November 28, 2014

Infinite Grace: An interview with Caetano W. Galindo on his translation of "Infinite Jest" into Brazilian Portuguese

David Foster Wallace lives! How else could one explain the long-distance friendship that grew up between myself and a person I have not yet met in person, and would probably never have met at all if it were not for our shared obsession with Wallace’s fiction? As an anthropologist based in Brazil, I got hooked on Wallace while reading Infinite Jest on the tiny screen of my iPod during an expedition to a Kayapó indigenous village. Caetano Waldrigues Galindo is a James Joyce specialist who teaches linguistics at the Federal University of Paraná in Curitiba, and who has just finished translating Infinite Jest into Brazilian Portuguese: he kept a blog about the year-long process.

Graça Infinita: Caetano W. Galindo's translation of Infinite Jest into Brazilian Portuguese.

Companhia das Letras, Brazil’s premiere literary publisher, has just released a luxurious edition of Graça Infinita, Galindo's Portugese translation of Infinite Jest. Companhia das Letras first introduced Wallace to Brazilian readers in 2005 with their publication of José Rubens Siqueira’s translation of Brief Interviews with Hideous Men. Galindo has translated more than thirty books in all, including James Joyce, Thomas Pynchon, Tom Stoppard and Ali Smith, and is now busy on Wallace’s posthumous novel, The Pale King

To celebrate the release of Wallace’s landmark novel in Brazil, I interviewed Galindo—still virtually, via email—for The MillionsHere, I post some highlights; for the full interview, see "Infinite Grace: The Millions Interviews Caetano W. Galindo":

You seem to prefer translating works and authors that are not only essentially "untranslatable," but also notoriously verbose: Joyce, Pynchon, now Wallace. Are you a masochist, or do you just enjoy intense mental activity?

Well, apart from Ulysses, all I've done is translate what my editors give me to do. Ergo, I cannot be considered a masochist: they're the sadists! But yes, this is the kind of literature I like, and thus what I read—and "write"—best. I think my publishers have found this to their liking. And yes, I really do enjoy the acrobatics. It’s kind of like chess: it’s much more fun to play against someone who's better than you are, even though you may end up losing. I like being forced to reach, to face problems I would not have conceived myself. I enjoy trying to recreate puns, acronyms, styles-within-styles, multiple voices: you know, all the hard stuff. What can I say? Back to the masochism hypothesis…

How did you first learn about David Foster Wallace's work? What else of his have you read? Why did you decide to start with Infinite Jest

I got to know about IJ when I was deep in my Ph.D. thesis on Ulysses. It was a time in my life when I thought nothing post-Ulysses was worth the effort: I was a real bore back then! “Badness was badness in the weirdest of all pensible ways,” as good ol' Jim J. would have it. Then I heard about this huge book, and many people I respect said I should check out. And so I did. That was 2005. I got hooked. After that I read pretty much everything Wallace wrote, and everything people were writing about him. When I sat down to translate IJ, I had read the whole book twice, and was deeply familiar with Wallace's voice and “tricks.” As a matter of fact, my fascination with the book was probably what landed me the job as a translator for Companhia das Letras. André Conti, the editor at Companhia das Letras who kinda headhunted me for them, is a big Wallace fan. From the moment I was hired in 2008 we had this dream of publishing IJ in Brazil.


What did it feel like to spend so much time, so deep inside such a complicated plot, and such a complicated mind?

It was a fascinating process. And in this book in particular, the sensation of being "inside" someone's head (pun intended) is really overwhelming. I love the book even more today, after having unraveled and re-raveled its inner workings. I could feel the plot: I could almost touch it. But you have to remember I was not working on a regular daily schedule. When I could, I clocked 10 hours. But then, the next day, I wouldn’t have time to translate at all, since I would have papers to grade, or other things to write, or students needing help, classes to teach. I think that helped keep me safe. Wallace's (or Incandenza's) mind seems to be exactly what the book is: a beautiful labyrinth. Enchanting. But dangerous...

"Enchanting. But dangerous..."
Infinite Jest IV: A short film (with J.L. Matney), inspired by the fatally addictive "Entertainment" at the heart of the novel, created as part of a multimedia exhibit series in New York and Virginia.

What do you make of IJ’s notoriously indeterminate plot? Did your interpretations or understandings affect your translation?

As for the plot: well, I'm a translator. The guy designs a labyrinth. I reproduce the design with my own bricks and mortar. It's not my job to point any ways out, if there are any! As a reader, I do have my interpretation, but that's not what matters. As I tell students all the time, the translator's job is not to find an interpretation, but to try and find all interpretations, and keep these possibilities open for this new reader who's going to have only the translation as a guide. But, back to plot, you basically follow the original steps. No biggie. There's one thing I regret, though. A student of mine, Ana Carolina Werner, pointed it out to me. The final two words of the book, referring to the tide being "way out," also suggest the possibility of exit, escape. But there was no way to keep this double entendre in the Portuguese.


