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Christina Chauvenet: The Unconquered: In Search of the Amazon’s Last Uncontacted Tribes

January 12, 2012

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Scott Wallace’s new book, The Unconquered, provides insight into the unknown world of isolated tribes in the Amazon.

By **Christina Chauvenet**

Unconquered-Tribe-575.jpgWallace was part of an expedition that set out to monitor the land of uncontacted groups such as this one, without actually coming into “contact” with the groups. Photograph by Gleison Miranda/FUNAI/Survival.

The term “uncontacted tribes” typically conjures up an image of 1492 and Columbus landing in the Americas to discover “savages” living in the region. But as Scott Wallace’s new book chronicles, uncontacted tribes are both alive and well (despite numerous threats) in the Brazilian Amazon.

Wallace, who is a writer for National Geographic, was sent to the Brazilian Amazon to write a piece on Sydney Possulo, the tireless defender of the indigenous peoples of Brazil. He joined Possuelo on a three month trek with some 30 other men through the Amazon in 2002 to monitor the land of the “Arrow People,” one of the last uncontacted tribes in the world. Possuelo was the head of the Isolated Indian Affairs Department within the governmental body that protected indigenous people, called FUNAI.

The final product turned out to be much more than a feature story on Possuelo. The mission of the trip was to monitor the tribe’s land, both for signs that the tribe was still alive and thriving in the forest, as well as searching for clues of invasion of the tribes’ land, typically from illegal loggers, drug traffickers, and gold miners, to name a few.

All this had to be accomplished without actually making contact with the tribe, which proves to be a difficult task. However, as the author discusses throughout the book, the no-contact policy is of utmost importance, as first contact comes with dire consequences. Firstly, there is the straightforward aspect of immunity to diseases like the common cold. According to tribal rights group Survival International, it is not uncommon for more than 50 percent of a tribe to die within a few years of contact. Whether made with malicious intent or not, contact with outsiders poses a grave danger to these groups. Then, there is the question of self determination. The Arrow People were well aware that there was an outside world. The fact that they hadn’t made contact, Wallace says, “provided a sufficiently clear message: they wanted to be left alone.”

Wallace allows you to share in his anxiety, bewilderment, fear, sadness, excitement, and exhaustion he experiences on his roller coaster of an expedition.

Wallace deals with these complex issues of dangers to the uncontacted group with ease and intrigue. Background information about the Arrow People and other indigenous groups in Brazil are intertwined in the narrative, which makes the subject matter much more relevant. As Wallace travels through the Amazon at a grueling pace, I felt instantly transported to the depths of the jungle, where dodging jaguars and analyzing broken twigs for signs of the uncontacted group were part of the daily routine.

Wallace openly discusses his mixed emotions towards Possuelo. As he starts on the expedition, he wonders “if I hadn’t put myself into the hands of some deranged Colonel Kurtz.” Possuelo is depicted as moody, almost bipolar, and at times ruling with an iron fist, so blind sighted by his passion to protect indigenous rights that he often gets unruly with his team when he views them as an obstacle to his mission. However, on another level, Wallace clearly admires Possuelo’s dedication to the Indians, and states, “Possuelo’s rapport with the Indians was extraordinary.”

Another interesting aspect of Wallace’s book is his evidenced admiration for the other indigenous members of the expedition. There were many members of non-isolated tribes in the team, and in the midst of the trek, Wallace comments on how “utterly lost I would be without my companions… they picked me up when I fell, steered me away from imminent threats, and hunted the food that I ate.” Here, the message is clear; just because we have smart phones and live in metropolitan areas does not mean that we possess “some kind of moral or intellectual superiority.”

In spite of the evidenced support for tribal peoples, some of the language Wallace uses to describe uncontacted peoples is distracting to his message. He refers to these groups as “primitive” and not being part of “civilization.” This language could be perceived as derogatory towards tribal peoples, though that was obviously not the author’s intention.

Furthermore, I think Wallace should have included a little more background about uncontacted tribes in other parts of the world. Wallace only briefly mentions a few other uncontacted groups in South America, and does not discuss the status of uncontacted tribes in West Papua or Asia’s Sentinel Islands. A juxtaposition of these situations would have allowed the reader to see that despite the many obstacles, Brazil’s government is one of the best in the world when it comes to protecting uncontacted tribes.

Overall, the book is an eye-opening read that is one of the most gripping pieces of non-fiction around; at times, you’ll swear you are reading a thriller novel. Wallace allows you to share in his anxiety, bewilderment, fear, sadness, excitement, and exhaustion he experiences on his roller coaster of an expedition. It is a must read for those interested in indigenous peoples and/or the Amazon.

Most importantly, Wallace brings attention to the threats faced by the Arrow People, namely contact with the outside world. As Possuelo said, “Our work here is beautiful because they don’t even know we’re here to help them. The best thing we can do is stay out of their lives.”

________________________________________________________________________

Christina Chauvenet is a freelance writer based in Washington, DC. Previously, she worked as a Press Officer for tribal rights group Survival International. She earned a BA from Wake Forest University in Political Science and a MS in Latin American Politics from the University of London. She can be reached via Twitter.

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2 comments for Christina Chauvenet: The Unconquered: In Search of the Amazon’s Last Uncontacted Tribes

  1. Comment by Mike Christatos on January 13, 2012 at 8:33 am

    So interesting! Can’t wait to pick up the book myself!

  2. Comment by Catherine Walker on January 19, 2012 at 7:31 pm

    Nicely balanced piece, and good to draw attention to the wider issues facing tribal peoples in other countries too. Reading that the Brazilian Government is considered one of the best in the world for protecting tribal peoples is quite a sobering thought, given the discussions over the Belo Monte dam at the moment. This book sounds fascinating though!

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