May 27, 2016

Ceci N’est Pas un Contact: the Fetishization of Isolated Indigenous People [Excerpt]

Words matter. Peruvian legislation recognizes two categories of indigenous peoples with little or no interaction with outsiders and the state: “peoples in voluntary isolation” and “peoples in initial contact.” And yet there is no term, process or protocol to describe that moment of transition from one category to another: the process we refer to, for lack of a better term as “contact,” which evokes cinematic images of encounters with alien civilizations.1

Throughout 2014, groups of "uncontacted"(?!) Mashco-Piro regularly approached tourism and transport boats along the banks of the upper Madre de Dios river asking for food, clothing and metal implements.

I visited Peru in March of 2015 in the company of retired FUNAI agent José Carlos Meirelles and Brazilian physician Douglas Rodrigues, both with decades of experience among such peoples. My visit was an attempt to help the Peruvian Culture Ministry better address the precarious situation of isolated indigenous peoples along the Peru-Brazil border. It took years for the Peruvian government to even recognize the fact that isolated indigenous groups still exist in some parts of the Peruvian Amazon. Once such peoples were officially recognized in Peru about a decade ago, the official state policy, promoted by indigenous federations such as the Federacion Nativa de Madre de Dios (FENAMAD), has been “no contact.” Whereas in past years, religious and other organizations have sought to initiate contact with such isolated indigenous peoples, typically resulting in their decimation and cultural assimilation, this more enlightened, recent policy has recognized isolation as a form of cultural self-determination that should be respected and enforced.

Mashco-Piro women on the banks of the Madre Dios river. Photo: Charlie Hamilton James, National Geographic, June 2016.

I first coined the term “voluntary isolation” in an open letter to Mobil Prospecting Peru protesting this company’s seismic exploration in the Rio Piedras known to be inhabited by Mashco-Piro and perhaps other poorly known indigenous groups, referred to at that time with inaccurate and pejorative terms such as “uncontacted,” “Stone Age,” “primitive,” “uncivilized,” or “naked.” The point of the term “voluntary isolation” is to recognize this situation, not as an accident of nature or history
a human group lost in the backwaters of human evolution — but rather as a conscious choice of these indigenous peoples to isolate themselves from outsiders, often due to disastrous prior experiences, as a mode of survival and self-determination.2 The term seemed to catch on, initially through the activism of FENAMAD and the International Working Group on Indigenous Affairs in Peru, and ultimately spread to neighboring Amazonian countries like Brazil, Colombia and Paraguay.

What do we do when a group of isolated people, such as the Mashco-Piro along the upper Madre de Dios River, who had previously rejected all attempts at “contact” by missionaries, scientists, government agents and nearby indigenous brethren, have suddenly emerged along river banks, calling to tourist boats and loggers asking for food, clothes, and metal implements? Mashco-Piro bowmen have raided legally recognized native communities to take food and trade goods, sometimes wounding and even killing apparently inoffensive indigenous “brethren” with their arrows.

Faced with such difficult challenges, one Peruvian Culture Ministry representative asked the Brazilian specialists, “Don’t we need a new category to refer to these people? ‘People in sporadic contact’ perhaps?” This person, and others we met during this visit of exchange between Peru and Brazil, seemed to be contorting the language to find ways of respecting the inviolable principle of “no contact.” Meirelles responded in his characteristically sardonic manner: “Can a person be considered ‘sporadically pregnant’? No. Either they are, or they aren’t.” 

An evangelical missionary communicates with a group of Mashco-Piro through a local Piro interpreter, 2014.

Viewing numerous photographs of Mashco-Piro individuals approaching boats, receiving clothes, metal implements, food, even a Coca Cola bottle, Meirelles commented: “Contact has already happened. You people are in denial.”

The official Peruvian policy of “no-contact” is reinforced by vehement, idealistic media campaigns by indigenous rights organizations and concerned individuals who post on social media networks
“leave them alone!” While their intentions are of course noble, such a simplistic view of the complex and quickly changing situation tends to romanticize and fetishize the condition of “isolation” as a pristine, natural, unadulterated state of the last autonomous, free peoples of the planet beyond the clutches of capitalism, organized religion and the state. People forget that the very state of “isolation” is most often a historical product, a conscious choice by certain groups of people, in certain moments, to defend themselves from moments of violence and territorial invasion, notably during the Rubber Boom at the turn of the 20th century. For this very reason I have resisted the idea that such peoples should be referred to as “uncontacted.” 