In the European Portuguese translation, the title is rendered as Piada Infinita, while you translate it as Graça Infinita. Explain. Doesn’t graça have mystical overtones, in the sense of religious grace?

Well, that's the one I was afraid of… So here goes. First, there is the question of Brazilian vs. European usage. Both piada and graça refer to jokes, or anything that is funny. But graça also has an extended meaning cognate with English “grace,” both in the sense of religious grace and physical gracefulness. In Brazil we have an expression, ‘não tem graça’, which means both “that’s not funny” but also, “that’s not nice”; there’s also ‘sem graça’ which means “awkward,” or literally “without grace.” Europeans use piada in almost exactly the same expression, não tem piada, “that’s no joke, that’s not nice.” So in Portugal, piada has a more extended range of meanings, somewhat like graça in Brazil, whereas piada in Brazil means only "joke." So we couldn't go there. Second, and perhaps more importantly, the expression "graça infinita" was used by Millôr Fernandes in his Brazilian translation of Hamlet. We were toying with the title Infinda Graça, which uses an older, more archaic word for "infinite," and which sounded good to my ears. But the Hamlet factor was a good argument, and we ended up with Graça Infinita. Finally, you are right, graça does sound religious-y. We didn't have that many choices to begin with, and I don't think this "mystical" undertone is wrong. Is it? There may be no “God” figure central to the novel’s narrative. But, sorry! I really do like this idea that the ineffable, the mystical (as good old Ludwig W. would have it) is always there, always lurking, always tempting. So I stand by our choice!

What about Infinite Jest do you think will appeal to Brazilian readers? Is there any Brazilian author who could be considered a "soul-mate" to Wallace, in some sense? Has Wallace exerted a notable influence on Brazilian literature? What Brazilian authors, contemporary or otherwise, would you recommend to Wallace fans?

I think Graça Infinita (let me use my title, now that I’ve justified myself!) is of immense interest to anyone who is thinking about or wants to think about what it means to be a human inhabitant of this particular nook of world history. I hope readers in Brazil can see that, and can find in the book all it wants to communicate to us at this deep, human, level. As for a Brazilian “soul-mate”... well, here in Brazil we have yet to arrive at such gargantuan hubris! Our best writers, right now, seem to be more concerned with short-ish studies. But we do have a new generation of very promising prose writers. Among them we find lots of readers of Wallace. People like Daniel Galera, Daniel Pellizzari. Wallace’s influence is felt in a number of ways. Wallace is probably the best prose stylist since Pynchon or DeLillo. But like both of them, he is also a deep thinker. And what he said, through his fiction and in his essays, is already a big influence on a whole generation of writers, even here. Brazilian authors I’d recommend? Hmm.... There’s always the great Machado de Assis (I suggest Epitaph of a Small Winner)... João Guimarães Rosa, most definitely. The João Ubaldo Ribeiro of Viva o povo brasileiro. Someone more contemporary? The André Sant'Anna of O paraíso é bem bacana. Me... :-)

Have you read translations of IJ into other languages?

No. I'm only human!

Read the complete interview at The Millions.

Special thanks to Matt Bucher, C. Max McGee, and Nick Maniatis of The Howling Fantods.

Graça Infinita by David Foster Wallace, translated by Caetano W. GalindoSão Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 2014, 1144 pp..


See also from this blog: 
Rainforest Wraith: Reading David Foster Wallace in the Amazon

October 17, 2014

The Kopenawa Galaxy: Review of ‘The Falling Sky’ by Davi Kopenawa and Bruce Albert

To look across a Yanomami village on a clear night is like seeing the universe in a mirror. Above, the stars glisten like living eyes, their vision unimpeded by smog and incandescence. Below, hearth fires flicker around the rim of the open circular enclosure, each point of light being the sun for a familial solar system orbiting the village galaxy. Beyond the protective ring of the village lies the immense forest whose blackness mingles with the edge of the sky.

A Yanomami man paints his face in preparation for an inter-village feast.

The Falling Sky, by Yanomami shaman Davi Kopenawa and French anthropologist Bruce Albert, takes its title from a creation myth of the Yanomami people who live in the border region between Brazil and Venezuela. The primordial world was crushed by the collapse of the sky, hurling its inhabitants into the underworld. The exposed “back” of the previous sky became the forest where the Yanomami emerged, and where they remain to this day; they still call the forest “the old sky.” A new sky was erected, held in place by metal foundations set deep in the ground by the demiurge Omama. Yet the new sky is under constant assault by the forces of chaos, and Yanomami shamans work tirelessly with their spirit allies, the xapiri, to avert a new apocalypse. A diaphanous third sky already lies waiting, high above, in case the current one collapses and the world once again comes to an end.

