Uncontacted Tribes: An Adventure in Non-Discovery
Uncontacted But Not Unbowed: 'Arrow People' Guard the Rainforest; Book Review
The advance of “civilization” has not been kind to indigenous people in Amazonia. Enslaved and abused at the hands of loggers and rubber tappers, their extended families decimated by disease, some retreated to the dense forests of the most remote headwaters, where their descendants still shun contact with the outside world.
In Brazil, during much of the last century, the government Indian affairs agency, FUNAI, hired backwoodsmen known as sertanistas to “tame” the “wild Indians” in an effort to reduce violent encounters as the frontier encroached on their lands. Too often, however, even peaceful contact was disastrous for the tribes. In the 1980s, a leading sertanista, Sydney Possuelo, had a change of heart and convinced FUNAI to change course and protect uncontacted tribes by demarcating their lands and declaring them off limits to outsiders.
In 2002, journalist Scott Wallace accompanied Possuelo on an arduous trek through dense rain forest in one of the most remote watersheds of the Amazon to determine the boundaries of a group known only as the Arrow People. The Unconquered: In Search of the Amazon’s Last Uncontacted Tribes (Crown Publishers, 2011) chronicles the journey, mixing the personal hardships Wallace and the rest of the expedition endured for three months with a rare glimpse of life in a world inhabited by a people whose presence is felt, but scarcely seen.
Echoing Amazonia’s earliest European explorers, Wallace crafts a tale that is part gripping adventure story, part window into the unexpected complexities and contradictions of life in a developing country where uncontacted tribes stand between a resource-hungry economy and an area abounding in natural wealth. The reader is left feeling that the Arrow People probably have a better quality of life deep in the forest, depending only on natural resources and the occasional stolen or bartered axe or machete, than “contacted” tribes forced into a market economy in a society that derides them.
Interview with Scott Wallace, author of The Unconquered: In Search of the Amazon’s Last Uncontacted Tribes (Crown Publishers, New York, 2011)
Scott Wallace traveled by river and on foot into a remote region of the Brazilian Amazon with government agents mapping the boundaries of territory inhabited by an uncontacted tribe so that the area could be protected from loggers, ranchers and other interlopers. The challenge was to scout the territory without coming into contact with its inhabitants. ICTMN caught up with Wallace so he could elaborate on the story behind the story.
What was it like to plunge into such a remote region?
It was a very challenging, demanding journey, living in isolation from the rest of the world, with the discomforts of primordial tropical forests, especially on a journey of nearly three months. Learning to live without things that we normally take for granted was a challenge. It was also extremely interesting. There was a sense of great camaraderie among some of the expeditionary team. The indigenous people, in particular, were amazingly helpful and of good cheer, and were incredible guides. They knew the forest so well and are so well adapted to it that it would have been impossible to survive for a day without them.
What did you learn that surprised you?
Everything. Frankly, I didn’t know that much about isolated indigenous people before this journey. It was a graduate-level course, the time that I spent there. Traveling with Sydney Possuelo—as temperamental and difficult as that could be at times, he had such an incredible level of knowledge, born of decades of experience in the forest with isolated people. I had been in isolated villages before, but I really didn’t understand a lot about uncontacted tribes before this trip.
What was the hardest adaptation for you?
One was being completely cut off from my kids and my family. We had a satellite phone that suddenly no longer functioned, so I was completely cut off. Also, we take for granted being able to look out and see several hundred yards or several miles. To be in a closed-in forest where you can’t see beyond 20 feet in any direction becomes incredibly claustrophobic after awhile. And only two percent of the light actually filters down from the closed canopy forest to the jungle floor, so you’re in permanent gloom.
How do you gather information about people who shouldn’t be contacted?
You can learn a great deal about people by moving through the forest without contacting them. Possuelo is one of the pre-eminent experts on uncontacted or isolated tribes. Being with him in the field was a tremendous education. Being with the other tribal members of our expedition was also extremely informative. The Matis tribe had been contacted within the past 25 years ... and there were a number of Matis with us who were old enough that they could recall things about how they viewed the world [before contact]. That was tremendously valuable. A lot about the Arrow People, the uncontacted group whose land we crossed, necessarily remains a mystery.
How did the Matis perceive life before and after contact?
I think you could probably say it’s worse since contact, although obviously [they] could never go back. They have become accustomed to certain western goods, and certain things [from Brazilian society] are attractive to them now. They have needs that they didn’t have before, and they like to have white man’s goods—shotguns, ammunition, boom boxes, Nike shorts. But they paid an awful price for these things. Two thirds of their tribe was wiped out by infectious disease in the first year following contact. The base of traditional knowledge of the Matis people was severely eroded. They lost most of their elders and shamans. A tremendous demographic shock followed contact that they probably in some ways will never recover from. They live in another world now. But they keep a lot of their traditions alive and vital.
Besides the danger of transmitting diseases to which they have no resistance, why is it important to leave uncontacted tribes alone?
They are isolated because they choose to be, so to try to force yourself upon them is an act of violence and disrespect for their wishes. I say that guardedly, because in a way that is what we did on this expedition, except that our expedition was for the [purpose] of protecting these people and ultimately leaving them alone. We had no interest in actually making contact with them. We had people with us who were skilled in knowing how far you could go without pushing the envelope too far. It’s a question of respecting their boundaries. To barge into their forests uninvited is a violation. They don’t have locked doors, but they do have property rights, and I think they should be left alone and people shouldn’t be trying to go into those areas.
Given what you know now about uncontacted people, what issues deserve more attention?
There seems to be a presumption on the part of most people to think, “Oh, those poor people, how do they live without access to medical care and education and the benefits of society?” I think it’s rather amazing that these people are actually able to live quite well without any of that, and they should be respected in their decision to opt out of what the rest of us have. They are not going to be great beneficiaries of advanced civilization. They are going to end up on the lowest rungs of society if there is contact, abused and despised by people who are barely better off than they are. These isolated groups ... are precious and vulnerable, and they deserve our respect and our protection.
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