Tours with visits to Indian villages are common in the
Brazilian Amazon. Within the remote
FUNAI (National Foundation of the Indian) restricts visits
to villages. Perhaps the
most understated of the
reasons is it is dangerous for the tourists.
This is a true story.
My wife Marineth (Natchee) and I flew to Altamira, Pará State, Brazil, in March, 2002 for the purpose of
photographing archaeological sites for submission to printed journals. I have traveled to remote areas of Amazonas State and Pará
State over the course of six years, and have on two occasions found undocumented evidence of human occupation deep in the
jungle. Before leaving my home in Fairbanks, Alaska, I had chosen the Xingu River as a likely area to visit because of the
number of tribes living there, which increased the possibility of identifying significant archaeological remains.
The day we arrived in Altamira, I arranged a meeting with FUNAI representatives for the following afternoon. The
next afternoon, I explained to the two FUNAI workers my reason for wishing to visit a reservation, and was brusquely
informed that permits for visiting tribes are rarely granted to outsiders and that permission comes directly from FUNAI
headquarters in Brasilia. I was further advised that I would be subject to arrest by FUNAI agents if we were contacted without
permits south of Altamira within the Arara and Kararao Indigenous areas. It is noteworthy that Altamira is not accessible from
the Solimões River by regular passenger boats due to navigation hazards and waterfalls.
After giving me this somewhat unfortunate news, the FUNAI officials then offered us a three-day, US$ 2,000 tour to
a jungle lodge where Indians perform for tourists. Further investigation revealed that the Indians at the lodge are actually
from near Manaus. As this was too much money for a tour, Natchee and I decided we should instead find a small, fast boat
with an outboard motor and then travel upriver to one of the Xingu River’s tributaries.
With some effort, we found a man named Hook who owns a bar on the docks named Bar Peixaria do Hulk and who
had a boat for hire. My wife and I discussed the trip with him at our hotel Augustus, where we were staying and agreed to
pay him R$ 80 (US$ 35) per day for the usage of the boat plus gasoline and two-cycle oil, the total price coming to
approximately R$ 800, or about US$ 350 for three days for the guide and the boat. Hook said his sister lived with a tribe on the Pacajá
River, so after consulting the maps I carry we agreed to leave the next day.
My reasoning was that by traveling to remote areas and asking locals if they have seen anything unusual in the area
they live in, such as broken pottery, collapsed walls or rocks with drawings, we may be able to photograph something of
interest. By sheer coincidence, I had marked the Pacajá River on the satellite maps I carried as a potential area to investigate, as
my experience traveling in remote areas of Brazil is it is best to have alternative plans.
At 8:00 AM we left the docks of Altamira, which are a colorful collection of dwellings built on stilts over the Xingu
River. Hook’s establishment is certainly one of the roughest looking bars I have ever visited, and I have no doubt a
well-dressed gringo had best be on his watch if after dark he was to leave the open-sided shack that sold shots and beer to a standing
cliental of many races.
Before we left Altamira the next morning, I bought some supplies to trade with the Indians for their services, as they
often prefer such things as rice, salt, sugar and tobacco instead of money. Hook brought with him his half-Indian daughter and
his granddaughter, who we dropped off two hours up the Xingu River at a small town that is marked on the dock with a
large sign reading "AGRIFAR Associação dos Agricultores de Ilha Fazenda e Ressaca, INCRA".
This is truly a frontier town and the reference to INCRA (National Institute for Colonization and Agricultural
Reform) means the government is giving some aid to the community. While traveling upriver, I noticed after an hour some
surveying materials and evidence of construction work on the banks of the Xingu River. Hook explained a dam is planned in the area.
Our boat was aluminum, about 20 feet long and 4 feet in diameter with a 40hp Yamaha outboard, so the craft was
quite fast, reaching speeds of 20+ miles an hour. After about four hours of traveling in boulder-strewn waters which would
have challenged the inexperienced boatman to not ruin a prop, Hook said we needed to pick-up a boy he knew who lived at
the junction of the Pacajá River and Xingu River.
We arrived at this family’s farmstead and met the "chief’s brother", which is how I was introduced to this man. This
family had moved away from the tribes on the Pacajá River and desired becoming westernized. The "chief’s brother" said we
should take two Indian boys from the village who were at his farm for some reason, which was not told to me. We then
continued up the Pacajá River and stopped at an abandoned mine where an Indian family is squatting.
