The same group of red-painted indigenous warriors famously photographed in 2008 aiming arrows at the photographer’s aircraft now tell their own story: the story of massacre and suffering in their remote territory along the Peru-Brazil border. Gunshots, many dead. A tall, bald man leading a murderous group of white men, presumably drug traffickers. Survivors escaping into the jungle while elders and children were slaughtered. The days following the massacre were marked by profound sadness and mourning; the dead were buried in mass graves. A hasty evacuation meant they were short of food and supplies. They decided to pursue a final, desperate resort: to seek out settled indigenous villages along the adjacent Rio Envira and beg for food and mercy.
Seven survivors made their way to the Ashaninka community of Simpatia (“Sympathy”) to ask for food, but since they spoke no common language the encounter was tense. Not until two Yaminawa interpreters were brought was communication finally established. The language they speak is a dialect of Yaminawa so communication has been extremely fluent. It was already suspected, based on their location and body adornments, that they belonged to an isolated Panoan group. The Yaminawa interpreters confirmed their linguistic affiliation and suggest they are closely related to the Chitonahua of Peru (rendered as ‘Xitonawa’ in the Brazilian orthography), however they call themselves “Xatanawa,” which means, “Macaw-Tribe.”
A small group of about 15 Chitonahua, fleeing similar conflicts with loggers on the Brazilian side of the border in 1996, took refuge along the upper Minuya River in Peru only to be attacked and captured by Peruvian loggers. Two of the young men showed clear signs of shotgun wounds, and nearly half of that group had already died of mysterious diseases they attributed to witchcraft, but which probably included flu, malaria and other contagious diseases. The Chitonahua are in turn very closely related to the Yora or Nahua of the upper Manu and Mishagua Rivers of Peru, a fiercely resistant group who made international headlines in 1983 when they attacked a group of Peruvian marines accompanying Peruvian President Fernando Belaunde to the headwaters of the Manu River to inaugurate the Peruvian leg of the Trans-Amazon highway. A famous photograph shows president Belaunde cradling a soldier with a Nahua arrow in his neck. The Nahua were thus largely responsible for repelling what would have been an ecologically disastrous highway project in the heart of Peru’s first and most famous protected area, Manu National Park. However with intense petrochemical prospecting on their territory by Shell Oil and the intrusion of loggers, the Nahua were finally contacted in 1985. Within 10 years, their population was reduced by almost half, mostly due to introduced diseases.
Like the Chitonahua and the Nahua before, the group who recently emerged along the Envira River also quickly contracted colds and required emergency medical treatment. The survivors have given detailed reports about the genocidal crimes committed against them. Brazil’s National Indian Foundation (FUNAI) are currently developing a strategy for providing medical treatment and protection for additional settlements that remain in isolation.
These conversations also provided details of about at least eight isolated indigenous populations residing in this remote border region between Brazil and Peru, roughly in line with the 10th South Parallel. The sensational photographs and news in Acre have generated headlines worldwide, feeding popular myths about primitive, Stone-Age peoples who are making their “first contact with the outside world.” Yet these and other groups in a similar situation today have in fact consciously adopted isolation as a strategy to survive in the face of violence and disease that was first brought to these remote regions during the Rubber Boom between 1895 and 1915. Indeed, the first references to the Chitonahua go back to 1895. Prior to these violent times such groups were not “uncontacted” at all but rather participated in wider regional networks of interethnic trade, exchange and marriage. For this reason, the term “voluntary isolation” was coined by anthropologist Glenn Shepard in a 1996 report on the status of isolated groups in Peru. In some sense, these “Stone Age” peoples are as modern as anyone else, their current option of nomadic life being a direct result of the quintessential modern invention, the automobile, and the unquenchable demand it created for wild rubber at the turn of the 20th century.
Brazil’s FUNAI has a special department with experience in identifying, demarcating and protecting territories, and, only as a last resort, establishing contact and medical attention for such groups. However Peru has no such comparable government agency, and the main entities involved in protecting isolated groups are indigenous federations like FENAMAD, hindering adequate collaboration on this cross-border problem.
Tomorrow: Banana Diplomacy: Making First Contact With Uncontacted Tribe in Amazon