The Falling Sky is several things. It is the autobiography of one of Brazil’s most prominent and eloquent indigenous leaders. It is the most vivid and authentic account of shamanistic philosophy I have ever read. It is also a passionate appeal for indigenous rights and a scathing condemnation of the damage wrought by missionaries, gold miners and white people’s greed. The footnotes alone harbor monographs on Yanomami botany and zoology, mythology, ritual and history.

Most of all, The Falling Sky is an elegy to oral tradition and the power of the spoken word. As denizens of the “Gutenberg galaxy”[1], we take for granted the superior fidelity and durability of the printed word over speech in transmitting knowledge through time. In his singular voice, Kopenawa, talking of xapiri spirits, turns this notion on its head:

I do not possess old books in which my ancestor’s words have been drawn. The xapiri’s words are set in my thought, in the deepest part of me… They are very old, yet the shamans constantly renew them… They can neither be watered down nor burned. They will not get old like those that stay stuck to image skins made from dead trees. When I am long gone, they will be as new and strong as they are now.

As both narrator and first author, Kopenawa addresses the reader directly: “You don’t know me and you have never seen me. You live on a distant land. This is why I want to let you know what the elders taught me.”


A Yanomami shaman's apprentice in yãkoana trance.

Yanomami shamans use a powerful hallucinogenic snuff, yãkoana, made from the resin of the nutmeg relative Virola elongata. By taking it, the shaman “dies” or “becomes other” and experiences the spirit world firsthand. Kopenawa renders these visions with images of haunting beauty:

The xapiri float down through the air from their mirrors to come protect us… Their mirrors arrive from the sky’s chest, slowly preceding them. They suddenly stop in the air and remain suspended… When they arrive, their songs name the distant lands they came from and traveled through. They evoke the places where they drank the waters of a sweet river, the disease-free forests where they ate unknown foods, the edges of the sky where, without night, one never sleeps.


[Of the gold mining that has wreaked destruction on his people and their territory], he remarks: “The things that white people work so hard to extract from the depths of the earth, minerals and oil, are not foods.” Drawing on myths and shamanic experiences, Kopenawa develops his own understanding of the destructive forces unleashed by mining. Digging deep underground threatens to “tear out the sky’s roots,” the metal foundations erected by the creator god the Omama demiurge to hold up the cosmos. He concludes that minerals are in fact “fragments of the sky, moon, sun, and stars, which fell down in the beginning of time.” These hot, dangerous “sorcery substances” were hidden by Omama in the cool depths of the earth. “Tearing these evil things out of the ground” and smelting them unleashes disease-ridden vapors. Epidemic illnesses are represented in the spirit world as cannibal beings living in “houses overflowing with merchandise and food, like gold prospectors camps.” 

These illnesses make not only the Yanomami sick, but the sky itself: 

The sky… is getting as sick as we do! If all this continues, its image will become riddled with holes from the heat of the mineral fumes. Then it will slowly melt, like a plastic bag thrown in the fire… If the sky catches fire, it will fall again. Then we will all be burned, and we will be hurled into the underworld like the first people in the beginning of time.


Of the “Merchandise Love” that he sees at the root of white people’s greed and destructiveness, he states with prophetic moral clarity: “Merchandise does not die… When a human being dies, his ghost does not carry any of his goods onto the sky’s back, even if he is greedy.” Kopenawa also perceives how the shamanic path has set him apart from ordinary Yanomami: “If you do not become other with the yãkoana you can only live in ignorance. You limit yourself to eating, laughing, copulating, speaking in vain, and sleeping without dreaming much.”

The anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon is mentioned briefly at the end of the book. However, especially in Chapter 21, where Kopenawa contrasts Yanomami traditional revenge killings with the Western phenomenon of total war, Chagnon’s controversial legacy  looms large, as does Albert’s own editorial hand. This chapter seems to recapitulate, in Kopenawa’s voice, the same arguments Albert has leveled against Chagnon in heated scholarly debates.[2] As a cultural anthropologist, Albert sees Yanomami warfare from the native point of view: an integral part of mourning practices that aim at erasing all traces of the dead person (including cremated bones) and quickly sating grief-fueled rage through revenge on the individual killer or sorcerer. Chagnon’s widely cited sociobiological theory reduces Yanomami warfare to a Darwinian contest among males to capture women and procreate.[3] Albert and others[4] have used Chagnon’s own data to refute the central claim that “fiercer,” more homicidal Yanomami men have more offspring.


