Myths and Misconceptions:
National Geographic and the Indigenous Peoples of the Brazilian Amazon
When I was growing up in a quiet suburb of St. Louis, Missouri, I would eagerly await the arrival of each month’s National Geographic magazine. On the day it appeared in the mail slot beside my front door, I would rip off its plastic binding and experience through its pages a world that seemed endless and alluring. Arctic exploration, deep-sea hydrothermal geology and Serbian coming-of-age rituals were suddenly transported to my living room table. Through the pages of National Geographic, I first learned about the Brazilian Amazon and the people who lived there.
Now, thanks to advances in technology as well as the advance of ecological destruction on a global scale, the world seems smaller than it did before. This is especially true in the case of the Brazilian Amazon, a once-remote place whose fate is now inextricably bound to the rest of the world’s by the forces of climate change. In recent years, National Geographic has dutifully reported on the threats to the Amazon, but this wasn’t always the case. Historically, the magazine has presented a rose-tinted view of the world, one that obscures the damage inflicted by development, deforestation and dehumanization. Over the past century, the pages of National Geographic have told the history of the United States and other developed countries as they examine and misrepresent places and peoples beyond their borders.
The National Geographic Society was founded in Washington D.C. in 1888 by “a small cadre of distinguished businessmen, explorers, scientists and scholars” with a common interest in what they called “geographic knowledge.” Within nine months, the Society had established a magazine, which it distributed to its 165 charter members. The magazine’s original style of turgid scientific reports was soon nixed by Gilbert H. Grosvenor, whom society president Alexander Graham Bell appointed as the magazine’s first full-time editor. In place of this more academic focus, Grosvenor pushed the magazine toward first-person narratives and accessible, vibrant prose, thus placing the magazine in the vein of Darwin’s captivating travelogues. The magazine has continued in this tradition, introducing photographs in 1905 and accruing a subscription base that now exceeds 40 million readers monthly.
National Geographic is, by design, a magazine oriented toward a particular vision of the world. It peddles the unfamiliar and distant—it was the first magazine to publish underwater photographs, and as early as 1906 was reporting from the interior of the Brazilian Amazon. As the National Geographic Society’s CEO recently said, “we are not in the magazine business. We are in the business of bringing the world to people.” Exactly which world they are presenting, and to whom, is not specified. But like so many other institutions, the mission of the National Geographic magazine is evident in its origins: a society of North American men determined to subject distant and exotic places and peoples to their own critical inspection.
For this reason, I assert that the National Geographic magazine is a telling indicator of the ways that the northern, developed world has historically viewed the peoples and places beyond its borders. For many readers, the magazine’s pages were the only exposure to the lives of indigenous people around the world, particularly in a place as remote as the Brazilian Amazon. National Geographic’s correspondents have been reporting on the Amazon and its inhabitants for over a hundred years now. Over the course of this history, the way that the magazine’s writers represent their subjects in relation to the world of their readers has shifted from a fantasy of isolation to the hard realities of violent encounter. National Geographic’s pages—particularly the articles I examine in this paper—reveal not so much the history of the Brazilian Amazon, but rather the history of the myths of the Brazilian Amazon, specifically the myths told by those who do not call the forest home.
As persistent as they may be, however, these myths have begun to fail. Climate change and the relentless expansion of a resource-hungry planet represent a perverse iteration of National Geographic’s mission. The forces of expansion are bringing the world to people, but it’s a world characterized by extraction rather than exoticized beauty, and the people are imperiled indigenous communities, not paying subscribers. These samples from National Geographic’s history suggest that the fantasy of an idyllic indigenous existence often serves to obscure histories of violence and extermination.
Fishing and Hunting Tales From Brazil, 1909
One of National Geographic’s earliest reports on indigenous communities in the Brazilian Amazon is Dewey Austin Cobb’s “Fishing and Hunting Tales from Brazil,” published in 1909. The article is concerned mostly with the ethnobotanical practices of the Tupuya tribe (whose location Cobb neglects to mention), primarily the Tupuya’s use of barbasco and of curare, two naturally synthesized poisons.
Cobb’s time with the Tupuya coincided with the height of the Amazonian rubber boom. The invention of the vulcanization of rubber and inflatable bicycle and car tires in the United States and Europe had caused demand for rubber to sky rocket: between 1840 and 1900, exports of Amazonian rubber quadrupled each decade. And between 1900 and 1906, the year that Cobb published his article, the exports from a single rubber cartel increased from 16,000 kilos to 644,000 kilos. While the wealth from the boom went to ringleaders and industries in the northern hemisphere, indigenous communities paid the price. In the five years following the publication of Cobb’s article, the population of Indians on the Putumayo River alone dropped from fifty thousand to eight thousand, casualties of torture, amputation and overwork.
