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A Kamarakoto Indian digs into the minds of the elders of her tribe to piece together her disappearing culture.

THE MAKING OF A CHIEF by Isabel Barton

Deep inside the oldest rock formation on the planet, at the foot of the mountain that houses the earth’s tallest waterfall, Kamarakoto Indian Hortensia Berti stands at a crossroads. She wants her children and their children to inherit the traditions of her tribe. But her world is influenced by tourism, missionary schooling and Direct-TV. Day by day, the thread to her culture grows thinner, and her answers to the questions of her children more tentative. Deep in her heart she hears fragments of the teachings of her great-grandfather, a legendary chief. To piece those teachings together she must access the minds of the elders, crisscrossing the wide savannahs that border the Amazon forest, to their mud-huts.  

The Kamarakoto people are one of the three Pemón tribes who inhabit southern Venezuela, at the northern edge of the Amazon forest. Their Pemón language is endangered, and their culture is at the brink of extinction.  The elders speak only Pemón, while the young people attend Spanish missionary schools and are quickly forgetting their first language. Even though the Kamarakoto elders were the only Pemón tribe to prohibit the building of roads into their lands, the youth are connected by internet and cell phones to the outside world and know next to nothing about their past and their traditions. As a result, even when the young people wish to know something of their history and their culture, they don’t know what questions to ask the elders –so few are the points of reference and so vast the generational gap.  

Hortensia Berti understands that in order to decipher the teachings of her great-grandfather, chief, Alejo Calcaño, she must dig into the stories of the American explorers who, in the mid 20th century, “discovered” and documented the tallest waterfall on earth, which became known to the outside world as Angel Falls. These stories, widely documented in libraries around the globe, have never been seen in the Kamarata Valley.  But they coincide with the time when Calcaño, who had been taken out of the valley as a boy to be educated by a white man, was returning to his land to become chief, with a vision that would help him safeguard his land and his culture and formulate a canon of laws for all the Pemón people.  His interactions with aviator Jimmie Angel and photojournalist Ruth Robertson, among others, were intrinsically linked to the success of his mission. 

This knowledge provides Berti with one of the main keys to unlocking the minds of the elders.  Her interviews of the elders deliver, one by one, the pieces of the puzzle of her people’s history and cultural identity.  

The making of this film gives rise to an unprecedented opportunity to gather into a single narrative what to this day have been two parallel histories of this great marvel of the natural world –through the stories of the people who experienced and lived it.  

THE MAKING OF A CHIEF is a feature-length documentary, a work-in-progress beginning post-production.

To watch raw footage of some of the interviews of the Kamarakoto elders: