Fifty years ago, Brazil's indigenous peoples faced extinction. Thanks to a long campaign, led initially by white sympathisers but now by the Indians themselves, land rights and political protection have been won. Indian reserves now cover an area bigger than France and Germany combinedby John Hemming / January 16, 2005 / Leave a comment
In 1972, I was part of the first group to make contact with the Suruí people of central Brazil. They were bewildered and apprehensive but – as feared warriors – put on a show of cocky bravado. Totally naked, the Suruí would slip unscathed through forests that had whites hacking with machetes at every step, or would race across patches of savannah with deer-like bounds. They had been contacted by Apoena Meirelles, a young man whose tousled hair, black moustache and political intensity made him look like a Californian anti-war radical, but who was one of Brazil’s elite sertanistas – Indian experts empowered to lead expeditions to make first contact with unknown peoples. This was achieved by a combination of woodsmanship – locating signs of the target tribe in the endless expanses of tropical rivers and forests; the bait of presents – particularly metal cutting tools that were irresistible in that world of exuberant vegetation; and, finally, patience – waiting for months or years for the Indians to decide on a face to face meeting. The Suruí contact eventually happened at one of their paths, a place where the Brazilian government team built huts and settled down to wait. Once the traumatic meeting had been achieved, it was several weeks before these warriors allowed Meirelles to visit their village and see their women and children. Soon after my visit the Suruí underwent a hideous baptism into modern society. They were hit by an epidemic of measles, a disease to which these super-fit people had no inherited immunity. So the Suruí died in droves. All tribes are small – as hunter-gatherers they have to keep villages below a thousand people or they exhaust surrounding game, fish and forest resources. But measles and pulmonary diseases killed over half these people in a few months. The elderly were particularly vulnerable, and with them went their understanding of tribal mythology, heritage, shamanism and plant properties. The survivors were grief-stricken by a tragedy that was clearly linked to the contact. On the Brazilian side there was despair at this failure, with bitter recriminations about lack of medical back-up and botched inoculations.
Fast forward to 1985. A delegation of Suruí went to Brasília to lobby their congressman for legal protection of their lands. For me, seeing this pre-stone-age people at the time of first contact was an extraordinary…