in the Caribbean. See The Sinixt Nation of British Columbia.