In the remote reaches of
the Brazilian rain forest, isolated Indians carry on as they have for thousands
of years. Should they be fenced off from the modern world?
Last Tribal Battle
DIANA JEAN SCHEMO Photographs
by NICOLAS REYNARD
First Contact For
months, Sydney Possuelo tried to lure the Korubu from their forest camouflage
by leaving peace offerings of saucepans, machetes anamazon.htmd
sacks of manioc at various sites. When those efforts failed, he trekked
several days into the jungle, setting up camp near a communal dwelling,
also to no avail. But just as the 26-member expedition was dejectedly breaking
camp, its patience was rewarded.
For Domingo Neves de Souza, it was only a half-hour's walk from his
family's rubber-tapping plantation to the edge of the unknown. One afternoon
last May, he ventured out with his two daughters and three of their friends
to go fishing in the Igarape River, which winds its way through the Amazon
rain forest in Brazil. De Souza pushed deep into the jungle, following
one of the river's streams. Hidden in the thick surrounding forest, de
Souza had long been told, were naked Indians who still set their lives
to the forest's rhythms, just as they had for thousands of years: eating
what the forest grew, hunting by bow and arrow. But for the 33-year-old
son of the plantation's owner, these Indians were an invisible presence,
felt more than seen. Until that day, when they stepped out from the trees.
"Papa, there are people coming," yelled de Souza's 14-year-old daughter,
Francisca. According to Francisca's later account, five Indians ran toward
them, one dressed in shorts — the others naked. They carried bows and arrows,
and were already reaching for them.
"Run, my girl, they'll kill you," de Souza cried as the arrows flew.
One hit his left side. Another pierced his back. As she turned around,
Francisca saw the Indians closing in on her father. As she later reported,
she knew right then she would never see him alive again.
An hour later, a posse of rubber tappers headed out to the spot. They
found de Souza's body, and saw that arrows were only part of the ordeal
that had ended his life. Gashes covered his legs, chest and head; all that
remained of his eyes were the dark, bloody pools of their sockets. His
scalp had been sliced from his skull. The Indians that Francisca and the
other children claimed to have seen had vanished, as if soaked back into
the forest. But who could they be? Were the killers really indios bravos
— wild Indians" — as the locals called isolated tribesmen? Or had the children's
imaginations spun out of control? The rain forest grows rumors along with
species, and stories multiplied.
Diana Jean Schemo, a reporter for The Times, is
the former chief of The Times's Rio de Janeiro bureau. Her most recent
article for the Magazine was about life in Rio's slums.
These stories eventually reached the ears of Sydney Possuelo, the Brazilian
Government's leading authority on that country's remaining isolated Indians.
Possuelo soon traveled to the area where the murder occured, in the far
western state of Acre — but not to solve the crime. For one thing, he was
no police detective. What's more, Possuelo had little sympathy for ambushed
pioneers; he knew that from Brazil's first days white settlers had ruthlessly
slaughtered Indians, burning their villages and abducting their children
to work as slaves. The reason he went to Acre was this: a murder by unclothed
Indians has often been the first sign of a previously uncontacted Amazon
tribe. And if an isolated people were indeed hiding nearby in the forest,
Possuelo wanted to find them — but not to punish them. He wanted to offer
the tribe protection, for as long as possible, from the modern world.
Anthropologists believe the Amazon shelters the world's largest
number of still-isolated Indians. (The Pacific island of New Guinea is
a distant second.) Since the 1970's, Brazil's Government has counted 50
sites that reveal signs of indigenous settlement — many spotted by canvassing
the rain forest from the air — though no known tribes are thought to inhabit
those particular areas. Possuelo says that these traces were left by approximately
15 tribes of the rain forest that have never been studied or, in some instances,
even named by scholars.