There is little doubt from Kopenawa’s own words that the Yanomami value bravery, revenge and the warrior ethos, though many other things besides. In his frank language, Kopenawa refers often to his kinsmen’s preoccupation with “eating vulvas”; the fact that the verb “to eat” is a euphemism for both intercourse and killing suggests that the Yanomami, like many people, see sex and violence as somehow related, if not in the causal sense suggested by Chagnon's hypotheses.

Kopenawa concludes by reflecting on the profound cultural changes that have turned this warrior ethos outward towards new threats: “The words of warfare have not disappeared from our mind, but today we no longer want to harm ourselves this way.”

The new Yanomami warrior-shaman armed with a hovering laptop (Image: Sergio Macedo).

Read the full review in the Nov. 6 issue of 
The New York Review of Books

The Falling Sky: Words of a Yanomami Shaman
by Davi Kopenawa and Bruce Albert
Translated from the French by Nicholas Elliott and Alison Dundy
Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 622 pp., $39.95


Read more from this blog: An Ax to Grind: Napoleon Chagnon, the Yanomami and the Anthropology Tribe

[1] M. McLuhan, The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man (University of Toronto Press, 1962).
[2] B. Albert, “Yanomami ‘Violence’: Inclusive Fitness or Ethnographer’s Representation?” Current Anthropology, Vol. 20, No. 5 (1989).
[3] N. Chagnon, “Life Histories, Blood Revenge, and Warfare in a Tribal Population,” Science Vol. 239, No. 4843 (1988).
[4] B. Ferguson, “Materialist, Culturalist, and Biological Theories on Why the Yanomami Make War,” Anthropological Theory Vol. 1, No. 1 (March 2001). 

September 19, 2014

Mashco-Piros on the Verge: Missionaries, human safaris, head-ball and a tale of two contacts

This is the full text, with additional photos, of a three-part series published concurrently by Indian Country Today

Versión en castellano 

 1. Missionaries and ‘human safaris’ initiate contact in Peru

It feels like a déjà vu: naked youths from an isolated indigenous group step warily through shallow water and approach the strangers. Emboldened by curiosity, or hunger perhaps, they accept colorful clothing and gifts of food, not knowing that they may be carrying an epidemiological bomb back to their people in the forest. And yet the apparent good intentions of these friendly outsiders may be motivated by a hidden agenda: religious prosylization or territorial control. Moreover, initiating contact with isolated indigenous peoples is a violation of Peruvian regulations.

On September 6, tourists and an indigenous woman affiliated with a missionary group were photographed giving clothing and food to Mashco Piro children on a beach in Madre de Dios (Photo: Jaime Corisepa/FENAMAD)

The scene is strikingly similar to dramatic recent events in a nearby region along Brazil’s border with Peru. On June 27, a group of young Txapanawa warriors, hitherto isolated, established contact with an Ashaninka community on the upper Envira River.

However there are important differences in these two superficially similar episodes: the Txapanawa[1] initiated contact of their own accord, walking for miles to seek aid from the neighboring indigenous population after apparently being attacked by loggers or perhaps (according to preliminary investigations in Brazil) drug traffickers based in Peru. Moreover, the Ashaninka called immediately on an experienced team from Brazil’s Federal Indian Agency, FUNAI, to help mediate the contact, provide medical care for the inevitable flu epidemic that struck the intrepid youths, and develop a long-term strategy to protect the group. The contact with the Mashco-Piro has been carried out informally, irresponsibly, and against official norms, by tourists and local people without the authority or training to handle the potentially genocidal consequences of such a situation.  

The indigenous organization FENAMAD, in conjunction with Survival International, recently published photographs
on its FaceBook page taken on September 6 showing a group of Mashco-Piro children receiving clothes and gifts from a local indigenous woman from the village of Diamante who is affiliated with an evangelical missionary organization that has been intent on contacting the Mashco-Piro for some time. The people of Diamante on the Madre de Dios River are Piro, and their language is close enough to Mashco-Piro to allow for mutual communication. Some inhabitants of Diamante have been trying to contact the Mashco-Piro for almost 25 years, but only in the past year have the Mashco-Piro responded to such efforts with anything other than hostility: several local people have been wounded by Mashco-Piro arrows, and one man was killed in 2011.

The FENAMAD team was using a boat supplied by the U.N. Development Program (UNDP) to patrol the Amarakaeri Communal Reserve, which shares a border with Manu National Park. According to their report, in addition to the Piro woman, they also surprised two tourism boats and a group of tourists on the same beach. The tourists and tour boats left immediately leaving only the Piro woman, named Nelly, on the beach with five Mashco-Piro youths wearing their new clothes.

