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).


  1. Dr. Shepard,

    Many thanks for this informative post. It really helps me give some geographic and ethnological context to the story.

    Out of curiosity, how were the links between the Xatanawa and the group in the 2008 aerial photos established? By further remote sensing data and/or contact through third parties?

  2. Dear MT Bradley, FUNAI has been gathering evidence about this group for many years, registering signs, systematizing information on various encounters and analyzing satellite images and aerial photos. Based on all this plus the accounts of the people themselves, they are very certain about who there are and where they live. It also seems pretty clear that they are closely related if not identical to the Chitonahua contacted in Peru in 1996, as well as the Nahua/Yora who left their homeland in the early 20th century and settled in the headwaters of the Manu and Mishagua rivers. Thanks again for your comment! Glenn