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 http://www.indiancountry.com/content.cfm?id=1096410746. The CAC Review’s Creative Commons license does not apply to this article.
Disney’s Carib Indian cannibals deserve boycott
Posted: April 14, 2005
by: 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.