‘Uncontacted Indians?!’ — contact an anthropologist!
The Courier-Mail here in Australia has just posted a story, Indian tribe discovered in Brazil, prompting (so far) two reporters to call me. Before I made too many statements on the radio, I thought I’d track down the original source for this report, as I found it improbable at best. So, after tracking down several variants, following it through Survival International’s website, I got to the original report from the Fundação Nacional do Índio (FUNAI, warning: Portuguese website), who I trust more than the Courier-Mail or the UK Daily Mail‘s version (here).
The Daily Mail piece is perhaps the most ludicrous and misguided of the versions I’m linking to here (by a whisker), so I’ll sample from it. First, the caption to this photograph is: ‘Painted: In a thick rainforest along the Brazilian-Peruvian border, these tribespeople are thought never to have had any contact with the outside world.’
After the author, Michael Hanlon, helpfully translates the body language of the people in the picture as ‘Stay away,’ he writes:
The apparent aggression shown by these people is quite understandable. For they are members of one of Earth’s last uncontacted tribes, who live in the Envira region in the thick rainforest along the Brazilian-Peruvian frontier.
Thought never to have had any contact with the outside world, everything about these people is, and hopefully will remain, a mystery.
Another photo caption reads, ‘The tribespeople are likely to think the plane that took this photgraph is a spirit or large bird.’ And Hanlon waxes philosophical: ‘It is extraordinary to think that, in 2008, there remain about a hundred groups of people, scattered over the Earth, who know nothing of our world and we nothing of theirs, save a handful of brief encounters (emphasis added).’ Hanlon explains well enough why these groups might not want to be contacted: problems with loggers in Peru, miners, cattle ranchers, petroleum drilling, and ‘diseases like the common cold to which they have no resistance’ (the cold?!).
Okay, so the article has some problems, mixing a bit of fact, some interesting photos, and a lot of pseudo-romantic Western projections. It’s not ‘extraordinary’ to think that there are people who ‘know nothing of our world and we nothing of theirs,’ it’s actually a persistent Western myth, not entirely accurate. (Of course, I knew people when I lived in Rhode Island who had never left the state…)
The source of a lot of the information about ‘uncontacted people’ is Survival International, a group that I generally think struggles valiantly for the human rights of groups who wish to remain isolated from national populations and preserve their ways of life. But in this case, I wonder if they’re doing a bit of harm with the good, by bringing the whole ‘uncontacted Indian’ thing to the table. A spokesperson from the group told Mr. Hanlon, for example, ”These pictures are further evidence that uncontacted tribes really do exist. The world needs to wake up to this, and ensure that their territory is protected in accordance with international law. Otherwise, they will soon be made extinct.’
While I certainly agree that small pockets of cultural diversity should not be aggressively assimilated, I feel a little queasy that we have to sell the drive for cultural autonomy and respect for foraging peoples with the whole ‘never seen a white man’ drivel. The term ‘uncontacted’ is part of the problem; ‘isolated’ would be better, as these groups have seldom ‘never seen a white man.’ They usually have developed a habit of reacting hostilely when they do, perhaps suggesting that it’s not so much lack of contact, but certain kinds of contact that they have experienced.
The FUNAI website, for example, is very clear that four isolated groups living in the region in which the aerial photographs were taken in late April and early May have been observed for twenty years, and the FUNAI site focuses on the news that the groups appear to be reasonably healthy (which is news). They put the photographs up with the statement that they are for ‘cultural dissemination’; unfortunately, in the case of the Daily Mail, this includes over-excited tabloid captions (predictable, but lamentable).
The Portuguese-language website describes how the ‘Front for the Protection of the Ethno-Environment’ of FUNAI is responsible for protecting isolated Native Americans and their lands. According to the Coordinator-General of Isolated Indians, Elias Biggio, the ‘Front’ does not make contact with the groups, ‘which require intensive actions on their behalf to counteract incursions [by miners, loggers, and others], allowing in this way the isolated indigenous peoples total autonomy.’ In other words, far from being ‘never contacted,’ the Brazilian government works damn hard to keep these groups, usually remnant fragments of once-larger groups, safe from outsiders who constantly threaten their territory and health.
In fact, FUNAI has documented, according to their website, 69 isolated indigenous groups in eight states (most in the Amazon), that they seek to protect. The task is made significantly more difficult by the fact that they are spread over some very remote, rough terrain; 15 million hectares (45 million acres) according to FUNAI. The groups are pretty small; only a handful have more than 400 people.
One of the reasons these groups are attracting attention is that they are under pressure, especially on the Peruvian side of the border, not only from the usual suspects (miners, loggers, and ranchers), but also from a French petroleum company that wants to drill in the area. Why can’t we go with that story: protecting the environment, wildlife, and the local people’s ways of life against the shattering impact of wreckless resource extraction to feed petroleum addiction? Why do we have to stoop to the whole ‘they think the plane is a giant bird or spirit’ and ‘their way of life was unchanged for 10,000 years’ cannard?
One can even see the ‘lost tribe frozen in time’ theme grow more and more pronounced as the story filters through from FUNAI to Survival International to the Daily Mail story, ‘Incredible pictures of one of Earth’s last uncontacted tribes firing bows and arrows,’ to the questions asked of me by reporters. So now I’m going to go on drive-time radio and try to straighten this one out, swimming upstream against the ‘lost tribe’ excitement. Fortunately, it’s the Australian ABC, so I’ve at least got a fighting chance that they’ll not edit out everything I say.