By definition, little is known about isolated Indians. Their relics
surface in the most remote stretches of the Amazon, hundreds of
miles from the nearest roads. It is not known whether the tribes fled to
these regions as Brazilians claimed more of the countryside or whether
they were always there. Some tribes, like the Igarape Umere in the state
of Rondnia, have turned up like the straggling survivors of a shipwreck,
with only a handful of members left. By contrast, the Korubu of the Javari
Valley reach into the hundreds.
On Patrol As a Funai
director, Possuelo must first find the isolated Indian tribes it is his
mission to protect. He has been indomitable in his battle against white
development of regions occupied by indigenous peoples.
Standing between these tribes and the rest of the world is Possuelo,
59, who has pinpointed 7 new tribes in his 40 years as a sertanista,
the peculiarly Brazilian occupation of Indian tracker. He can look at a
footprint in the forest and tell instantly whether it belongs to a forest
Indian or a Brazilian settler by the gap between the first two toes: Indians
always walk barefoot, so the big and middle toes splay from repeatedly
gripping the earth. Over the years, his own foot has come to resemble those
of the Indians. But if Possuelo is the world's link to the mysterious tribes
of the rain forest, he is also the most formidable obstacle to the rest
of the planet's ever knowing them.
As head of the Indian protection agency's department of isolated Indians,
Possuelo has almost single-handedly redefined his agency's traditional
role. In the past, the agency, known as Funai, aggressively paved the way
for white development of regions occupied by indigenous peoples. But Possuelo
argues that virtually every tribe touched by Brazilian society has been
destroyed as a result. Rather than flourishing with the medical and technological
advances civilization could offer, they have withered from disease, slavery,
alcohol consumption and the greed of Brazilians. The numbers bear Possuelo
out: the anthropologist Darcy Ribeiro's landmark book, "Indians and Civilization,"
concluded that 100 Indian nations disappeared in Brazil between 1900 and
1970, the year his book was published. When Europeans first reached Brazil
about 500 years ago, estimates of the Indian population ran from one to
six million. It is now 300,000.
An irascible idealist, Possuelo clashes frequently with Brazil's entrenched
economic and political interests. Sometimes, the sertanista's outrage
at corruption within his own agency is so frank that it seems as if he
parachuted into Brazil from another galaxy, and will soon be blasted back.
Possuelo's last boss tried to fire him in 1996, calling him insubordinate.
But Possuelo's standing is so high — particularly among foreign environmentalists
and Indian rights advocates — that his boss backed down. As President of
Funai in the early 1990's, it was Possuelo who demarcated the largest Indian
reservation in the world, 20.5 million square acres, for 23,000 Yanomami
Indians, at least temporarily stemming an onslaught by gold miners against
the world's largest surviving Stone Age tribe.
Possuelo argues that much as endangered turtles and jaguars deserve
Government protection, Brazil's Indians also need sanctuaries where they
can rebuild their numbers and protect their cultures. Ranged against him
is a chorus of powerful voices coming from those coveting Indian lands
and resources, and their allies in the Brazilian Government. "It won't
do to have Indians in the 21st century," a former Government Minister,
Helio Jaguaribe, has said. "The idea of freezing man in the first stage
of his evolution is, in truth, cruel and hypocritical."
Possuelo's colleagues angered the Korubu by taking back a tarpaulin that
had been given to them. Two
of the Indians clubbed the Government agent to death.
Others in Congress claim that Funai hypes the numbers of hidden tribes
to prevent Brazilians from exploiting the country's wealth of natural resources.
Critics note that Brazil's Indians represent less than 0.25 percent of
the population and yet claim 11 percent of the national territory. Then
there are the missionaries, who covet the primitive soul. Don Peterson,
who is in charge of research and planning for New Tribes Missions, a Florida-based
group, argues that uncontacted tribes are plagued by malaria and dental
problems, troubles for which the non-Indian world has ready solutions.
"Would you say that you should leave people in dire straits in the ghetto
because that's their area, and to go in and provide economic or health
assistance is wrong because it would change their life style?" asks Peterson,
who has lived with the Yanomami and other tribes.