Mashco Piro children taking items from tourism boat (Photo: Jaime Corisepa/FENAMAD)

When questioned about her activities, Nelly replied that she has been taking bananas to the Mashco-Piro because they ask her to. The Mashco-Piro children were waiting on the beach while their parents hunted in the forest nearby. The clothes, she said, were left by the tourists traveling in a boat operated by Expediciones Vilca. The Mashco-Piro have become a kind of tourist attraction in the region, and some tour operators have even offered clandestine “human safaris” for tourists to view and photograph the Mashco-Piro, much as they would a jaguar or other rare animal. Some tourists have allegedly left soda pop and even beer on the beach as presents to the Mashco-Piro. In one recent photograph, a young Mashco-Piro woman appears with a large wound on her leg, apparently caused by the tropical disease leishmaniasis.

In a previous episode highlighting the dangerous consequences of human safaris, a film crew associated with the Discovery Channel trekked to an isolated indigenous community in Manu Park in October of 2007, specifically violating the terms of its authorizations, and was alleged to have contaminated the group with a flu virus that killed four children and left dozens ill.

FENAMAD representative Cesar Augusto Jojajé decried the negligence of the Peruvian authorities in the face of this precarious situation: “The government is absent in this region. We want the authorities to assume their responsibilities and implement the promised operational plan [of the Amarakaeri Communal Reserve] which establishes among its clauses the integrity of the Mashco-Piro people’s territory.”

2. From head-ball to hunter-gatherers: the true story of the Mashco-Piro

A withered rubber sphere used by the Mashco-Piro to play “head ball,” originally collected by Shaco Flores (Photo: Fabio Jacob/Museu Paraense Emílio Goeldi)
However the situation becomes more complex once we understand that Nelly, the indigenous woman who initiated contact with the group, is in fact half Mashco-Piro herself: her father was kidnapped in the forest as a young child and taken away from the group by Diamante villagers in the 1970s as part of their attempt to “civilize” the Mashco-Piro, whom the Piro view as wayward brethren. Re-baptized with a Spanish name
, Nelly’s father was raised among the Piro and never went back to his people; indeed he has no more memory of his life among them. Nelly has allied herself with a local evangelical missionary group, including a pastor and his wife who now reside in Diamante, in the hopes of helping “her people” overcome the hunger, isolation and fear they supposedly now live in.

Los mashco-piro al borde: Misioneros, safaris humanos, el juego de pelota y una historia de dos contactos

1. Misioneros y safaris humanos inician contacto en el Perú

Se siente como un déjà vu: jóvenes desnudos de un grupo indígena aislado se abren paso con cautela a través de aguas poco profundas y se acercan a extraños. Envalentonados por la curiosidad, o el hambre tal vez, aceptan ropa colorida y comida de regalo, sin saber que pueden estar llevando una bomba epidemiológica a su pueblo en el bosque. Y sin embargo, las aparentes buenas intenciones de estos extranjeros amistosos pueden estar motivados por una agenda oculta: proselitismo religioso o el control territorial. Por otra parte, iniciar el contacto con los pueblos indígenas aislados es una violación de las regulaciones peruanas. 

El 6 de setiembre, turistas y una mujer indígena afiliada a un grupo misionero fueron fotografiados entregando ropa y alimento a niños Mashco-Piro en una playa en Madre de Dios (Foto: Jaime Corisepa/FENAMAD).
La escena es muy similar a los recientes dramáticos acontecimientos en una región cercana a lo largo de la frontera de Brasil con Perú. El 27 de junio, un grupo de jóvenes guerreros Xatanawa, hasta entonces aislados, establecieron contacto con una comunidad Ashaninka en la parte alta del río Envira.

Sin embargo, hay diferencias importantes en estos dos episodios superficialmente similares: el contacto Xatanawa fue iniciado por su propia voluntad, caminando varios kilómetros para pedir ayuda a la población indígena vecina después de aparentemente haber sido atacados por madereros o tal vez (según las primeras investigaciones en Brasil) narcotraficantes con sede en Perú. Por otra parte, los Ashaninka llamaron inmediatamente a un experimentado equipo de la Fundación Nacional del Índio, la FUNAI, para ayudar a mediar en el contacto, proporcionar atención médica para la inevitable gripe que afectó  a los intrépidos jóvenes, y desarrollar una estrategia a largo plazo para proteger al grupo. El contacto con los Mashco-Piro había ocurrido de manera informal, irresponsablemente, y en contra de las normas oficiales, por grupos de turistas y población local sin la autoridad o capacidad para manejar las consecuencias potencialmente genocidas de tal situación.

