How are we to interpret this warning coming from the Kogi people of the Sierra Madre in Colombia, delivered through their latest film, Aluna?
Contemporary Western viewers may respond to the film with resistance and skepticism. The old guard will undoubtedly reproduce the violence of well-worn colonial discourses, dismissing the Kogi’s message as primitive magico-religious thinking. For the ethnically sensitive, such a crude dismissal is passé. Today we have more sophisticated ways to deafen ourselves to what the Kogi are telling us.
The first we might call “ontological imperialism.” It would be to say, “Yes, the Kogi are onto something after all. The black line is a metaphor for ecological interconnectedness. Their talk of the voice of water is code for the hydrological cycle. They are keen observers of nature and have articulated scientific truths in their own cultural language.” That sounds fair enough, doesn’t it? It gives them credit for being astute observers of nature. However, this view takes for granted that basal reality is that of scientific materialism, thereby disallowing the conceptual categories and causal understandings of the Kogi. It says that fundamentally, we understand the nature of reality better than they do.
If their message were merely, “We must take better care of nature,” then the above understanding would be sufficient. But the Kogi are inviting us into a much deeper change than that. Do we understand the nature of reality better than they do? It once seemed so, but today the fruits of our supposed understanding—social and ecological crisis—gnaw at our surety.
A second and related way that Western viewers may resist the Kogi’s message is through what Edward Said called “Orientalism”—the distortion (romanticizing, demonizing, exaggerating, reducing) of another culture to conform it to a comfortable and self-serving narrative. An Orientalist response to Aluna would seek to turn the Kogi into a kind of cultural or spiritual fetish object, subsuming them into our own cultural mythology, perhaps by making them into an academic subject and stuffing their beliefs and way of life into various ethnographic categories. In that way we make them safe, we make them ours. It is just another kind of imperialism.
We might do the same by inserting their messages into a comfortable silo called “indigenous wisdom,” elevating the Kogi to superhuman status and, in the process, dehumanizing them as well. It is not true respect to worship an image—the reverse image of our own shadow—that we project onto another culture. Real respect seeks to understand someone on their own terms.
I am happy to say that Aluna avoids both traps (of imperialism and Orientalism). What makes this film remarkable is that fundamentally it is not a documentary. I have always been a little uncomfortable with documentaries about other cultures, even those that avoid the overtly patronizing tone of “look at those happy natives,” because they of necessity objectify their subjects, turning them into the material of a (video) “document.” By documenting others, we incorporate them into our world, into a safe educational or entertainment or inspirational frame, and into the “society of the spectacle.” But this film is not a documentary.
Who is the filmmaker here? Ordinarily one would say it was Alan Ereira, a former BBC producer who produced it. But that’s not what he says, and that’s not what the Kogi say either. According to them, the Kogi noticed the accelerating degradation of the planet and contacted the outside world to deliver a message that we must stop the destruction. They did so first in the early 1990s with the BBC documentary From the Heart of the World, after which they again withdrew from contact.
Obviously, we didn’t heed their message. “We must not have spoken it clearly enough,” they concluded, and so they sought out Ereira again to make a sequel. Fittingly, this is not a masterly production in conventional terms. Ereira appears to be in a little over his head, guileless, uncertain, and humble. These qualities are palpable throughout and contribute to one’s confidence that the Kogi and their message have not been conveniently packaged for commercialization or ecospiritual objectification. It is a raw and honest film.
The cynical observer, practiced with the tools of post-colonial analysis, might think that the assertion that “the Kogi have requested this film be made in order to convey their message” is a mere cinematic trope, or a way to preempt charges of exoticism, Orientalism, and cultural appropriation. However, that analysis is itself a kind of colonialism, based as it is on the patronizing assumption that the Kogi must be the helpless pawns of the filmmaker. It discounts the Kogi’s own explicit assertion that they have called the filmmaker back in order to transmit an important message to “little brother” (the industrialized world).