We ate with these people and I was shown a 14 foot boa constrictor skin which the family had killed some days
before. Along the way, we stopped at an old village, which the boys told me had been left by their tribe after an attack by
another tribe in his grandfather’s time. There was little to photograph here except for some broken pottery scattered about and
some earthworks that had evidently formed part of the fortifications of the village.
After an uneventful trip, we arrived at the village at about 5:00 PM. I did not photograph the village when we
arrived as I have had a past experience on Rio Negro in 1997 where primitives became threatening with me when I took
pictures when first arriving. In this past instance, my opinion is that the Waimiri Atroari I contacted six miles up the Camanau
River from its junction with Rio Negro near "Kaswada dos Gages" had such little experience with machinery that they were
concerned the camera was a weapon of some kind.
There are about 80 inhabitants in this Pacajá River village. The Indians referred to themselves as "Tribo Poticru"
and the village consisted of 14 dwellings, most of
palha construction but a few with clap board walls and a
palha roof. I consulted my somewhat dated FUNAI tribal maps (1980) and they refer to the tribes in the area as "Assuini" and "Xikrin".
The Instituto Socioambiental is perhaps the most reliable and up-to-date group producing information on remote
tribes, yet the information for groups on the Pacajá River is far from complete. There is some indication this tribe may be
related to the Kayapo Putuiaro, as this tribe is known to move in the area of Altamira, but this is entirely speculation on my part
as the number of tribes in the area is bewildering.
When we arrived, and enough time passed to land the boat and to tie the craft up, perhaps thirty people came down
to the floating logs which were the dock. Many of the Indians were wearing western clothing, but here and there I could
see some women and men were still wearing more traditional garments of a palm bark tunic with a few geometric designs in
black along the hem.
The chief (at least one of them) made himself known and we were accompanied to a
maloca with a dirt floor. Inside one hut I saw drawn on a plank a rough picture of a helicopter which was, if somewhat fanciful, at least indicative that at
some point FUNAI or the army had visited here.
Here we were given coffee, heavily laden with sugar and for about an hour conversation was made between my wife
Natchee (who is one-half Wai Wai Indian from Santarém), Hook and the first and second chief. The Chief’s talk was mostly
about FUNAI not giving them supplies or money and that they were afraid to talk to outsiders as they had a suspicion that
FUNAI was planning to take their land away.
There were no indications of bad intentions by the Indians imagined by the three of us at this time. Soon after, or
about sundown, the first chief, a man about fifty years old, spoke to Hook in private. Hook stated we were to attend a meeting
at the "Talking House". What is curious about the episodes concerning the talking house is the method we were conducted
there, as in each case the same method was used, and I must admit it was slightly unnerving. The Indians would rather quickly,
but seemingly on command, simply surround us and we as a group felt compelled to walk the direction the group walked.
As we walked, or more accurately were herded to the talking house, I had my first look at the structure. It consisted
of an open-sided, thatched roofed, dirt floored
maloca about twenty feet in diameter. In the center of the structure was a
platform, which was about head high and a square object covered by a carefully sewn canvas cover was hidden beneath.
As it turned out, what for all the world looked like an altar turned out to be a television set. The chief explained that
at night the tribe would watch television if they had fuel, with the men sitting under the roof, but the women were required
by custom to remain outside. Also in the building was a small generator, and a container for diesel fuel. Curiously, there
was no outboard motor in running condition at this time in the village.
After being led to the talking house and the three of us being seated on a bench, the second chief began the dialogue
by saying again that the tribe did not trust FUNAI. The question was again pointedly asked of me as to why I was at their
village. My Portuguese is very limited, but I would pick out a word now and then. Soon the conversation began to take a turn
towards the fantastic, and I did not think I could be hearing correctly.
We had said at least three times earlier that we were here to photograph archaeological sites, but Natchee explained
once again to the group why we were here. As I looked about, I counted twelve men present and about the same number of
women gathered outside. The men took turns speaking, and Natchee said that the men wanted to use our boat to travel and seek
the release of some of their tribesmen being held upstream by another tribe whom they said were "bad people".