Still others are knocking on the Amazon's door. The state petroleum
company, Petrobras, has made tentative explorations for oil in the Javari
Valley. Pharmaceutical companies are hankering to patent genetic materials
and forest-based cures. And linguists and other scholars want to track
the languages of these unknown peoples.
But it's not only academics and industrialists who are interested in
the tribes of the Amazon. At his apartment in Brasilia, Possuelo
recently got a letter from a Swedish child, Karin Bark. The girl revealed
that she had learned in school about the Korubu tribe, whom Possuelo first
contacted in October 1996, and had grown curious about these newly discovered
members of the human family.
"Do they eat insects?" she asked. "How many are they? How old can they
become? Please answer my questions and tell me other things about the Korubu
"I want to know."
I, too, wanted to know. And so this past July, I made arrangements with
Possuelo to go with him on a journey into the depths of western Brazil's
rain forest. Once there, we would fly over the canopy in search of the
tribe that may have violently announced its existence last spring. Then
Possuelo would lead us by boat into the jungle, where he would establish
contact once again with the elusive Korubu.
Getting there was complicated. We first found ourselves in the outpost
town of Jordao, a listless place of high unemployment 25 miles from the
Peruvian border. Jordao is so remote that it takes eight days by boat to
reach the nearest Brazilian city, Rio Branco. The night we arrived, I visited
the home of Otavio da Rocha Mello — the adoptive father of the murdered
Domingo de Souza. Like most of the houses near the riverbanks, Mello's
tiny house was built on stilts. Inside, candles provided weak light.
Mello sees de Souza's murder as part of a silent war by Indians to push
whites out. After the killing, he claimed, naked Indians showed up at the
local schoolhouse, terrifying the children. People stopped going to the
river to bathe in the evening. The tappers, whose work involves trekking
through the forest each day, began staying close to home. After 23 years
as the local master of the forest, Mello finds his jungle fiefdom collapsing.
"It didn't used to be like this," Mello complained. "If the Indians
killed a white person, there used to be people who would go after them!"
The next morning, I headed with Possuelo to Jordao's airport, a ribbon
of dirt running through the center of town, to make our flight over the
treetops. It seemed as if everybody in Jordao had come out to watch us
wait for the skies to clear. Possuelo sat on the wheel of a single-engine
plane and listened as jobless locals angrily recounted their problems with
Luis Pinheiro de Lima, a 78-year-old Kaxinawa Indian reared by rubber
tappers, spoke even more brutally than the whites. He said the Government
should go back to its old policy of dominating Indians, casualties be damned.
Lima called isolated Indians bichos, or "beasts," and recalled how
tappers used to be able to send out mercenaries to hunt down Indians with
dogs. But now, he says darkly, Funai "says you mustn't kill them."
Posseulo did not interrupt as Lima mocks the forest Indians for eating
only what they find in the forest, "everything roasted." But now he looks
at Lima and speaks in a voice that sounds almost sad. The practice of "civilizing"
Indians killed a lot of your cousins, Possuelo tells the old man. "There
are still women with the names of the rubber plantations that enslaved
them tattooed on their arms. You know them."
In June 1998, from the same crumbling airstrip at Jordao, Possuelo hired
a single-engine plane to fly him over the rain forest surrounding the rubber
plantation in Acre. He was looking for a sign, however small, of human
As far as Possuelo could see from his plane, there was only forest,
thick and impenetrable. Finally, after 20 hours scouring just this piece
of the Amazon, he saw something. Barely visible through the forest
canopy, he spied a clearing in the jungle, with long, narrow Indian huts
covered with leaves. A few miles away, he saw another group of huts, similarly
built, and a clearing for crops. As his plane flew over, he glimpsed unclothed
Indians running into the forest.
With the power of Funai behind him, Possuelo quickly set about cordoning
off the area, demarcating a 580-square-mile zone settlers could not legally
enter. On a later trip, he found yet a third group of dwellings nearby,
less than six feet tall, which suggested a tribe that did not sleep in
hammocks. During the ensuing year, he told me, he heard through deputies
that one clan had built more houses and planted more crops. He wondered
if relatives had migrated, creating yet more clearings in the canopy.
