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 The Asian Reporter's

From The Asian Reporter, V13, #31 (July 29-August 4, 2003), page 16.

What ever happened to the gentle Tasaday?

Invented Eden: The Elusive, Disputed History of the Tasaday

By Robin Hemley

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Hardcover, 339 pages, $25.00

By Jeff Wenger

In the summer of 1971, major media across America reported a small tribe living in the remote jungles of Mindanao, Philippines. The tribe and the outside world had existed in ignorance of each other until then.

This tribe — the Tasaday — lived as people lived in the Stone Age. They were thought to have existed in seclusion for 500, perhaps 1,000 years.

At this point, an extraordinary cast of characters began to gather. These included Manuel "Manda" Elizalde and newsman John Nance.

Elizalde was wealthy and politically connected, his reputation that of an international playboy. In the early 1970s, he headed up two organizations — one governmental, one not — whose missions were to serve and protect the Philippines’ indigenous tribes.

Nance (who now lives in Portland) was an Associated Press photographer during the war in Vietnam. He worked as AP Asia Bureau chief when he heard of the Tasaday. In due course, Nance would accompany Elizalde and others to visit the Tasaday. The reports that followed of peace-loving primitives were a sensation around the world.

In 1975 Nance published The Gentle Tasaday. He subsequently visited schools across the country, speaking to students and showing a film he had made about the tribe. Around that time, the regime of Ferdinand Marcos pulled the plug and the Tasaday went back into seclusion for another 12 years.

And that’s how it was until 1986, when Marcos was deposed in the People Power Revolution. In the resulting openness, charges arose that Marcos had manufactured the Tasaday to distract attention from his declaration of martial law, that Elizalde didn’t give a fig for tribal peoples but coveted the natural resources found on their lands, and that Nance — poor, gullible Nance — was just a dupe.

Other journalists made their way into Mindanao and announced that the Tasaday were a hoax — just members of a nearby tribe who dressed in leaves for credulous foreigners.

So which is it? Lost Stone Age tribe or sham extras from a Tarzan movie? Or is there a plausible, reasonable third way of looking at things?

Too, the Tasaday had their 15 minutes of fame. In the meantime, Marcos is dead and Elizalde is dead, so does any of this even matter?

Robin Hemley’s Invented Eden: The Elusive, Disputed History of the Tasaday is a fine book that examines this complex case exhaustively. Hemley draws from contemporaneous accounts, but he’s also traveled extensively and conducted interviews with the principals.

At its best, Invented Eden reads like a good travelogue, showing us places we’ll never see, introducing us to people we’ll never meet, leaving us with an understanding that otherwise we would never have. However, Invented Eden doesn’t sustain that throughout its 339 pages and at times it reads like obtuse science discussed by a vast number of faceless eggheads. Even if it’s a case of the obtuse reader not excelling at science, Invented Eden is sometimes tough to follow.

Hemley could have brought the lay reader along had he used repetition to remind who was who as the narrative advanced. Several times a character reappears for the first time in many pages and the reader can be forgiven for wondering whose side they’re on. Frankly, this is compounded by the many unusual names that abound with this international cast.

At times, Hemley’s first-person account becomes intrusive. He wasn’t one of the principals, yet he seems to make himself one. But this may be instructive of how the Tasaday story seems to have drawn people in so deeply. The intimacy of Hemley’s Tasaday story also shows us how slippery the truth can be: we see him vacillate from one side to the other over the course of Invented Eden.

In a way, the book is informative of how people on both sides of this issue become so extreme and so uncompromising. Along the way, Invented Eden illuminates points worth making: hubris within the scientific community, and attention to life in the Philippines with its endemic poverty and corruption.

It’s difficult to imagine that Invented Eden won’t be the final word on the tempest in a teapot that were the gentle Tasaday. Largely this is because its of marginal interest — some cultural interest, some environmental interest, but, in the end, just too few people care.

It’s sad that the Tasaday’s way of life is ending, but it’s 2003 and there’s a lot of sad things in the world.

We’re left with Hemley’s reasonable voice. It’s a voice that puts some folks in their place even as, in its way, it exonerates Nance. It’s as though his satisfying voice tells us the ending to a movie that we started watching as children, falling asleep before it ended — so that’s how it came out. The Tasaday were, indeed, are an authentic something, even if it’s not the authentic thing they seemed to be at first glance.

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