Amazon infanticide video and U.S. Christian missionaries

March 20, 2009

The video shows a near-naked Indian in a remote Amazon village as he digs a large hole. A terrified child is pulled out of a hut and placed in the freshly dug grave. Soon his body and face are covered in earth.

Is this a powerful indictment of the practice of infanticide by Indian tribes in the Amazon, or a distortion of the truth and an incitement to hatred by U.S. Christian missionaries?

indiansThe tribal rights group Survival International hit out this week at the “Hakani” video, which has several edited versions online,  calling it faked and a dangerous exaggeration of the problem of infanticide practiced by Indian tribes.  The video, made with the support of a U.S.-based evangelical missionary group Youth With A Mission, seems to be an attempt to rally support for a proposed Brazilian law that would ban infanticide and other harmful practices by indigenous tribes. When contacted by Reuters, Youth With A Mission said it wouldn’t comment on what it called baseless allegations.

(Photo: Brazilian Indians, 28 Jan 2009/Paulo Santos)

Enock Freire, one of the makers of the film that was shot with members of the Suruwaha tribe, defended it when contacted by Reuters. He said it was no secret that it was fiction, acted out by local Indians, but that it was aimed at drawing attention to the very real and what he said was the common problem of infanticide by Amazon Indian tribes. He said there is a widespread belief among tribes that children with “bad souls”, including those who are disabled, need to take their last breath underground to avoid them coming back to haunt the village.

brazilian-indianThe controversy raises fundamental questions about society’s relations with indigenous people and the role of religion. Should tribes be contacted and brought into line with national laws and customs, and should foreign missionaries be the ones doing it?

Proponents of the law say that children are vulnerable to cruel traditional practices. Groups like Survival accuse some missionary groups of trying to “civilize” Indians.

There is also the question of whether the video is misleading. It is introduced as a true story but the episode told in the video is not substantiated. Could it could risk demonizing Indians by giving the impression that infanticide is a general practice among tribes, something Survival says is not the case? Survival says the Suruwaha tribe, which lived in semi-isolation until the late 1970s, is known for its cultural practice of suicide and is not representative.

(Photo: Brazilian Indian, 27 Jan 2009/Raimundo Pacco)
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