Requiem for a Tribe?

IN THE STEAMING JUNGLE I sat and watched the myth of their inhumanity fade in the dancing light of welcoming cook fires. For what was probably the first time in the hundreds of years since Europeans first glimpsed Brazil’s wild and mysterious Mato Grosso State, the legendary “giant” Indians of Amazonia had peacefully led strangers into the sanctuary of one of their villages.

requem

We were only six—two white civilizados, four “tame” Indians of another tribe. It would have been easy for the gigantes, now called Kreen-Akarores, to slaughter us with responsibility. While developing the riches of the Amazon Basin, one of earth’s last refuges for Stone Age peoples, Brazil must also some¬how find a place for human beings whose ancient ways of life she cannot help but dis¬rupt forever.

When, early in the 16th century, the Por¬tuguese began colonizing Brazil, four million Indians stood in their way. The newcomers showed them scant mercy, brushing them aside by any means they could. Even in mod¬ern times, certain greedy civilizados have machine-gunned them, dynamited them from the air, and given them poisoned food.

Today Brazil can identify only about 200,000 pureblood Indians. Some of these—the Kreen-Akarores are among them—live in forests only now being penetrated by pioneer rubber tappers, loggers, missionaries, and, above all, the road builders who are opening Amazonia with a network of highways.

tribe for requem

To overcome the savage hostility of these innocents, Brazil formed the National Foun¬dation for the Indian, called FUNAI for short. Its spearhead is the small body of sertanistas, “men wise in jungle ways,” possessed of almost mystic love for the people they must both protect and render harmless to civilizados.

As photographer and diarist, I go often with FUNAI “pacification” expeditions. I watched the sertanistas make the first contacts with the dreaded Txikaos and Cinta Largas.* I went with the Villas Boas brothers, Orlando and Claudio, candidates for the Nobel Peace Prize, to cover the first tense overtures to the Kreen-Akarores in 1968. Five years later, when the young sertanista Apoena Meirelles took over from the exhausted Villas Boas brothers, I returned to join him at FUNAI’s advance Kreen-Akarore pacification camp.