La organización indígena FENAMAD, junto con Survival International, han publicado recientemente fotografías en su página de FaceBook tomadas el 6 de septiembre donde se muestra un grupo de niños Mashco-Piro recibiendo  ropa y regalos de una mujer indígena local de la Comunidad Nativa de Diamante quien está afiliada a una organización misionera evangélica que ha intentado ponerse en contacto con los Mashco-Piro desde hace algún tiempo. La gente de Diamante en el río Madre de Dios son Piro, y su lengua es muy parecida a la de los Mashco-Piro para permitir una comunicación mutua. Algunos habitantes de Diamante han estado tratando de ponerse en contacto con los Mashco-Piro desde hace casi 25 años, pero sólo en el último año los Mashco-Piro respondió a tales esfuerzos con nada menos que hostilidad: varios pobladores locales han sido heridos por flechas Mashco-Piro, y un hombre fue asesinado en 2011.

August 19, 2014

Forget Colonial Myths: Xatanawa contact puts an end to a century of resistance

They are young and healthy, with strong bodies and carefully trimmed hair, some bearing delicate designs painted on their faces. They carry fine (and sharp) arrows with impeccably trimmed feather fletching. They wear penis-straps made of tree bark which double as belts to carry machetes, recently acquired. They sing beautiful melodies characteristic of the shared Panoan musical repertoire that is found throughout this region along the Brazil-Peru border, and that has been studied by anthropologists and even recorded on CDs. 

Behind this striking appearance of youthful Xatanawa warriors on the Envira river in Acre, emerging from isolation to seek assistance from indigenous neighbors, lies a terrible history of massacres at the hands of 21st century drug traffickers and loggers and 19th century rubber tappers

The "contact" of the Txapanawa[1] is an extraordinary story of resistance. 

Video still of dramatic footage released by FUNAI showing Xatanawa contact.

And yet mainstream reporting has emphasized sensational and exotic details, colonial ideas about a primitive people "emerging from the forest" and entering into "first contact" with civilization. Public comments express surprise at these "Stone Age" people carrying machetes, or even a shotgun. These ethnocentric perspectives ignore the deep and tragic history of this people, and others like them, while also overlooking the negligence of the Peruvian and Brazilian authorities in failing to guarantee their territorial and human rights.

CONTINUE READING the full article (in Portuguese) by Felipe Milanez and Glenn Shepard at Carta Capital

Also read the three-part series (in English) at Indian Country Today:

Part 1: Drug traffickers force isolated group into contact
Part 2: Banana diplomacy
Part 3: Quiet war in the Amazon

Read more from this blog on the history and origins of isolated indigenous peoples and the dilemmas of isolation and contact

[1]. Note: original reports suggested these people were known as the Xatanawa, close relatives of the Chitonahua of Peru. However more conversations with the group carried out by FUNAI through translators suggest they belong to a distinctive group speaking a language with important dialect variations, and that their name should be rendered as Txapanawa (J.C. Meirelles, personal communication).

August 16, 2014

Quiet War in the Amazon: "Uncontacted" tribes vs. drug lords and loggers

The Txapanawa[1] have never been alone nor "uncontacted" in their century-long history of resistance. Isolation and resistance go hand and hand in this remote borderland region outside the reach of the Peruvian and Brazilian states. The Mashco-Piro have been photographed and even filmed in recent years in Peru. One Mashco-Piro group is believed to be responsible for an attack on FUNAI’s Xinane base in 2004, during which veteran FUNAI agent José Carlos Meirelles was wounded with an arrow. 

Mashco-Piro arrows recovered after people from a settled indigenous community on the Manu river tried to approach: The Mashco-Piro rained arrows on them in self defense.

A Matsigenka man who had been attempting for many years to contact a Mashco-Piro group in Peru was slain by a Mashco-Piro arrow in late 2011. Isolated groups have made incursions on the Xinane base on several other occasions to take food, implements and trade goods, and at times have attacked FUNAI employees, set fire to the base and even killed the guard dogs there, sending a clear message that they intend to protect their territory from invasion. Their hostility must be understood in context, since they are as yet unable to distinguish between the loggers and drug traffickers who have attacked them, and the FUNAI employees who are there to protect them.

Meirelles, who recently retired, was replaced by the young indigenous agent Guilherme Dalto Siviero, who heads the new “Envira Ethno-Environmental Protection Front.” FUNAI has announced it will reopen the Xinane post with about 10 employees, including FUNAI specialists, interpreters and a health team. The plan is to add three additional bases on the D’Ouro, Muru, and Mamoadate rivers to monitor isolated populations. The project would cost about $500,000 dollars initially.

Meirelles was one of the last remaining sertanistas (‘backwoods agents’) in FUNAI, a special category of indigenous agents responsible for carrying out expeditions to attract, contact and pacify isolated indigenous groups along the regions of frontier expansion during the second half of the 20th century. With the employee reforms carried out at FUNAI between 2009 and 2012, and the new policy of “no contact unless necessary,” the category of sertanista was extinguished. In addition to the sertanistas responsible for contacting isolated peoples for the Brazilian state, missionaries of many denominations have taken it upon themselves to contact and study the languages of various Indigenous Peoples, included hitherto isolated ones, in order to carry out evangelization and Bible translation.

