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The Village People
On an Educational Voyage, Rain Forest Indians Are Learning the Publicity Ropes

By David Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 8, 2006; C01

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."

True, Brunton says, most days back home in the pueblo of Mogue, population 475, the Embera wear shorts and shirts. Loincloths and paint are for special occasions: Embera evening wear. "We don't walk around with tuxedos except on special occasions, and they don't either," Brunton says.

Coming to Washington, and other ports of call, qualifies as a special occasion.

"We wanted to represent our culture," says the village's president of culture, Emiliano Caisamo, backing Brunton on the dress issue.

Brunton solved the question of how to showcase the female Embera, dressed in the traditional way with skirts and beads: When they are on deck to perform their native songs and dance, they have to cover their breasts with strips of a sheet Brunton sliced up.

That's that, then. On to other questions.

Do the Embera trust this Brunton?

"We have already seen his work in our community," Rito says, including helping the village sell enough crafts in the United States to pay for a rice mill and a "House of Culture" that doubles as a hotel for eco-tourists. Plus, Brunton employed numerous Embera in building the boat. "We believe we can trust his will and his heart. . . . He lets us speak for ourselves, in our own voice."

Mogue, about 70 miles from the Colombian border, is struggling, Rito says. There are few economic opportunities for children. The native language is dying, the culture is disappearing. Some foreign-aid contractors are buying up land for conservation -- and kicking out the indigenous people. There are about 15,000 Embera, who have lived for generations as farmers and hunters in the region.

The Embera have high hopes for their three-month voyage. Rito says he hopes that by putting their very existence and their beautiful wood before the world, they will open markets for their products.

"We want to see what we can do to shape our future," he says.

Brunton, for his part, has decided that the foreign-aid system is broken. Too much distance between the bureaucrats designing aid projects and the indigenous people who are supposed to benefit.

"I've been down there 40 years and I haven't seen a damn thing improve," he says. "What better help than to shorten the distance between impulse and impact?"

Brunton's solution? Build the boat, use it as a tool for publicity, make indigenous people their own ambassadors.

Get Brunton going, and he dreams out loud bigger and bigger. Maybe the Embera could meet the Penobscott of Maine to discuss common challenges. After a fall cruise of Caribbean nations, maybe the Maya could come aboard in Guatemala.

With the publicity, and more funding from his company, Brunton wants to support projects such as bringing the Internet and satellite technology to the rain forest. Then the Embera could build world markets not for mere crafts but mass-produced wood furniture. Cutting trees for furniture is more sustainable than burning forests for farmland, the current practice. Cabinetry from one carved tree could sell for $20,000, compared with the 10,000 trees the Embera cut down a year for agriculture that yields $50,000, Brunton claims.

"He has transformed that passion into real opportunity for the indigenous people," says Peace Corps Director Gaddi Vasquez, who took a harbor spin with the group last evening.

Not all development professionals are impressed.

"It's a very complex area, and it's not going to be solved quite frankly by getting a boat and filling it up with Indians and driving them around the Caribbean," says Mac Chapin, anthropologist and director of the Center for Support of Native Lands in Arlington, which enlisted the Embera in a 1993 project to map the Darien region. He has never heard of Brunton. "You've got to really know what you're doing. If you just have good intentions, you're at best not going to accomplish very much at all."

So some see his vision as "quixotic" or "pie in the sky," says Brunton: "There are no guarantees here that all this will work. There are just observations that so much hasn't worked."

And, in the meantime, what a summer cruise! They have been gripped with fear in 12-foot seas and performed at a down-home barbecue in Charleston, S.C. They invited dozens of guests for a Fourth of July river tour.

Next stop: Annapolis tomorrow. But before their scheduled departure from the yacht club, the Embera put on their pants and shirts, went to the National Zoo and looked at the animals.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company