Getting Closer Possuelo
argues that virtually every tribe touched by Brazilian society has been
destroyed as a result, yet he must sometimes touch what he wants to save.
That's what he was looking for the day we flew together over the forests
of Acre. With the sky half-clear, our small plane trundled in and out of
the clouds like a growling, airborne dinosaur, passing over miles of uninterrupted
treetops. Flying low because of the weather, we could survey only a small
area at a time. Normally, Possuelo's work is painstaking, like combing
the ocean floor for buried treasure. Indeed, to my eyes the rain forest
seems like an ocean of trees, stretching green as far as we can see in
every direction. This time out, however, Possuelo knew where to look.
About 15 minutes after taking off from Jordao, I glimpsed the sight
that so thrilled the sertanista last June through a clearing that was little
more than a keyhole in the forest canopy. I saw a group of long huts, with
pitched brown rooftops like upturned canoes. They appeared to be about
50 feet long, 20 feet wide and 10 feet tall — big enough for several families.
We saw no crops planted nearby. The clouds were maddening, like a camera
shutter allowing us only brief glimpses of the panorama below. Suddenly,
my eyes were drawn to a young naked girl running out of a hut. I wondered
if she was fleeing her home because of the sound of our plane. The girl
did not look up or behind her, but disappeared quickly into the forest,
as if it were a blanket she could pull over herself.
Though I burned to pass over again for another look, Possuelo would
not hear of it. He does not even like to fly over hidden tribes once, suspecting
that airplanes frighten the tribespeople and sometimes cause them to pack
up and move. Indeed, Possuelo has never actually looked into the eyes of
these Indians he risks his life to protect. He has never heard their voices
or shaken their hands — and probably never will.
Back in Jordao, Jose Carlos Mireilles, the grizzled chief of Funai for
the state of Acre, told me that he sometimes questions his boss's efforts
to protect Indians. Isn't violence a natural part of human history? Quite
apart from the whites, aren't the tribes perennially raiding and killing
Mireilles lived for eight years with Acre's recently assimilated Jaminawa
tribe, who are believed to be closely related to the unnamed tribe Posseulo
and I had just flown over. He is not blind to the harsh edges of Indian
cultures. Jaminawa youth experiment with sex even before puberty, and girls
who become pregnant before marriage undergo painful abortions performed
by kneading the abdomen. Sometimes, Mireilles says, the abortion does not
work, and the baby is born. In those cases, the unwanted babies are buried
the front of my shirt, she gestured for me to open it. She took out my
the others I'm built like them. Then
she looked down my pants, just to make sure.
Thirteen years ago, the Jaminawa summoned Mireille's wife, a medic named
Teresa, to deliver the baby of an unmarried teen-ager. She trekked through
the rain, working until morning. But upon the baby's birth, the tribe lay
the newborn in a small grave that had already been dug. Teresa Mireilles
was horrified. "No way," she said. She took the boy from his grave, wiping
the dirt from his nose. Mireilles and his wife consider the boy their son.
But if Mireilles does not hold a romantic vision of Stone Age life,
neither does he bear illusions about the wonders Brazilian society has
to offer. Throughout the century, even well-meaning whites have destroyed
tribe after tribe, usually by introducing germs and diseases against which
the Indians have no defenses: chickenpox, malaria, tuberculosis, the common
cold. Other times, Funai has either connived, or unwittingly aided, in
the systematic plunder of Indian lands and resources.
"If I could give them 10 or 20 years more without anybody bothering
them, I think it's worth it," Mireilles said. "The day the Indians would
come out of the forest, I'd tell them: 'Go back to the forest. There's
nothing for you here."'