Cobb’s article makes no mention of this brutality, but his interest in the ethnobotanical resources of the indigenous people is a faint echo of the frenzied rubber industry of his time. He first describes barbasco, which is a root resembling horseradish that the Tupuya grate and boil in a mixture. When poured in a pool, this mixture kills all the small fish and brings them floating to the surface. Cobb gives himself a pat on the back by adding that “the Tupuya indians, among whom [the use of barbasco] is chiefly practiced, seldom tell white folks anything useful if they can help it,” although he fails to specify why this might be the case. The value of his account is, in some way, increased by the degree of distance between the “white folks” (some of whom were, presumably, paying subscribers to the National Geographic magazine) and the Tupuya people.
In addition, Cobb recounts second-hand the use of curare, a natural tranquilizer synthesized in what he describes as the upper waters of the Amazon and the Orinoco. He dedicates a paragraph to the “gun” from which curare-tipped darts are launched, and goes so far as to specify the fiber used to give the dart its aerodynamic qualities. At the time, doctors in the U.S. were researching curare’s anesthetic potential, meaning that the indigenous practices surrounding the preparation and use of the substance had a profound monetary value, as well as a cultural one. Cobb’s narrative seems to follow the money, as it were, although implicitly: the only cultural practices that he describes are the “hoodoo ceremonies and incantations” that the Tupuya perform when preparing curare. He ends the article with a first-person account of hunting a deer, noting for dramatic effect that “eighteen minutes after it was struck by the arrow it was dead.” The Tupuya indians are, it seems, interesting to the North American reader only for their ethnobotanical practices, particularly those using substances that North American industry may someday be able to exploit.
Throughout his account, Cobb uses language that portrays the Tupuya people as subhuman, an uncivilized relic of the distant past. The Tupuya are “Untutored Savages” keeping a “Tribe Secret” from a “civilized world.” After learning this “secret” (which the Tupuya make no apparent efforts to conceal, although Cobb suggests to the contrary), Cobb “went home alone, less mystified by the barbasco fishing than by the inherited capacity of this ancient race, to enjoy a whole week, with nothing to think about and nothing to do, but eat, sleep and smoke.” Not only are the Tupuya suggested to be a different “race” from that of his audience, but one that is “ancient,” or far behind the supposedly modern reader in a forward-moving historical chronology. Furthermore, he paints a picture of the Tupuya that supports the stereotype of indigenous peoples as indigent and unproductive, with “nothing to think about and nothing to do, but eat, sleep and smoke.” The indigenous group misidentified by Francisco de Orellana in the early Spanish conquest is described in the article as a “shiftless tribe of savages, too lazy to make other garments.” The implication is that the lazy, shiftless, groups of the Amazon have remarkable pharmacological practices which they are seemingly unqualified to manage on their own. In Cobb’s account, the value of the Amazon’s diversity is made clear, but the extractive industries that had begun to exploit this value are nowhere to be seen.
Indians of the Amazon Darkness, 1964
In the early 1960’s, National Geographic’s correspondent Harald Schultz, a Brazilian anthropologist, visited the Erigbaagtsa indigenous group on the upper Juruena river. He published his findings in an article entitled “Indians of the Amazon Darkness” mere months after the establishment of Brazil’s authoritarian military dictatorship. Driven by “the need to occupy the Amazon with Brazilians lest it be overrun by foreigners,” the dictatorship had already begun to build highways through the forest, displacing not the “foreigners” but, perversely, the indigenous communities that predate the country itself. Perhaps this thorough, systematic displacement accounts for the fact that the military dictatorship was the first Brazilian administration to create formal protocols for demarcating indigenous territories—a progressive policy, if not for the callous destruction that precipitated it.
Curiously, Schultz’ depiction of the Erigbaagtsa omits any mention of the dictatorship’s encroachment onto indigenous land. Rather, he focuses on their hunting and fishing practices in order to an uncited rumor: “Were these people cannibals? That was one of the things we hoped to find out.”
Schultz abandons this sensational question almost immediately, however, focusing instead on the aesthetic beauty of the Eribaagsta lifestyle. “A succession of rainy nights stirs up snakes, lizards and insects. Tree frogs hammer and sing, crickets and cicadas hum. Brilliant butterflies flutter about, seeking shining flowers. With darkness, large fireflies glow among the trees, seemingly chasing each other and sometimes getting into the hut. Children and grownups enjoy their glow, reddish in flight, greenish while at rest. The indians catch the insects, then let them fly off again.” This description, which reads more like poetry than reportage, evokes a fairytale existence in a phosphorescent forest. It’s a romantic scene, one blissfully devoid of any mention of deforestation or displacement.
