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Brazil

Day 13: Wauja Village, Upper Xingu River

 
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The magnificent thatched houses.
Michael Palin - BrazilIn the afternoon, Emi and I go to see the shaman. Along with his fellow elders like the Songmaster and the Bowmaster, he is the man with the power in the village. His house is like a great barn inside and dotted around are numerous pieces of beautifully worked local ceramics, as well as ornamental beadwork belts and mats and magnificently woven hammocks. As we talk, a parrot hops about on a carved bench beside us. Like Davi, the spokesman of the Yanomami, Itsautaku has a canny awareness that things are changing. He too embraces the outside world, but only on equal terms. Both sides must understand and respect each other's culture. The Wauja, like other rainforest tribes, believe in a spirit world which controls their lives. The spirits may lie in people or in objects. They are sometimes good, sometimes bad, but they must be constantly propitiated. The dances we have seen are 'vessels for the spirit', and by performing them they propitiate those spirits whose co-operation they need for everything from good health to food, fertility and protection from their enemies. It's what we call religion. When we start to talk about the modern world and the conservation of the environment, Itsautaku speaks on behalf of all the Xingu peoples. Emi translates.

'They know the outsiders want their land. They know that they don't want to be good stewards of it. They know they will despoil it and leave it.'

The damming of rivers in the Xingu Basin bears out their fears. Anything that deliberately cuts off the flow of water to their rivers affects their ability to fish and to grow crops. More worrying is the recent increase in fires caused by the heating-up and drying-out of the 'under-storey': that dark lower layer of the rainforest. Climate change is one factor, but this is aggravated by any artificial constriction of the rivers. And yet this seems to be government policy now. The Belo Monte dam project in the eastern Amazon will be, says Emi, 'The third largest dam in human history,' adding, 'and the scientists say it makes no sense whatever in terms of energy efficiency.'

Whatever the arguments, the Wauja, like every other tribe that has lived in the rainforest so successfully for thousands of years, feel deeply threatened by these operations. They have set up vigilance posts to guard their territory, but as more huge schemes are green-lighted they can sense that there's not much that 400 can do to influence a government needing energy for 200 million.

In other confrontations with the Western world, Itsautaku shows that he and his sons are by no means naive. He talks at some length about what Emi translates as 'intellectual property rights' – that those who come to take pictures of life among the Wauja should enter into some agreement to give the tribe some control over the way their images are used. This is why he is encouraging the young men to learn how to take films and pictures themselves. As he says, the Wauja have been studied by anthropologists for a hundred years now, but though they took their pictures, they never took their names.

Itsautaku fixes us with a look of heartfelt intensity. 'What I want, above all, is a picture of my father.'

Arapawa, the soft-spoken, well-educated son of the shaman, feels very strongly that one of the most important protections for the indigenous people is the documentation of their history and culture, in the same way that the white Westerners document theirs. To this end, he's been working for thirteen years on the compilation of the first ever Wauja dictionary, which he hopes will be translated into Portuguese and then English.

After dark, a screen is set up in the centre of the village onto which Emi and Marcelo project photographs of the Wauja taken by the Rondon expedition of 1924. Most of the village are sitting out in front of the screen, and there are occasional shouts of laughter, recognition and a general buzz of discussion about how they look and how they cut their hair. With clam shells in those days, I'm told. It's quite something, to see a small, once endangered people so absorbed in discovering their past. Emi, Marcelo, Arapawa and Itsautaku have all told me that this sense of their own identity is the Wauja's best defence against an uncertain future. Watching them under a cloudless night sky, with the glow of the screen reflected in their eyes, makes me feel that something quite significant is happening here, something quite inspiring.
 
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A glimpse of their ancestors. The Wauja watch slides from the Rondon expedition of 1924.
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PALIN'S GUIDES

  • Series: Brazil
  • Chapter: Day 13: Wauja Village, Upper Xingu River
  • Country/sea: Brazil
  • Place: Wauja Village, Upper Xingu River
  • Book page no: 71

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