My journey to visit the Korubu began on a Thursday morning. We set out
from Tabatinga, a ramshackle town located at the point where Peru, Colombia
and Brazil converge. Possuelo was very excited. He had been away from the
Amazon for nearly a year, following a near-fatal car crash that
split open his skull, broke his legs and knocked out an eye. Throughout
the trip, as he ran into friends he hadn't seen, Possuelo doffed his cap
and dropped his head, to show stitches running like expressways over his
shiny crown, as if he still could not get over having survived.
After floating for nine hours down the Javari River, we reached the
sullen frontier town of Atalaia do Norte, near the border with Colombia.
Possuelo's boat pulled in to dock, but he did not stretch his legs on dry
ground. Instead, he stayed on board the Waika, the boat that is his home
for most of the year. With the area's 13 sawmills silent these days, Possuelo
had become the enemy — and he knew it.
The Indian lands upriver brim with timber and freshwater turtles and
fish. It's all there for the taking, were it not for Possuelo. When, in
19TK, Funai first planted its flag at the Javari Valley reservation, roughly
the size of Florida, it was the Mayor of Atalaia himself who yanked it
from the ground in protest. In the streets of the town, residents glared
at us menacingly. Motor scooters came threateningly close, then made another
pass so there was no mistaking their enmity. At the suggestion of local
police, the Waika pulled out in a hurry.
It was three years ago that Possuelo established the first peaceful
contact with a fragment of Korubu Indians living in the Javari Valley.
Having somehow separated from their tribe about 60 miles north, these Korubu
were being ambushed and hunted down by local settlers. A fierce people,
the Korubu were nicknamed the caceteiros, or "head bashers," for
the way they killed enemies. They had already clashed with local Brazilians,
once murdering two workers from the Petrobas oil company as hundreds of
colleagues watched in dismay. They had no history of peaceful contact.
On our trip, Possuelo had with him six Indians from tribes whose languages
he guessed the Korubu might understand, headed by Bina, a Matis Indian
whose face is tattooed to resemble a leopard's, with 10 black lines running
like whiskers over his cheeks. Bina's mother was Korubu, abducted as a
child during a Matis massacre of the Korubu more than 40 years before.
Bina's own tribe had only made contact with Brazilian society when he was
Possuelo had made four forays into the jungle in 1996, each lasting
about 10 days, before a small group of Korubu emerged from the leaves to
meet them. They were naked and painted with rust-colored patterns on their
faces and chests. Short and sturdy, the Korubu walked with their legs wide
apart, as if to frighten off animals, and they appeared robust and confident,
masters of their small universe. "How beautiful," Possuelo whispered to
We had been floating toward the Javari Valley frontier all day. Possuelo
reveled in sudden problems, like a broken searchlight and engine trouble,
that only his expertise could fix. There was a malaria epidemic sweeping
the region, and Possuelo, who had already had malaria 36 times, seemed
headed for bout 37 — yet he was cheerful. Along the way, blue-and-silver
dolphins turned cartwheels alongside the boat. Possuelo smiled. "Nature
seems to want me back," he said.
The Waika chugged up to a Government outpost, our final destination,
an hour after midnight, 19 hours after setting out. With lights finally
out and the motor silent, I caught the first movements of the local symphony.
Bats fluttered overhead, locusts rattled like maracas and owls sung a haunting
chorus. From far away come calls I could not identify. Yet they sounded
as if they were being repeated and perhaps answered, in the morse code
of the jungle.
Could that be the Korubu?
At daybreak, sounds came from across the river. Emerging from our beds
into the sunlight, we saw six Korubu, square shouldered and tan, with babies
resting on mothers' hips. One man wore a polo shirt, but the rest were
naked. "Bina! Bina!" a man's voice called over the water, steady
and insistent. Our translator explained that he had returned to the Government
outpost a few times since the initial contact and that the Korubu remembered
The Korubu called to Bina, who translated for us: "We're hungry. Go
hunting for us."