The chief explained that the name of the other tribe was "Tribo Bacajais". The village holding their comrades they
described as being about 600 in number and that the other tribe drank
cachaça and had several chiefs who fought amongst
themselves and that they would kidnap and hold for ransom the smaller village’s people. Hook stated we did not have the fuel to
make the several hour trip to the other village up the Pacajá River and then return to Altamira. At one point I told my wife I
would accompany them to the other tribe as I thought it would perhaps open more doors to photograph sites but I was told in
no uncertain terms by Hook and Natchee not to do so.
The conversation now became more animated and I was becoming a little nervous at the stares directed at me and
the undercurrent of bad feelings I was getting from the young men gathered in the talking house. We were told to go and eat
and now it was well past sunset, so we were accompanied by three young men through the dark village. We were fed in a
maloca by a kind woman who stated her husband was out of the village at this time. She also said there were eight people
suffering from the effects of malaria in the village.
After being fed the spaghetti and rice we had brought as trading supplies we were led to our sleeping quarters for the
night. During our walk to the hut, Natchee said she overheard one of the Indians in the talking house speaking Tapaaw6kx say
they should just take the boat while the guide was bathing in the river.
As we hung our hammocks in the hut I discussed with Natchee my uneasiness in this village, so the three of us
decided we should leave in the morning. I tried to stay awake all night, but kept falling asleep, despite the fact I was
uncomfortable as Natchee and I shared a hammock and had only one mosquito net. I had hung the other hammock directly beside the
one we slept in with my machete and flashlight within easy reach.
Once I woke with a start, as I thought I saw a flashlight shine in the hut, but it was only a flash of lightening, as in
the distance lightening from a thunderstorm would momentarily light up the interior of the hut. Twice in the night the
rhythmic thump of bare feet running on a dirt path would suddenly pause at the hole in the grass wall and a face would peer in at us.
In the morning we were told by the first chief that some young men would show me a rock with writing on it, and
when we returned the tribe would dance for us. All of us were a little surprised at the tribe’s change in attitude towards our
group. It was an hour upstream to the rock, or what turned out to be a volcanic hill with exposed flows. It was not a difficult
climb to the top of the 300 meter hill, but it was somewhat slick as it had rained that morning and the hardened lava was at a
30 degree slope.
I could find no writing or petroglyphs despite three hours of searching and cutting through jungle and vines covering
likely places where the face of the rock would be well-suited for artwork. Perhaps the most unusual thing I found in this
location was a tree with small pineapple fruit with seeds. Natchee explained these trees are quite common in Pará State. The
chief had sent along two young men with a shotgun with us and requested our two young companions stay behind. As we
traveled we hunted and fished a short time, and one Indian found a turtle of about twelve pounds, which was of course taken
back to the village to be eaten later.
We got back to Poticru village a little past noon, but no villagers were present when we got out of the boat except
for one naked Indian child quickly running between two huts. I noticed that the boy was painted black over his entire body.
The Indian boys walked up the bank to the
maloca where we had eaten the night before and we went along to say we were leaving.
As we entered the dirt floor hut, I saw the woman who had cooked for us was very agitated. She began arguing with
the two boys who had come with us and I noticed her hands were stained black. She told Natchee she did not want to paint
her children this way, but she was afraid because the other people had threatened her and that her husband was away.
Within minutes of entering the hut, several men came and told us we must go to the talking house and again many people
entered the small room and crowded around us. I could see Hook was not happy as he swore and looked alarmed and disgusted,
but in my case I was mostly simply confused.
We were then again herded through the village and while walking I saw several children, naked except for being
painted black. In the doorway of one maloca I saw a woman with the lower half of her face painted black. I am in the custom of
carrying my camera bag with me at all times while traveling and was doing so when we were led, once again, to the talking
house. Natchee and I were guided to our seats, and a most curious conversation of 1½ hours began.
I counted 18 men and 20 women crowded about the
maloca, and it didn’t take long to know the second chief was
very adamant about using our boat. After he finished speaking, a man I do not remember seeing before began his turn at
speaking, saying a variety of things, one being that we should give the tribe R$5,000 (US$ 2.200) for visiting here. Another man
who identified himself as being from upstream said he was jealous because we gave this chief tobacco, food etc. and had not
given his village anything.
The first chief was mostly quiet. After some minutes, I noticed that four young men were stationed directly behind
me. Looking around the gathered Indians, I saw several people were painted-up, and one man had painted half his face black
as well as most of his body. He had left an unpainted stripe on his leg with geometric designs in black drawn inside.