Indeed, romance is the emotional heart of Schultz’s depiction. The Eribaagsta, “innocent of either cruelty or gentleness,” rest in their hammocks “innocent of clothing,” and apparently neglect to tend to their jet-black hair, which “never knows a comb.” The use of “innocence” has both pre-Christian connotations and echoes the “Untutored Savages” that Crosby had described fifty-five years earlier. Innocence in Schultz’ piece seems to have been intended as a complementary comment on the Erigbaagsta’s distance from the corruption of the modern world, with its sentimental “cruelty” and “gentleness,” where people corrupted by civilization walk about clothed and combed. Schultz sees only innocence and beauty, but his explicit attention to these characteristics of Amazonian life suggest an implicit condemnation of the world known to his readers. He thus constructs a binary of innocent, lazy Amazonian existence and the corrupted existence of the civilized, contemporary world of his readers. These worlds are portrayed as distinct, although his very presence in the Erigbaagsta’s community and the presence of Erigbaagsta’s nude depictions on every National Geographic subscriber’s coffee table suggest that this distinction is more permeable than Schultz is willing to admit.
However, despite representing the Erigbaagsta’s world as a peaceful counterpoint to the supposedly civilized world, Schultz makes no explicit mention of the civilized world’s encroachment onto the Amazon. His binary is ultimately one-sided. Such is Schultz’ fantasy—a proud, gentle community of indigenous people whose isolation from the outside world is, in many ways, exculpatory evidence of the white man’s innocence. In this fantasy, the reporter becomes a sensitive, beloved, neutral observer, rather than merely another iteration of white civilization’s seizure of the Amazon’s resources, labor and culture. He concludes, charitably, saying: “Are these people cannibals? To us they are gentle friends.”
Threatened by the Outside World, 2018
In October of 2018, National Geographic writer Scott Wallace published “Threatened by the Outside World,” an article on the Forest Guardians, a volunteer group from the Guajajara tribe of the state of Maranhão. The Forest Guardians are dedicated to protecting the Arariboia Indigenous Land, a shrinking patch of protected rainforest with the uncontacted Awá tribe at its center.
“Threatened by the Outside World” was published during the same month of the Brazilian presidential election, of which right-wing candidate Jair Bolsonaro was the victor. Bolsonaro’s platform represents a clear threat to the Amazon and its people: just hours after taking office, he transferred the regulation and creation of new indigenous lands to the agriculture ministry, a government entity controlled primarily by the agribusiness lobby. His incoming health minister has promised to cut federal spending on indigenous healthcare, and Bolsonaro himself intends to permit lucrative but highly destructive hydroelectric projects along the Amazon’s many tributaries. As an editorial in the Guardian wrote, “Brazil’s new war on its forests and those who defend them has already begun.” This war is the context for Wallace’s article.
Unlike Crosby and Schultz, Wallace tells a story not of blissful isolation but of violent and unequal encounter. The Guajajara know intimately the forces threatening their land—indeed, they have “adopted effective survival strategies since their first bloody contacts with outsiders centuries ago. Most of them know the ways of the outside world: many of them have lived in it.” This overlap between the world of the indigenous people and the world beyond appears in the photographs that accompany the piece. Beside images of Awá women swimming in the river with red-footed river tortoises are aerial photographs of trains carrying iron ore along deforested tracks towards the port of São Luís, where it will be shipped to China. While the Awá women are dressed traditionally in their portraits, with black shell necklaces and bare chests, the Guajajara men of the Forest Guardians are portrayed in worn jeans and camouflage jackets, their rubber-soled boots resting on the pedals of their motorcycle, their rifles in hand. Even in the center of the Amazon, where long-practiced ways of life continue, the presence of the outside world is inescapable. And in this case, the Guajajara have resorted to using weapons and vehicles from the outside world in order to protect their own.
Despite this relatively contemporary theme of violent encounter, Wallace’s portrayal of the Awá lapses occasionally into the rhapsodic style of his predecessors. He writes: “In the shadows of a porch, women pasted tufts of harpy eagles and king vulture feathers to the heads, limbs and chest of a half dozen otherwise naked men, all of them village elders. The patterns of the white feathers seemed to throb in the darkness, giving the men a spectral, otherworldly appearance.” Wallace’s article, which recognizes more explicitly the realities of indigenous Amazonian existence, complicates our judgement of this style. On the one hand, romanticized prose has served, as in the cases of Cobb and Schultz, to conceal the barbarity to which these groups of people have historically been subjected. On the other hand, to dismiss it outright on such a basis may conceal an aspect of Amazonian existence that cannot be otherwise expressed: the ineffable, uncanny resonance of different ways of being.