A group of Korubu, many of them suffering from malaria, had been camped
across the river for days, far from their crops, and had had little to
eat. This close to white settlements, hunting is scarce. Bina decided to
help. He hopped into a speedboat docked next to the outpost and disappeared
into the Indian areas with a hunting party. He returned a few hours later
with wild boars and crocodiles, blood splattered on the seats.
With two of the animals lying on the speedboat floor, Possuelo crossed
over to the Korubu, who swarmed to the boat and surrounded him in bursts
of sound. Their voices were loud; to my ears, their language sounded bold,
not self-conscious or timid. I watched from a few feet away, in a separate
speedboat. The Korubu men wore only a string looped around their penises
that's anchored around their hips; they stood with their chests out and
shoulders thrown back. Two Korubu women slid down the riverbank, splashing
water over their children to cool down. As the group took us in, they seemed
almost angry. "Pawa! Pawa!" some declared. Suddenly, one member
of our group unzipped a fanny pack and produced a soup spoon. The anger
dissolved into wide smiles.
The following day, we returned to the outpost. There we found Xikxu,
the patriarch, who looked about 35. He called for the women, who emerged
from the forest. One carried a child over one shoulder and a monkey over
the other. "Pawa, pawa," two of the Korubu women said, checking
my pockets for spoons.
The women carried empty pots and bowls, showing them to me in a wordless
version of a shopping list. This time, I understood: the Korubu live in
a pre-metal age, and 8,000 years is long enough to wait for a damned spoon.
Through Bina, I promised not to show up again empty-handed.
A young mother, baby perched on her hip and nursing, approached me slowly
and touched my curly black hair. Her own straight black hair was fashioned
in an elaborate style, shaved short in a band across the top of her head
and cut one length across her temple and at the nape. Tugging the front
of my shirt, she gestured for me to open it. She took out my breasts, showing
the others I'm built like them. Then she looked down my pants, just to
make sure. As direct as she was in her actions, the young mother, who looked
no more than 18, smiled gently.
"Maya Washeman," she said, pointing to herself. She pointed to another
Korubu woman with a scar across her cheek. "Maya Mona," she said. She gestured
at the sad-eyed woman sitting away from us, whose face I recognized from
pictures taken of Posseulo's first contact back in 1996. "Maya Doni," she
said. Then she pointed at me.
"Maya Diana," I told her.
I wasn't sure quite what "Maya" meant, but it seemed appropriate. But
then I was introduced to Washeman's mother. Her name was Maya. Perhaps
daughters identified themselves through their mothers' names. Bina couldn't
say for sure.
Styling During her
expedition this July, the author watched as Washeman cut her son's hair
with a reed fashioned into a razor.
With Bina's help, Washeman asked if I have children of my own. I said
no. Then she handed me her own infant son to hold. This remarkable ambassador,
I discovered, is the casus belli of her entire tribe.
Sitting on the ground, the Indians, through Bina, told a long story.
They said they fled from their home tribe when Washeman reached puberty
and a Korubu boy wanted to marry her. Maya, however, did not want the boy
for her daughter and so fled with her clan. The boy ran after Washeman,
kidnapping her. Undaunted, the family turned around and kidnapped her back.
They said they ran for months, eventually carving a small canoe to cross
the Itu River. They ran until reaching Ladario, the closest white settlement,
where they found bananas growing and stole some for the tribe. By way of
introduction, they said, the townsfolk of Ladario chased the Indians and
killed two of them.
Since then, the rest of the tribe had secretly been watching Ladario,
and — incredible as it seems, given the gulf in languages and the fear
they must have had to overcome — they could identify the killers by name.
"Otavio," Xikxu told Bina. Hearing the name chilled me; visiting Ladario
the day before, I met the head of the settlement, Otavio Oliveira. He said
he was a great friend to the Indians.
On the third day, Possuelo and I paid the Korubu one last visit, this
time with a bitter brew for those suffering through malaria. It was cool
under the trees, and quiet. Washeman touched the nape of her son's neck,
putting my hand there so I could feel his fever. A few feet away, Maya,
the matriarch of the clan, whimpered quietly. She, too, was burning up.