Indigenous populations who have refused contact with the state fall into a no-man’s land along this social, political and economic frontier. They are threatened by illegal loggers and gold miners as well as drug traffickers who are active in the lawless border region. Elsewhere in the Brazilian and Peruvian interior, isolated indigenous populations are threatened by ranchers, oil and gas industries, hydroelectric dams, highway-building and other large infrastructure projects.

CONTINUE READING the full article, the final in a three-part series by Felipe Milanez and Glenn Shepard at Indian Country Today:

Part 1: Drug traffickers force isolated group into contact
Part 2: Banana diplomacy
Part 3: Quiet war in the Amazon

Read more from this blog on the history and origins of isolated indigenous peoples and the dilemmas of isolation and contact

[1]. Note: original reports suggested these people were known as the Xatanawa, close relatives of the Chitonahua of Peru. However more conversations with the group carried out by FUNAI through translators suggest they belong to a distinctive group speaking a language with important dialect variations, and that their name should be rendered as Txapanawa (J.C. Meirelles, personal communication).

Banana Diplomacy: "First contact" with isolated tribe in the Amazon

They were separated only by the narrow course of the Envira river. From a distance of a few meters they tried to speak to each other. As the video clip recently released by Funai shows, Fernando Ashaninka entered the water as two Xatanawa mirrored his motions from the opposite bank. One Txapanawa[1] man remained behind with a shotgun (apparently captured from an unfortunate logger) in case of an attack. After unsuccessful attempts at spoken communication they turned to gestures  and eventually Fernando gave them bananas. The Txapanawa then follow the Ashaninka and FUNAI team to the village and ask for clothing . Watching the video, one only hopes that the used clothes they receive aren’t contaminated with flu virus or other harmful diseases. The speaker on the video announces that this was the "first contact" with this group. But there had been in fact several previous interactions between them and the Ashaninka community of Simpatia.

The seven Txapanawa survivors of the recent massacre who reached out to Simpatia included five men and two women, in addition to some 40 to 100 that stayed behind in the forest. They first appeared on June 10, to take iron goods, clothes and food. An Ashaninka man, Raimundinho, initially considered this an act of “thievery,” but the village leader “Carijó” quickly informed FUNAI and organized and informed the village to avoid violent confrontations. Rather than thieves, they were more like diplomats, coming on an urgent peace-making mission.

Members of the same group had already made enigmatic appearances at other Ashaninka and Kulina villages along the Envira River, according to the Indigenous Missionary Council (CIMI). In March of 2014, Renato Santana from CIMI told journalist Scott Wallace, “Women are afraid to go into the forest to tend their gardens for fear of abduction.” CIMI released additional aerial photographs of the group in April and demanded that FUNAI act to protect their territory. The FUNAI post at Xinane, which had been established as an advanced base to handle this situation, has been closed since it was attacked by drug traffickers in 2011.

After their dramatic, brief appearance at Simpatia on June 10, FUNAI began preparing for an eminent contact, which came on June 27 with an initial peaceful encounter followed by additional visits on June 29 and 30, culminating in a longer meeting on July 4, when the Txapanawa emissaries remained for several hours at Simpatia before returning to the forest.

CONTINUE READING the full article, the second in a three-part series by Felipe Milanez and Glenn Shepard at Indian Country Today:

Part 1: Drug traffickers force isolated group into contact
Part 2: Banana diplomacy
Part 3: Quiet war in the Amazon

[1]. Note: original reports suggested these people were known as the Xatanawa, close relatives of the Chitonahua of Peru. However more conversations with the group carried out by FUNAI through translators suggest they belong to a distinctive group speaking a language with important dialect variations, and that their name should be rendered as Txapanawa (J.C. Meirelles, personal communication).

August 5, 2014

Encounter in Acre: Indigenous group emerges from isolation to seek aid and report massacres

The same group of indigenous warriors famously photographed in 2008 aiming arrows at the passing 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 ask for food and mercy.

Isolated group known as the "Xatanawa" seek assistance from nearby Ashaninka community, as captured in dramatic video and photos released by FUNAI. 

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 tenseA subsequent encounter, captured on a remarkable video clip that has been viewed around the world on the internet, eventually became more relaxed, even joyous, as they began imitating bird songs and even singing

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 “Txapanawa”[1] 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. 

A Chitonahua woman photographed in Peru in 1996 shortly after her group fled from similar violence on the Brazilian side of the border, only to be attacked and captured by Peruvian loggers (Photo: G. Shepard).
A Chitonahua teenager in Peru who lost his eye to a shotgun blast from Brazilian loggers (Photo G. Shepard, 1996).