Mashco-Piro children remove clothing and food from a tourism boat. Photo: Jaime Corisepa/FENAMAD

As Felipe Milanez has written, “Contact is a myth: it is a colonial myth.” It is a myth that fetishizes as a primordial condition
“uncontacted,” autonomous, free, beyond the state what is in fact a historically contingent response.  The response of isolated peoples is evolving, in some cases rapidly, in a rapidly changing world impacted not only by roads, mining, logging, gas pipelines, and colonization, but also by global warming, environmental change, and changing social relationships with neighboring peoples.3 It is only by looking beyond these myths and the idealistic, sometimes naïve notions they evoke, that scholars and supporters of indigenous rights and the relevant government institutions can develop policies that defend the long-term rights of survival, territory and self-determination of indigenous peoples, rather than blindly defending their own fantasies about them.


Excerpt: Full text at Tipiti 14(1): 135-137 (article 8)

Read more from the special forum on isolated peoples at Tipiti 14(1), with articles by Felipe Milanez & yrs truly, Lucas Bessire, John Hemming, Minna Opas, and Warren Thompson & Obed Garcia

Read more on isolated indigenous peoples from this blog:

Mashco-Piros on the verge 
Too-close encounters 
Quiet war in the Amazon
Forget colonial myths


1. Shepard, G.H. 2002. “Prólogo.” In: Huertas, B., Los Pueblos Indígenas en Aislamiento: Su lucha por la sobrevivencia y la libertad. Lima: IWGIA, 11-14.

2. Shepard, G.H. et al. 2010. “Trouble in Paradise: Indigenous populations, anthropological policies, and     biodiversity conservation in Manu National Park, Peru.” Journal of Sustainable Forestry     29(2): 252-301.

3. Walker, R. S., and Hill, K. 2015. “Protecting isolated tribes,” Science 5 June 2015: 1061.



  1. AnonymousMay 28, 2016

    As a baseline, the testimony from isolated Tsapanawas Indian Chief Sheena, gives perspective of life in isolation. Sheena is speaking face to face with Carlos Meirellas.
    No more Hypothesis or speculation.

    David Hill of UK “The Guardian” is critical of this documentary, Channel 4's “Lost Tribe of the Amazon”. Check this video out. Sheena, Carlos and Felipe talk.

    Here is the video. First Contact Lost Tribe of the Amazon 2016

    One other problem surfaces real time May 25, 2016.

    The Madre de Dios River in Peru.

    Peru Declares State of Emergency as Mercury Contamination From Illegal Gold Mining Poisons water and fish.

    What to do? Send in anthropologists and tell the Mashco-Piro not to drink water or eat fish? Add turtles and turtle eggs.

    1. Precisely: while everyone else is crying out "Leave them alone", the loggers, miners and drug traffickers are invading from all sides. As the head of the Peruvian isolated peoples protection team said: everyone has contacted the Mashco-Piro but us." The official policy of protection, territorial integrity and "no contact" should be maintained and enforced. But a "no contact" policy necessarily implies contingency and emergency plans that contemplate scenarios of contact and medical intervention. Thanks for posting, Glenn

    2. The solution is not to contact those who do not want to contact and attend to those who want to contact the external world.
      Those who want to contact should be explained that not all people from outside are good.
      As for those who care for them, the correct thing is that they put on masks to avoid catching air viruses and that they explain it to them so that they also take care. It would also be appropriate if they were not taught modern inventions so as not to make them more dependent on the external world.

      The First Contact Lost Tribe of the Amazon video can be seen at this link (the link Anonymous put in does not work)

  2. AnonymousMay 29, 2016

    There is a lot of political turmoil going on in Brazil with the impeachment process, Peru elections coming in June and then U.S.. Elections that will impact extractable commodities of the world. I found a little voice, meek, humble and broken. A Pine Ridge Lakota Sioux Indian teenager from SD. Traveling the muddy road. He wants to be a U.S. President. Meet Robert Looks Twice.

    1. Thanks for sharing that, I did see that video and it brought tears to my eyes. I shared it with my children as well. I want to see that young man go far in life: the first Native American president? We certainly need fresh ideas in politics given the political situation you so rightly point out in the U.S. and beyond. Thanks for writing, and sorry for the delayed response, I was on extended health leave and am only beginning to get caught up! Sincerely, Glenn