Perhaps this is what Wallace refers to when he says that there is “something much larger at stake: the preservation of the last vestiges of a way of life that has all but disappeared from the planet, one that has survived apart from our industrial economy.” The descriptions that in Cobb’s and Schultz’ writing were mere fantasies gain traction in the context of the Guajajara’s violent encounter with deforestation. The binary of indigenous and developed societies no longer appears as one-sided as it once was. In Wallace’s telling, the strangeness of Amazonian existence finds its necessary counterpart in the destructive encroachment of the white man’s world.
It appears that National Geographic is beginning to come to terms with the myths it once perpetuated. But why now? And to what end? One hundred and thirty years after its founding as a scientific institution, National Geographic positions itself as a society with an agenda: as the CEO said, “We’re not simply doing a job, we’re inspiring people to care about the planet.” Its publications explicitly oppose the extractive industries and hegemonic worldviews that threaten the natural environment and its people. And its reporters present themselves as warriors in the fight for a more just and verdant world. “Marco Lima grabbed my pen and held it aloft.” Wallace writes. “‘You see this pen?’ he shouted for all to hear. ‘This is Scott’s weapon. With this he will tell the world about the Awá!’” National Geographic now purports to save the people it previously examined from the injustices it previously concealed.
The story of National Geographic is, in many ways, the story of the United States and the developed world it represents coming to terms with the reality of its own past. Perhaps the answer to the question “Why now?” is that the stakes have never been higher. Jair Bolsonaro’s callous dismissal of indigenous dignity threatens not only the communities of the Brazilian Amazon but also the rest of the world—the tropical forest is one of the planet’s largest carbon sinks, and its destruction will inevitably accelerate anthropogenic climate change. However, the question “to what end?” is more difficult. How can concerned citizens of the United States and the rest of the developed world intervene in a situation that is at once foreign to them and also deeply consequential? The verdict is still out. But one thing is clear: to remedy past injustices, we must first rewrite the myths that obscured them.
amyatwired. “Jan. 27, 1888: National Geographic Society Gets Going.” Wired, January 27, 2010. https://www.wired.com/2010/01/0127national-geographic-society-founded/.
Chantelle Wallace. “National Geographic CEO Says Nonprofit’s Mission Is Bringing the World to Readers,” May 28, 2010. https://web.archive.org/web/20100528153618/http://www.mccombs.utexas.edu/news/pressreleases/fahey07.asp.
Dewey Austin Cobb. “Fishing and Hunting Tales From Brazil.” National Geographic, October 1909.
Harald Schultz. “Indians of the Amazon Darkness.” National Geographic, May 1964.
“Jair Bolsonaro Launches Assault on Amazon Rainforest Protections | World News | The Guardian.” Accessed January 14, 2019. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/jan/02/brazil-jair-bolsonaro-amazon-rainforest-protections.
Milman, Oliver. “Scientists Say Halting Deforestation ‘just as Urgent’ as Reducing Emissions.” The Guardian, October 4, 2018, sec. Environment. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/oct/04/climate-change-deforestation-global-warming-report.
Phillips, Dom. “Bolsonaro Backers Wage War on the Rainforest.” The Guardian, October 25, 2018, sec. World news. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/oct/24/bolsonaro-backers-wage-war-on-the-rainforest.
Phillips, Dom. “Jair Bolsonaro Launches Assault on Amazon Rainforest Protections | World News | The Guardian.” Accessed January 14, 2019. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/jan/02/brazil-jair-bolsonaro-amazon-rainforest-protections.
Scott Wallace. The Unconquered. New York: Crown Publishers, 2011.
———. “Threatened by the Outside World.” National Geographic, October 2018.
Stephan Schwartzman. “Brazil: The Legal Battle Over Indigenous Land Rights.” NACLA Report on the Americas 29, no. 5 (1996).
I pledge my honor that this paper represents my own work
in accordance with University Regulations.
/s/ Peter Schmidt
 Chantelle Wallace, 2010.
 Scott Wallace, The Unconquered. 2011.
 Cobb, 1909. p917
 ibid. p918
 ibid. p918
 ibid. p920
 ibid. p918
 Schwartzmann, 1996. p37
 Schultz, 1964. p738
 ibid, p749
 ibid. p746
 ibid. p755
 ibid. p758
 Phillips, 2019.
 Phillips, 2018.
 Scott Wallace, 2018. p47
 ibid. p58
 Scott Wallace, 2018. p48
 Chantelle Wallace, 2010.
 Scott Wallace, 2018. p59
 Milman, 2018.