Xikxu scraped a rope-thick vine back and forth over a grater. A liquid
the color of worn leaves trickled down. The grater was a wooden club like
a miniature baseball bat, flattened on one side, with the chewing end of
monkey's teeth sticking out of the wood.
"Sometimes they drink hallucinogens before they kill somebody or go
to war," Possuelo told me quietly in Portuguese, passing the drink. I took
a sip, not knowing whether we were drinking the aperitif for war or death.
It had the sour, very green taste of something unripe, something that had
not found its natural flavor yet. After a few minutes, Possuelo quietly
asked Bina about the juice. Bina revealed that the drink was just a social
one. In the back of Possuelo's mind, and mine, was the story of the last
station chief, Sobral, who angered the Korubu by taking back a tarpaulin
one of Sobral's workers had given them. Two Korubu clubbed the Government
agent to death as his colleagues looked in horror from across the river.
Talking to Possuelo, the Korubu laughed over their first meeting with
him, and remembered hiding when his small plane flew overhead looking for
them. Xikxu asked Possuelo why he smoked cigarettes, and Possuelo said
it was something Brazilians do socially. As they listened, the Korubu said
"mmm," in the same way Americans say "uh-huh." Seemingly apropos of nothing,
Washeman asked Bina a startlingly frank question: "How do you have sex?"
Aside from making me laugh, the question made me realize how alien must
be the world beyond the forest to somebody who has never left it.
"We do it at night," Bina responded.
a Korubu couple saw an anaconda pull one of their children, a 3-year-old
girl, underwater. She never surfaced. Should
such a life of hardship be preserved?
Standing there in the jungle, I began to wonder if the Korubu could
truly fathom the difference between our world and theirs. And if history
proved any guide, I thought, that knowledge, when it came, might shatter
In Darcy Ribeiro's book, the son of a sertanista describes the first
exposure of Kaingang Indians to Sao Paulo, which he witnessed as a child.
The tribe had encountered Brazilians only two years earlier, when Funai
began offering the Kaingang gifts, like pots and machetes. The Indians
saw the gifts as a tribute, and reckoned that they must be far more powerful
than this small tribe of Brazilians visiting them in the forest. "Don't
worry — we'll protect you," the Kaingang chief told the Government agents.
But then one day the sertanista wanted officials in Sao Paulo to
see the isolated Indians for themselves, so he took two of them to the
"They entered the car and took their seats, and appeared talkative and
happy as they crossed the forest," Ribeiro writes. "At the first station,
as they watched the comings and goings of passengers boarding and disembarking,
the Indians exchanged remarks. The stations went by, each one more full
of people, because they were already crossing more densely populated regions.
A sadness and a humiliation set in among the Indians; they stopped chatting
and no longer even answered the Government agent's questions. Astonished,
they got off in Sao Paulo." After being shuttled around the city, the chiefs
returned to the jungle, disillusioned. They explained to their people how
insignificant they were in comparison with the modern world. As Ribeiro
notes, "Afterward, the prestige they attributed to the whites was of such
an order that no tribal value could survive."
At the riverbank, the Korubu showed us a reed they call nypuk.
The Indians peel the nypuk's sides until it looks like a blade of
grass; its long, sharp edge functions as a razor. Wetting her toddler's
hair with water, Washeman scraped a precise line across the boy's temple.
"Maya is really good at this," she said, looking over at her mother.
"How many thousands of years," Possuelo asked, holding up the reed,
"do you think it took them to develop this?"
By the water's edge, Maya whimpered from the malaria. We gave her quinine-based
pills in water to drink each day. Next to her, Doni was sad-eyed and quiet.
Recently, her baby died minutes after it its birth.
A month after I left, Possuelo reported in a phone call, the Korubus
watched an anaconda pull one of their children, a 3-year-old girl, underwater.