Dare we take the Kogi at face value? Dare we hold them in full agency as authors not only of this film, but of a message sent to us on their initiative? To do so reverses the power relations implicit in even the most post-colonially sensitive ethnography, in which the distinction between the ethnographic subject and the ethnographer is usually preserved in some form (and institutionalized when, with all due disclaimers, it appears in academic publications). Anthropologists don’t normally grant ethnographic populations agency as the originators of messages to academia.
The Kogi are not interested in being studied. They have not allowed anthropologists to live among them. They have not let their civilization become an object within ours. They, in fact, have been studying us—and with increasing alarm. “We have warned little brother,” they tell us, “and little brother has not listened.”
The Gift of Humility
In one telling scene, the Kogi mama (shaman) Shibulata visits an astronomical observatory in England. The astronomer is struck by the fact that Shibulata evinces no desire to learn from Western science, no curiosity about the telescope. He shows him photographs of galaxies invisible to the naked eye. The mama is not impressed. He is here to teach us, not to learn from us. Perhaps he recognizes the telescope as another manifestation of the same desire to conquer nature that has destroyed the forests and rivers and mangrove swamps near his home. He also displays an uncanny power, picking out from a large photograph the single star in it among multitudinous galaxies and other objects. Naming it, he says, “That star is not visible to our eyes.”
In this film, the colonial gaze is turned back on the colonizers—sternly, imploringly, and with very great love. The Kogi tell us, “You mutilate the world because you don’t remember the Great Mother. If you don’t stop, the world will die.” Please believe us, they say. You must stop doing this. “Do you think we say these words for the sake of talking? We are speaking the truth.”
Why hasn’t “little brother” listened? It has been over twenty years since the Kogi first spoke their message to the modern world. I think perhaps we have not listened because we have not yet inhabited the humility that this film embodies. We continue to try to somehow box, contain, and reduce the Kogi and their message so that it can rest comfortably in our existing Story of the World. The Kogi themselves say that thought is the scaffolding of matter; that without thought, nothing could exist. The official Aluna website describes the Kogi’s view thusly: “We are not just plundering the world, we are dumbing it down, destroying both the physical structure and the thought underpinning existence.” The conceptual reduction of the Kogi, and indigenous groups generally, to academic subjects, museum specimens, New Age fetish-objects, exploitable labor, or tourist spectacles is part of this dumbing down.
Thankfully, the requisite humility to truly hear the Kogi is fast upon us, born of—what else?—humiliation. As our dominant cultural mythology falls apart, we face repeated humiliation in the failure of our cherished systems of technology, politics, law, medicine, education, and more. Only with increasingly strenuous and willful ignorance can we deny that the grand project of “civilization” has failed. We see now that what we do to nature we do to ourselves; that its conquest brings our death. The utopian mirage of the technologist and the social engineer recedes ever further into the distance.
The breakdown of our categories and narratives, the breakdown of our Story of the World, gives us the gift of humility. That is the only thing that can open us to receive the teachings of the Kogi and other indigenous people—to truly receive them, and not merely insert them into some comfortable silo called “indigenous wisdom,” as if they were a museum piece or a spiritual acquisition.
I am not suggesting that we adopt, part and parcel, the entire Kogi cosmology. We need not imitate their shamanic practices or learn to listen to bubbles in the water. What we must do is embrace the core understanding that motivates the attempt to listen to water in the first place: the understanding that nature is alive and intelligent, bearing certain qualities of a self that Western thought has arrogated to human beings alone. We must make it no longer an Other; we must grant to nature the same agency that this film humbly grants to the Kogi. Then we will find our own ways of listening.
What Does Nature Want?
The modern mind does not easily comprehend the idea of the intelligence of nature except through anthropomorphizing or deifying it—another attempt at conquest. That would impose upon nature the same neocolonial attitude that this film does not impose upon the Kogi, and it is contrary to their message. Living much closer to nature than we in industrialized society, the Kogi can be under no illusion that nature is always nice, fair, and pleasant. From a dualistic mindset, the putative “intelligence of nature” looks like a capricious, evil intelligence. If you or I were in charge, we’d do better, wouldn’t we? We wouldn’t arrange for 999 tadpoles out of a thousand never to achieve froghood. We wouldn’t write so much suffering and death into nature. We would improve on nature. Such is the conceit of civilization as we know it.