Louder and Louder
As they took turns speaking, all the people now seemed to be demanding money, our boat or for me to be taken and
traded for the prisoners upstream. Natchee explained other’s people’s turn at speaking, including the women outside the roof of
the hut who would shout into the hut, as "stupid talk." I could not understand all that was being said, and the Indians talked
louder and louder, and some would point at me while yelling.
Natchee then told the people they could take me upstream, but that her husband was a friend of James Fish, the
American Consulate in Manaus, and if I were to be sent upriver, soldiers in helicopters would come and make war on the village. I
saw an old Indian woman with a large knife hacking at the posts of the hut and glaring at us with a happy smile, but instead
of scaring me I remember thinking how much she resembled a Gwich’in Athabascan I know in Venetie, Alaska named
My feelings were a mix of disbelief and alarm, but I thought if we tried to leave now the group would set upon us.
This "chess game" went on until the hot afternoon sun made the Indians tired and the conversations dragged. Natchee asked
me several times if I was hungry, which considering the circumstances, I was not. After half an hour of asking me, I finally
said yes, so Hook told the chief we would eat and then come back and talk some more.
We left the talking house and went to eat at the kind woman’s
maloca. After we started eating, Natchee gave the boy
sent along to watch us R$ 50 to give to the first chief. The boy looked confused and unwilling to leave us. After Natchee
spoke sharply to him, he left to deliver the money. As soon as he left the
maloca, I picked up my camera bag and Hook and I
agreed it was time to leave.
The house we were eating in was near the Pacajá River and the trail out of sight of the talking house, as the path
sloped to the water, so we made the 50 yards to the boat before the returning boy realized we were gone. As the boy returned to
the maloca I could see him stop and stare at us and then run back towards the center of the village when he saw us nearing
Hook jumped aboard first, and began cranking the outboard as Natchee and I positioned ourselves in the middle. I
placed my machete, still in its sheath, on my lap. One of our boys was just pushing off when the man with the designs on his
body and the upstream Indian caught him by the arms. They said for us to take the money back and to come back to the
talking house and to talk more.
My wife, who had done as excellent job in this situation controlling the other Indians, told them straight out from a
standing position "No!" and that she would, "die them" if they didn’t let us go. Hook had placed a shotgun in sight on the bottom
of the boat. The men let go of our companion, and as he pushed off our craft, the painted man yelled after us for the boys
not to come back.
On the way back to the junction of the Pacajá with the Xingu, one boy sold his beaded armbands to Natchee and he
said he would never go back to the village. He seemed unhappy even after we returned to the farm. The boy said he had
overheard some of the men talking when we were gone in the morning and if we had stayed longer the Indians would have seized
me and sent me upstream to the other tribe. If I had refused to go, he said, the plan was to just kill me.
As we traveled back upstream, I saw and photographed one boulder in the stream that had carvings on them. Neither
the Indian boys had any information on the reason or function of the rock carvings. The boys said there were other boulders
with carvings in the Pacajá River, but because the water was high they were not visible. The petroglyph was at the entrance
to another small stream and the carvings varied in length from six inches to three feet.
The designs were geometric and possibly zoomorphic. One figure I noted was perhaps that of a distorted turtle. My
opinion on the reason for the carvings on the boulders, based on the fact they were put on rocks at the entrance to the Pacajá
River and other tributaries, was they were for use as navigational aids by Indians in the past and/or to delineate tribal
boundaries. Another possibility is the designs held some lost totemic significance, arguably related to the harvesting of fish and
other aquatic animals present in the area.
After we dropped the boys off at the farm we visited with the family for a short time. The chief’s brother said he had
concerns when we had left to visit the Poticru village, which was why he advised us to take the other young man before leaving.
We said our goodbyes and then left and traveled towards Altamira until stopping because of darkness and slept in the jungle
in hammocks. We arrived in Altamira in the late morning without incident.
Ernest Sipes is a free-lance writer and researcher with publications in newspapers and journals in the United States
and Europe. His experiences with Indigenous Peoples began with his birth in the Territory of Alaska in 1957. Mr. Sipes
counts many friends in North America, South America, the Pacific Islands and Saharan Africa. He welcomes