Though they searched frantically, she vanished instantly. The 17 remaining
tribespeople wept for her in the place she died, day after day.
And so lingering in my mind after my trip to the Javari rain forest
was a question: Why preserve a life of hardship? But like gears in a machine,
one question triggers the next. What kind of life would the modern world
Possuelo, loving a good debate, argued that he was not defying destiny
at all by trying to preserve the Indian way of life. There is nothing inevitable
about Brazilian society swallowing up these hidden tribes, just as there
was nothing preordained about humans landing on the moon, he said. Staking
a nation's flag on a new frontier — whether on another planet or in the
wilderness within your own borders — happens through deliberate policies
that governments and people pursue.
But Possuelo could not have got this far on idealism alone. He is not
nave. As our journey neared its end, back near Tabatinga, Possuelo acknowledged
that however contact comes, the time that isolated tribes have left can
probably be measured in decades. And he argued that the time was precious:
not so much to prepare the Indians for contact, as whites.
"Right now, the only door to our society that's open to the Indians
is through the cellar," Possuelo said. Listen to the language of the settlers,
he said, who call Indian lands "uninhabited," as if the natives did not
exist. In nearly every case in which whites entered their lands, the Indians
were reduced to scrounging for crumbs, as stores of fish, game and timber
vanished. Now, drug traffickers are trying to make inroads by building
airstrips on their land. Funai's demarcation lines are designed not so
much to keep the Indians confined to their ancient lands as to place a
limit on white expansion, Possuelo said.
On the deck of the Waika, Possuelo traced the shape of the Javari Valley
with his finger, much as the evening before he conjured figures as he gazed
up at the clouds. It is true, he said, that the Javari is a rich, unspoiled
area that could be developed.
"But why shouldn't the Indians be the ones to exploit it for themselves?"
he asked. "Why shouldn't they be the ones selling their fish and
game commercially?" It is a revolutionary thought in Brazil, where Indians
have been virtually trained into dependence from their first moments of
"I want to send Indians from here to school, have them steer our boats
along the rivers," Possuelo said excitedly. Up and down the waterways,
settlers are suffering through the malaria epidemic. He wants to set up
floating health stations for the river dwellers, run by the Indians. "Let
the Indians be the ones drawing their blood, looking at it under the microscope,
giving out the medications. Let the whites get used to seeing the Indians
in positions of respect."
And that is the heart of Possuelo's dream, which more and more is coming
to look like a plan: to turn the dark ecosystem of contact upside down,
so that Indians may finally join Brazilian society standing tall. It is
a vision he has peddled diligently, inviting small groups of reporters
along on his expeditions to win public support, particularly overseas.
Recently, the European Parliament awarded $1 million for a project Possuelo
drew up to build health posts and provide education to Javari Valley tribes
that had already been contacted by Funai officials. Idealist or not, Possuelo
was sophisticated enough to apply for the grant through a private foundation
— to prevent the money from getting siphoned into the Government's general
coffers, or winding up in some politician's pocket. And his last expedition,
for the Discovery Channel, carried a price: a 40-foot radio tower for the
remote Javari Valley outpost.
But for all his savvy, Possuelo stands practically alone, in his own
way isolated as much as the Indians he tracks. He, too, belongs to a vanishing
breed. There are fewer than a dozen sertanistas in all of Brazil worthy
of the name, he says, who did not get their titles as political rewards.
And many of them would just as soon see his project disappear.
Indeed, it is impossible to imagine Possuelo's vision without Possuelo.
What would have happened to the Government policy on isolated tribes if
that car accident ended his life or if his last boss succeeded in firing
him? Possuelo knows that his critics include not only industrialists, politicians,
generals and academics but also fellow sertanistas. Like the anthropologists,
their glory has always grown from presenting new cultures to the rest of
the world, as if they had given birth to them. In the end, Possuelo's quest
is a quixotic one, however noble. "I'm proposing the exact opposite," Possuelo
said. "I say your glory is in not discovering them."