Karamakate’s Influence

Paper by Kylie Johnson.

Native people have made strides in terms of representation in the film industry since their presence became popular in westerns in the 1970s. ​Embrace of the Serpent​, directed by Ciro Guerra in 2015, follows the story of Karamakate, the medicine man and last living member of his tribe, in a beautifully interwoven story of two white travelers. This film displays the relationships and hardships between the native people of Columbia after the rubber boom that swept through the Amazon. The way this film tackles the topics of assimilation, “white man’s burden”, and respecting natural resources is through the relationship between the natives of Columbia and the white men who come to study the land, steal its resources, or force religion upon the vulnerable. One of the most pivotal moments in the film that allows us to discover a deeper understanding of Karamakate and his relationship to white travelers is the scene in which he risks severe punishment to teach young orphans on a Spanish mission the fundamentals of their native culture.

This analysis will focus specifically on Karamakate, as he is the vessel through which we experience this story. There are a vast number of tropes that have represented native people in film whether they are portrayed as savages, or the opposite end of the spectrum, as helpful guides. In ​Embrace of the Serpent,​ they took the route of creating the “image of the natural ecologist they sought, and who better to convey the message than those perceived innocents who lived in perfect harmony with Mother Earth?” (Kilpatrick, 104). Karamakate represented the helpful guide, the keeper of the yakruna plant, the healer. However, because of this, he is seen as a separate entity and looks vastly different than the supporting characters. The film’s ideological position would suggest that natives hold themselves on a pedestal due to their knowledge of the earth and their sustainable lifestyle, and Karamakate would fall into this description.

Throughout the movie, Karamakate is constantly interacting with white anthropologists or natives of other tribes. His attire is, of course, much different than Evan and Theo’s, and even one of the other natives’. His costume is extremely minimalist, with only a cloth to cover his groin, feathers on his arms, and symbolic stones around his neck. This matches the costumes of the tribes who have been left relatively untouched by the rubber boom and other white travelers. However, Manduca, who has taken after his fellow traveler Theo, dons a long-sleeved shirt and full-length pants, completely disregarding the customary attire of his tribe.

In the scene of discussion, other natives who have lost their traditional clothing are the young boys in the Spanish mission. They were forced to wear long white cloth shirts, not resembling their former attire at all. The shirts are quite baggy, so they are immensely more modest than the simple cloth that is worn by Karamakate. Because they are so modest and covered up, this is one more barrier between them and mother nature. The white shirts symbolize the whiteness that the Catholic invaders want the natives to assimilate to.

This sequence at the Spanish mission is particularly important in understanding the motives of the director in exposing Catholic assimilation. Karamakate truly stands alone both in his native cloth and his native tongue. Forced into speaking Spanish, he begrudgingly tags along as Manduca and Theo seek help in the mission. In a very uncomfortable moment, the three travelers are sitting with the priest at dinner and Manduca questions if they only steal boys. The priest replies, “Our mission is sacred. We must save the souls of the orphans of the rubber war and keep them away from cannibalism and ignorance” (​Embrace the Serpent​, 2015). This dialogue is brilliant in its irony. The priest claims to save the boys from ignorance, but he himself is ignorant to their native customs, claiming they are cannibalistic.

One of the moments that stands out the most is when Karamakate sneaks out at night to teach the young orphans of their native customs. The white people who came in to steal rubber had devastated the land and wrought violence on its people, resulting in the orphans at the mission. Juxtaposed with the children who might not know any better, Karamakate represents the indigenous, “who values ​​the territory where he lives and its fruits as the favors they obtain from a deity, who deserves to be respected and treated as such” (​Ibáñez, Laura Moratal​). Knowing the dangers of retribution that he or the boys could face by teaching them about the medicinal relationships with plants, Karamakate teaches them anyway. He even goes so far as to say “I know what it’s like here. Whites are crazy” (​Embrace of the Serpent​, 2015). This bit of dialogue shows that he cherishes his land and customs so much, he is willing to openly defy the people in power.

This scene is powerful in the way that it is shot. Rather than the standard angles of an adult speaking to children, where the children are viewed from above, and the adult from below, they are all on the same plane, as equals. In comparison to the rest of the film, many scenes that involve Karamakate and the white travelers are shot in such a way that Karamakate is viewed above the others. It’s as if he views himself in higher regard than those who cannot understand or respect his customs. The shots also mainly focus on the boys themselves, and their reactions to the information being shared, as if showing us that Karamakate is stepping outside of himself to make sure others will benefit from this wisdom.

Another striking aspect of not only this scene but the entire movie is that it is filmed in black and white. This is a bold choice, given what the industry has accomplished in terms of coloring and the quality with which it can be displayed. It reflects multiple things, the main being that it mirrors the way many of the characters in the movie see the world. Karamakate in particular refuses to assimilate to the culture that has been brought into his land, shown specifically when he is attempting to pass his customs down to the brainwashed orphans. He sees his own life in black and white, that he must be completely native in dress and actions, or not at all.
The black and white can also be interpreted as color blindness on the white man’s part. Because the film is shot in black and white, we can tell the difference between a white man and a Columbian man, but it makes it much more difficult to distinguish the different native tribes from one another. This is likely how Theo and Evan both viewed the natives, all clumped together as one, and not bothering to distinguish between the groups. However, on another end of that spectrum, the black and white may be intended to blind us from skin color completely, exposing the superiority complexes we see from various characters as purely hateful and racist.

Karamakate teaching the boys exposes us to his softer side, the side that cares for his people, his customs, and his plants, showing us a duality to his character that we had not seen previously which is why the scene stands out. Unfortunately, the boys ended up completely brainwashed and sheeplike as men. Without a family, and only an ego-driven Catholic priest to follow, they ended up completely detached from their roots. Karamakate saw the mission, saw their treatment, and tried to step in, but was obviously driven out. However, this scene might make one wonder, how would they have turned out had they spent their formative years being taught their native traditions by a shaman? In the grander scheme of things, how would natives be living and practicing customs had Europeans never interfered with their lives? I suppose we will never know, but ​Embrace of the Serpent​ addresses the origins of colonialism and exposes the monstrous behavior that resulted from the “white man’s burden”.

Works Cited
aracol Televisión S.A.C.V. (2015). ​Embrace of the Serpent​.
Hauptman, L. M., & Kilpatrick, J. (2000). Celluloid Indians: Native Americans and Film. ​The Western Historical Quarterly,​ ​31(​ 2), 220.
Ibáñez, L. M., Domínguez, A., Wallinger, M., & Rubino, P. (2018). Las medicinas tradicionales y los conocimientos ancestrales. el abrazo de la serpiente (2015).​ Revista De Medicina y Cine, 14​(3), 173-179. Retrieved from https://ezproxy.callutheran.edu/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.ezproxy.calluthera n.edu/docview/2116006545?accountid=9839

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