Recently contacted Amerindians

as depicted in media

By Philippe Erikson, Ph.D., University of ParisX-Nanterre.


Part I, review of Schemo, Diana Jean, 1999, "Last Tribal Battle", New York Times Magazine, october 31th

As an anthropologist who has been working in the Javari basin for the past 16 years, I naturally pay very close attention to the literature regarding Sydney Possuelo's struggle in favor of Brazil's last uncontacted native peoples. I was therefore appalled to find that, of the numerous recently published papers featuring the recently contacted Korubo, one of the most misleading was published in the highly influential New York Times Magazine. This article, published on October 31, 1999, under the title "Last Tribal Battle", is gorged with errors, tarnished by ethnical stereotypes, and uncritically echoes some of the most biased arguments used by opponents of Possuelo's attempt at protecting isolated indigenous groups.

Throughout her text, the author, Diana Jean Schemo, makes ill-informed statements about the Amazon and its first inhabitants, sometimes as gross as taking jaguars for leopards (p.75).

The very first paragraph contains no less than three major factual mistakes : there are no rubber plantations in Acre (rubber is collected wild), there is no River called "Igarapé" (since igarapé simply means stream in Portuguese), and Amazonian people are not traditionally hunter-gatherers, as suggested here.

If this paper only suffered from improper documentation, it would not be worth answering. But there is much worse: its crude stereotypes about "stone age tribes" (p.72) and their "stone age life" (p.74) are potentially extremely harmful to the people concerned.

To write that the Korubo have been waiting 8.000 years "for a damned spoon" (p.76) and similar naive evolutionist statements set us back to the days when "savage life" was depicted as "short, nasty and brutish" (Tylor, 1871), and therefore begging for the civilizing zeal of missionaries and colonists.

To suggest that traditional Amerindian life might not be worth saving because a Funai agent states infanticide sometimes occurs, or because a New Tribes Missionary compares it to life in a ghetto and claims it is "plagued by malaria and dental problems, troubles for which the non-Indian world has ready solutions" is misleading.

Amerindians treat their children with as much love and care as any Westerne! r (in fact, they tend to be much less strict than we are) and Bina (a Matis whom Schemo interviewed) could have told her that his people only started having malaria and serious dental problems after contacts with Funai were consolidated.

A New Tribes missionary once told me it might be better for Indians to be killed by epidemics brought about by contact but at least get a chance to know Jesus, and a Funai employee once told me of Indians who did brain transplants ! One does not have to believe them.

The author's own contribution to the debate is summarized in an inner title page 76: "In September, a Korubu [sic] couple saw an anaconda pull one of their children, a 3-year-old girl, underwater. She never surfaced. Should such a life of hardship be preserved ?". Such reasoning is, to say the least, unconvincing. Despite Western sadistic fantasies, Anaconda accidents are extremely rare, as anyone familiar with the Amazon knows.

In September, how many North American couples saw a car run over their three year old daughter, never to surface again ? Does this mean the American way of life might not be worth preserving ?

Along with this "ignoble savage" routine, with no regard for contradiction, this article also offers us a sample of the opposite cliché: that of the "ecologically noble and innocent savage". Hence the romantic depiction of "naked Indians who still set their lives to the forest's rhythm, just as they had for thousands of years" (p.70) or the idea that the Korubo might have doubts about the fact a White woman has breasts (p.74).

Such depiction gives credit to the very naïve (and unwillingly prejudiced) assumption that uncontacted Native Americans might be first and foremost natural beings, simple creatures of the forest, as opposed to ordinary human beings.

As if all this were not enough, there are other statements reported here without context, and which could prove very detrimental to the cause people like Sydney Possuelo have spent their life defending. On page 72, the author states: "Critics also note that Brazil's Indians represent less than 0.25 percent of the population and yet claim 11 percent of the national territory".

This is a classic, and a former New York Times' Rio de Janeiro bureau chief, instead of simply repeating such inept propaganda, should immediately temper it with a few relevant facts. A handful of latifundist families (infinitely less than 0.25 percent of the population) not only claim but actually control more than 11 percent of the national territory. Second, if you subtract from the Brazilian population all urban dwellers and people living outside the tropical forests, you will notice that the Indians represent roughly 11 percent of the forest-dwelling population (exact figures are available from Brazil's remarkable Instituto Ambiental)

. Besides, the lands they are claiming, to which they have immemorial rights regardless of demograp hic factors, are not even the most coveted ones (that is those closest to roads, major rivers and cities).

Hopefully, the last page of the article offers a summary of Sydney Possuelo's lucid view of what the future of uncontacted Indians might actually be. Citing Possuelo, Schemo reports: "the time that isolated tribes have left can probably be measured in decades. And time was precious, he said: not so much to prepare the Indians for contact, as to prepare the whites" (p.77).

For once, I fully agree. Even many well-intentioned reporters from the New York Times might need time to gather extra information, easily available by searching the few websites discussing the Korubo issue (National Geographic on-line, Survival International and a few others to which experts have contributed).

A personal note to conclude. Last year (October 1998), Bina, the Matis Indian interviewed in this paper, showed me a picture of himself published in Time Magazine which someone had happened to give him.

He was infuriated. He told me, in his language, that a nawa (a foreigner) was making lots of money with pictures of him and he only happened to learn about by chance, getting himself no profit from the operation. I wonder what the Korubo (whose language is very closely related to Matis) will have to say in a few decades from now ?

Part II, review of: Monnier, Françoise, 1999, Brésil: les hommes-jaguars du Sertão, L’Express (16-22 Décembre).

Le document "Brésil: les hommes-jaguars du Sertão" (L'Express du 16 au 22 Décembre) est truffé d'erreurs factuelles et de clichés passéistes sur les Amérindiens. Les Matis, avec qui je travaille comme ethnologue depuis plus de quinze ans, vivent en Amazonie, et non dans le sertão: ce terme désigne, au Brésil, la région semi-aride du nord-est. Ils ne vivent pas "au commencement du monde" et ne manient pas, "comme leurs ancêtres", des "haches de pierre" et autres "outils qui remontent à la préhistoire".

Leur "vrai nom" n'a jamais été "hommes-jaguars", et leurs tatouages n'imitent aucunement "le pelage de leur animal totem" (sic). Résolument pacifistes, ce n'est certainement pas en raison de leur bellicosité qu'ils ont été contactés…

"Combien restera-t-il d'hommes jaguars dans un siècle ?" demande l'auteur en conclusion. Il faut espérer qu'il n'en restera aucun, car la notion même d'homme-jaguar ne correspond à rien de plus qu'à un inepte phantasme pseudo-évolutionniste.

Pire, il tend à suggérer que les gens qu'il désigne relèveraient d'une espèce hybride à mi-chemin entre l'homme et l'animal.

En revanche, tout permet d'espérer que la population matis, qui a pratiquement triplé depuis un quart de siècle, poursuivra son expansion démographique dans les années à venir.