The Village People

Embera Indians dance onboard the Pajaro Jai in traditional garb, although at home they are more likely to be found wearing shorts and shirts.
Embera Indians dance onboard the Pajaro Jai in traditional garb, although at home they are more likely to be found wearing shorts and shirts. (By Robert A. Reeder -- The Washington Post)
By David Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 8, 2006

To the preppies and the slackers and the bluebloods and the rednecks and the crabbers and wharf rats and mongers and moochers and drinkers and dancers on Washington's waterfront this week, add one more slice of humanity.

Panamanian Indians. The Embera people, to be exact. Straight out of the rain forest. The men clad in loincloths, with painted bodies. The women topless.

They are not a seafaring people, but these folks arrived by boat, after a 2,500-mile voyage.

"We came on a mission for our village," Marselo Teucama, 34, says in Spanish. The black vegetable-dye design on his torso is the Chinese-checkerboard geometry of a jungle shaman.

"We have a message to take to other countries," says Alberto Rito, 43, with a sketch of a spider on his chest and a butterfly on his back.

Are you listening, foreign-aid bureaucrats, flapping your totemic Ivy League cravats while inside your cubicle jungles? Your indigenous brothers think you can do better. You hardly ever come to visit their grass huts in the forest. So they thought they'd sail up and say so in person.

A rich, sunburned gringo in a straw hat from country-clubby Westport, Conn., was in command when this unusual boating party sailed in Sunday. His presence, and his encouraging the native crew to wear their traditional garb for visitors, raised all sorts of complicated questions. Whose mission was this, really? How to reconcile the capital's fashion habits with the topless women below deck? And was the entire endeavor -- how to put this -- stone loco ?

"We're bringing a piece of the rain forest here," says James A. Brunton Jr., 62, the man in the straw hat, the force behind the 12-year, $1.5 million, "Fitzcarraldo"-like feat of building a 92-foot boat out of rain forest hardwoods with indigenous labor. "That has a powerful impact."

He is a former Peace Corps volunteer (1967-69) in the Darien rain forest (not to be confused with Darien, Conn.) who says he made a lot of money with a Westport-based software company and has used some of the proceeds to create the Pajaro Jai Foundation to help the people he met in his Peace Corps days. The name of the boat is Pajaro Jai, too, a phrase cobbled from Spanish and Embera to mean "Enchanted Bird."

In a gentle breeze spiked with Old Bay seasoning from the Maine Avenue SW fish wharf, the Pajaro Jai bobs at anchor at the Capital Yacht Club. With its two tall masts and three sails, it is all varnished butterscotch luxury, quite a contrast against the white fiberglass of neighboring craft, with names like Story Maker II, Prospero and Brigadoon.

There are seven Embera aboard, plus nine others, including sailors who give the Indians crew lessons. But just what is the deal with the loincloths, jungle paint, dancing and breasts, anyway? Is there anything that so recalls the bad old days of medicine show exploitation, tourist trinket colonialism, insulting old dioramas at the Smithsonian, cliches of National Geographic titillation?

Brunton has a ready answer: "This isn't dress-up for charade; this is real," he says. "We don't want to represent them as Latinos, because they're not Latinos. They are the original people of the rain forest. . . . It's who they are. However you interpret it, tough luck."

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