Tuesday, November 12, 2013

1185. The Most Endangered Tribe: The Awá Indians of the Amazon

By Alex Shoumatoff, Vanity Fair, December 2013
STANDING TALL: Awá men and boys, in the Território Indígena Awá, in the Brazilian Amazon.
On one of the last islands of intact rain forest in Brazil’s eastern Amazon, the Awá Indians face the seemingly inexorable eradication of their home. Even the legal victory that deeded them the land hasn’t stopped the ruthless felling of trees by forces they can’t even comprehend. Photographer Sebastião Salgado captures the Awá’s world, while Alex Shoumatoff hits the forest trails with the most endangered tribe on earth.
The welcoming committee comes down from the village. Three of the men have yellow crowns of toucan feathers, red toucan-feather bracelets on their upper arms, and red toucan down dabbed on the tip of their foreskins, which are tied up with string. They are carrying beautifully made longbows and arrows that come to their shoulders. The tallest man is called Piraí. He sits on one of the benches behind the Brazilian National Indian Foundation’s post of Juriti, where I am staying, and his wife, Pakoyaí, in a skirt of finely woven tucum palm, sits next to him. Their son Iuwí is to his right, and in the background is his father, Pirahá, who is also married to Iuwí’s sister, so Pirahá is both Iuwí’s grandfather and his brother-in-law. Pirahá has a big smile, which I recognize is the smirk of someone with a sense of the absurd, who appreciates the delicious ironies, the constant outrageous surprises of existence, as people tend to do at the end of their lives. He is listening to a bird in the nearby forest that is singing in triplets. Emaciated dogs, little brown bags of bones, are snoozing and rolling in the dust. A rooster is prancing on the path for the benefit of a dozen hens and lesser males. Our gathering, on one of the last islands of intact rain forest in the eastern Amazon, is taking place in the context of an entire eco-system. All these communications and interactions are going on that our contingent from the modern world is dead to.
Piraí starts to speak in Portuguese, his voice full of gravitas and emotion. “We are Awá,” he says. “We don’t succeed in living with chickens and cows. We don’t want to live in cities. We want to live here. We have much courage, but we need you close to us. The Ka’apor and Guajajara”—neighboring tribes the Awá have testy relationships with—“are selling their wood to the whites. We don’t want their money and their motorcycles. We don’t want anything from the whites but to live as we live and be who we are. We just want to be Awá.”
Then Iuwí gives an impassioned speech in Awá, which none of us understand, but his words have such conviction and pride they bring tears to my eyes. Two courageous Awá men, father and son, in their prime—there are not many others here in their demographic, nowhere near enough to take on the madeireiros, the loggers who are killing their trees and their animals and are now within a few miles of here, and the thousands of other invasores who have illegally settled on their land and converted a third of their forest to pasture. I think of all the speeches like this given by brave natives in the Americas over the last 500 years, who were trying to save their people and way of life and world but were unable to stop the inevitable, brutal advance of the conqueror and his “progress,” and how this is probably what is going to happen here, to this remnant tribe in its endgame.
The Awá are a distinctive-looking, diminutive forest people, smaller than any of the dozen other Amazon tribespeople I have met. Reduced size is adaptive in a rain forest. You can move around more easily and unobtrusively. Not only humans but other species are smaller in rain forests. The older Awá, like Pirahá, have long scruffy hair and broad grins. Despite all their vicissitudes, they seem to have a happy outlook—they’re just glad to still be here, and what they can do for the others is to show it with their big smiles. Some of the women and kids have beautiful faces, long and narrow at the chin, their noses long and curved down at the end, their dark, almond-shaped eyes gleaming with interest. They are more like Ainu or Quechua, indigenous people from Japan or the Andes, than muscle-bound bruisers of Amazonia like the Xavante or Kayapo.
Some of the kids look a little inbred. There is a lot of marriage between close kin here, there being no one else to marry. And there being more men than women, some of the women have several husbands—polyandry, a rare marital arrangement, found most famously in Tibet. But some of the men have several wives, so there’s polygyny too. There seems to be a lot of flexibility in who sleeps with whom. In fact, an Awá woman is not thought to get pregnant from one man—she has to have sex with several men, generally three. Reproduction is a collective, cumulative effort, and all of the men who sleep with her are the father of her child: plural paternity, the first I’ve ever heard of this.
Two days earlier I had set out from São Luís, the capital of Maranhão, the easternmost state in the Brazilian Amazon, on the Atlantic coast of northern Brazil. After driving south, into the interior of the impoverished state for 300 miles on increasingly sketchy roads, and walking through glorious rain forest for a couple of miles, I reached the ethno-environmental protection post of Juriti, in the roughly 289,000-acre Território Indígena (T.I.) Awá. The Awá of Juriti are made up of three groups who were contacted for the first time in 1989, 1992, and 1996, and, with the children they’ve had since then, their population is up to 56. There are still 100 or so Awá who remain uncontacted. One of the three known isolated, or isolado, groups—there are probably more in the other last islands of Maranhão’s rain forest—is closely related to Juriti’s 1996 group, who had decided they had had enough of life on the run, which has been the Awá’s survival strategy for nearly 200 years, and a successful one until now, with their forest shrinking and the modern world closing in, and there being nowhere else to go. The Awá of Juriti still go out in the forest and hunt every day and have the same basic outlook and beliefs that they did before they were contacted. Their only concessions to modernity are that they wear clothes most of the time, grow some crops, and hunt with guns, except for a few of the old men, who still prefer their bows.
The Awá are among Brazil’s more than 800,000 “Indians,” who belong to at least 239 different cultures and speak roughly 190 different languages, yet are only 0.4 percent of the country’s 200 million people. Modern Brazil is a fractious, joyous mix of classes, races, and ethnically distinct regional subcultures, with a very rich 1 percent, a middle class that has been stuck in neutral since the global recession, and a dark-skinned proletariat, millions of whom have nothing—no home, no job, no land, no opportunities. So many realities at odds with each other, and most of the population under 25 and idealistic and anxious about what the future holds. This anxiety and the desire for real change and a decent government not riddled with corruption are what triggered the massive, spontaneous, countrywide demonstrations last June.
It is astonishing that there are still uncontacted native people in such a devastated part of the Amazon. The modern frontier, with its chain saws, bulldozers, loggers, squatters, and cattle ranchers, has been eating away at the Awá’s rain forest for 40 years. Illegal logging roads have penetrated to within a few miles of where one of the three known bands of isolados roams. Survival International, the tribal peoples’ champion, has classified the Awá as the most endangered tribe on earth. FUNAI, Brazil’s National Indian Foundation, has put the Awá in its most vulnerable “red alert” category.