To the extent we participate in modern society, “you and I” have been in charge. Look at what has happened to the world. Maybe it is time for younger brother—to see through different eyes.
Granting subjectivity and agency to nature and everything in it does not mean to grant human subjectivity and human agency, making them into storybook versions of us. It means asking, “What does the land want? What does the river want? What does the planet want?”—questions that seem crazy from the perspective of nature-as-thing.
The Kogi are not talking about a non-material, supernatural spirit to infuse consciousness into otherwise dead matter. For the Kogi, matter is not a container for thought; matter is thought made manifest, the thought of the Mother. Their beliefs are not actually supernatural, not in the sense of abstracting spirit (and all that goes with it like sacredness, consciousness, etc.) out from matter. To do so denies the inherent beingness of nature just as much as standard scientific materialism does.
Materialism, however, isn’t what it used to be. Science is evolving, recognizing that nature is composed of interdependent systems within systems within systems, just as a human body is; that soil mycorrhizal networks are as complex as brain tissue; that water can carry information and structure; that the earth and even the sun maintain homeostatic balance just as a body does. We are learning that order, complexity, and organization are fundamental properties of matter, mediated through physical processes that we recognize—and perhaps by others we do not. The excluded spirit is coming back to matter, not from without but from within.
So the question, “What does nature want?” does not depend for its coherency on anything supernatural, an external intelligence. The “wanting” is an organic process, an entelechy born of relationship, a movement toward an unfolding wholeness.
A Non-Utilitarian Argument Against Ecocide
In that understanding, we can no longer cut down forests and drain swamps, dam rivers and fragment ecosystems with roads, dig pit mines and drill gas wells with impunity. The Kogi say, to do so damages the whole body of nature, just as if you cut off a person’s limb or removed an organ. The well-being of all depends on the well-being of each. We cannot cut down one forest here and plant another there, assuring ourselves through the calculus of net carbon dioxide that we have done no damage. How do we know that we have not removed an organ? How do we know we have not destroyed what the Kogi call an esuana—a key node on the black thread scaffolding the natural world? How do we know we have not destroyed a sacred tree, what the Kogi call “the father of the species,” upon which the whole species depends?
Until we can know it, we’d best refrain from committing further ecocide on any scale. Each intact estuary, river, forest, and wetlands that remains to us, we must treat as sacred, while restoring whatever we can. The Kogi say we are close to the dying of the world.
As the film makes clear, science is beginning to recognize what the Kogi have always known. An invisible web of causality does indeed connect every place on Earth. Building a road that cuts off the natural water flow at a key site might initiate a cascade of changes—more evaporation, salinization, vegetation die-off, flooding, drought—that have far-reaching effects. We must understand that as exemplfying a general principle of interconnectedness; furthermore, we must see the aliveness and intelligence of the world. As the Kogi say in the film, “If you knew she could feel, you would stop.”
Otherwise, we are left only with the logic of instrumental utilitarianism as reason to protect nature—save the rainforest because of its value to us. But that mindset is part of the problem. We need more love, not more self-interest. We know it is wrong to exploit another person for our own gain, because another person is a full subject with her own feelings, desires, pain, and joy. If we knew that nature too were a full subject, we would stop ravaging her as well.
Aluna brings this knowing a little closer. Only by hardening our hearts can we view the film’s images of filled-in swamps and bare, scarred mountains, and disbelieve that something is feeling very great pain. Only by the colonialistic dismissal of an entire culture’s cosmology and ways of knowing, can we uphold our own dying mythology of nature as an insensate source of materials and repository of wastes. The sober indignation of the Kogi defies easy dismissal. It is not hard to believe that they—the largest intact civilization that has remained separate from global industrialized society—are indeed “Elder Brother.” It is not hard to believe their warning. To act on it, though, might require the same courage, patience, and wisdom the film reveals in the Kogi.