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 ten years, their population was reduced by almost half, mostly due to introduced diseases. (The Nahua, too, in their early contacts with outsiders along the Manu and Mishagua Rivers in Peru in 1985-1987, sang the identical "Yama-yama-yama" song captured on the recent footage from Acre.)

Nahua shaman from Peru preparing ayahuasca vine (Photo: G. Shepard, 1996)

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.

CONTINUE READING the full article, the first in a three-part series by Felipe Milanez and Glenn Shepard at Indian Country Today:

Part 1: Drug traffickers force isolated group into contact
Part 2: Banana diplomacy
Part 3: Quiet war in the Amazon

Read more from this blog on the history and origins of isolated indigenous peoples and the dilemmas of isolation and contact

[1]. Note: original reports suggested these people were known as the Xatanawa, close relatives of the Chitonahua of Peru. However more conversations with the group carried out by FUNAI through translators suggest they belong to a distinctive group speaking a language with important dialect variations, and that their name should be rendered as Txapanawa (J.C. Meirelles, personal communication).

June 14, 2014

The Eye of the Needle: Ethno-fictional tale about jaguar transformation published in Anthropology and Humanism

The pale light of a half moon filtered through the forest canopy and dappled the path where she tracked a maddening stench. Hunger tore at her belly like a blunt spear of boar tusk, like the tusk that had ripped into her eye during a stampede long ago and left her watching the world half in shadow. From her blind side hidden obstacles now loomed blurry, out of perspective: far, then near. 

She had roamed in vain through the clawing blackness that night, exhausted and famished and betrayed by her waning strength and failing senses. But she caught wind of the familiar odor and crawled along its trace until she found the moonlit path cutting through the forest. She was in haste to sate her hunger but she had to go softly because the enemy was about.

From her blind side there came a fearful snap, an ominous grunt. She turned her head and froze at the sweep of a smoldering yellow eye that glared in her direction and then blinked shut in the close darkness.

Read another excerpt: On Jaguars and Transformation

 Published by Anthropology and Humanism

Download the full story at and ResearchGate

Read more about jaguar transformation in the Amazon and beyond in:
"Old and in the Way: Jaguar Transformation in Matsigenka"

Video Still: The Spirit Hunters

"The Eye of the Needle" was published in the latest issue of Anthropology and Humanism. The tale, awarded Honorable Mention in the Society for Humanistic Anthropology's 2013 Ethnographic Fiction Contest, dramatizes indigenous Amazonian beliefs about human-jaguar transformation.

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February 24, 2014

Gift of the Spider Woman: Spinning, weaving and womanhood among the Matsigenka of Peru

The moon is bright, the night is giddy with festivities and Shanuiva has emerged from her cage. Jaula, literally "cage," is how Spanish-speaking Matsigenka refer to the palm leaf enclosure where Matsigenka girls spend their months-long initiation after first menstruation. However the native Matsigenka word for this rite is far more appropriate: antarotira, “the time during which she becomes an adult.” Shanuiva is pale and lovely, with woven cotton armbands tight around her plump biceps, thick necklaces of beads and animal teeth whispering between her awakening breasts, and a freshly shorn head that gives her the serenity and dignity of Buddhist nun.

Shanuiva emerges from ritual seclusion, 1996 (photo: Manuel Lizarralde).

During her three-month-long ritual seclusion, Shanuiva shunned sunlight and the admiring glances of men, remaining inside the small enclosure. She ate a special diet of boiled manioc, palm hearts, bland boiled fish and the breast meat of succulent game birds. She was allowed to leave only at dusk or dawn to bathe and relieve herself, accompanied by her mother, grandmother or aunt. On these brief excursions, female relatives might teach her some of the closely guarded secrets of adult womanhood, such as medicinal plants in the garden or along the path: bark to chew to keep her teeth healthy and strong, leaves to heat and rub to remove unsightly pubic hair, aromatic roots to delay, induce or terminate pregnancy, to facilitate childbirth, to ward off illness and evil spirits that might attack her coming children, to keep her husband faithful, to steady her hands when spinning and weaving cotton. 

But aside from her budding adolescent beauty, her pale skin, plump arms, shorn head and esoteric knowledge gleaned, Shanuiva has emerged from her ‘cage’ with an essential and hard-earned treasure: a roll of handspun cotton thread nearly the size of a soccer ball. She has been spinning cotton nonstop for most of her three month seclusion. Indeed almost every time you passed by the enclosure, you heard the percussive “Slap! Slap! Slap!” as she beat out cotton seeds and joined individual cotton balls into long matted locks, or the distinctive grating sound of the palm spindle whirling in a calabash gourd bowl with a pinch of fine sand in the base.

Counter-clockwise from bottom right: Raw cotton balls, locks of cotton ready for spinning, spun cotton on a spool, and cotton thread dyed with Tapirira guianensis bark.