Survival International reached out to the photographer Sebastião Salgado, and he invited me to join him on this expedition, whose purpose is to shine a global spotlight on the plight of the Awá and to persuade Brazil’s Ministry of Justice to evict the invasores so the Awá and the forest they depend on can be left in peace. There is no time to lose. All the bureaucratic hoops seem to have been jumped, a process that began in the 1970s. In 2009, an expulsion decree was handed down by a federal judge in São Luis—who described the situation as “a real genocide”—but that was overturned. In 2011, Judge Jirair Aram Meguerian ruled that the Brazilian government had to evict the illegal loggers. But they are still there, an anarchic collection of families, some of them rich fazendeiros, or ranchers, with satellite dishes and solar panels on their roofs, but most of them posseiros, dirt-poor, landless, illiterate squatters living in mud huts with roofs of babaçu-palm fronds. The Ministry of Justice has to give the order for the eviction operation, which will be a joint endeavor involving police, army, FUNAI, and the Brazilian Institute of Environment and Renewable Natural Resources. The ministry is understandably reluctant to carry it out, because things could turn violent, and because many of the invasores are among the millions of homeless, jobless Brazilians, the very people the ruling Workers’ Party is committed to improving the lot of. In addition, much of the land in Maranhão is owned by a small oligarchy of extremely wealthy ranchers who have their hands in much of the logging and are not sympathetic to the Indians.

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