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Old Tribe, New World
Brazilian Indians Seek Own Way of Modern Life

By Stephen Buckley
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, December 19, 1999; Page A01

ILHA DO BANANAL, Brazil—As the dance of the Spirit Who Lives in the Water begins under a pale yellow sunset, 10-year-old Nahuria Karaja buries her face in her mother's lap.

She does not want to watch another 10-year-old girl, nearly naked with decorative black lines across her smooth coppery skin, dance with two men in straw masks in the center of this Indian village of Santa Isabel. But the dance--a ritual at the heart of the identity of Nahuria's father and his ancestors--proceeds nonetheless. The men in the straw masks, shaking maracas and chanting, meet the girl, all black hair and downcast eyes, in the center of the path. They dance, separated by only a few inches.

"This is very much ours," says Idjarruri Karaja, Nahuria's father. "This goes beyond 300 years of contact" with the outside world.

As the men dance with the girl, Adais Karaja whispers to her daughter that, no, "You won't have to do it."

After the 20-minute dance, Nahuria walks away. She is quiet for a long time. She is a modern girl who has been told that this faraway place is to be her home.

This disconnect between a tradition-loving father and his citified, globalized daughter has complicated Idjarruri Karaja's dramatic attempt to restore simplicity and tradition to his modern life.

Five years ago, Idjarruri, 36, and his wife, Adais, 37, left Brasilia, the capital, for this 180-mile-long, blade-shaped chunk of land, bounded by two rivers, in the heart of Brazil. The island had 3,000 people, 12 villages (known as aldeias), few phones, little electricity, no computers.

Idjarruri's children had grown up in big cities around Brazil. Their lives were saturated with the latest in technology. Could they possibly thrive where their father and his six siblings had grown up--here, in a high-roofed hut in a village with a handful of cars, no shopping mall and no movie theaters?

In 1993, Idjarruri returned to the land of his tribe, the Karaja, to build a new village he called Txuiri. His sons and daughter felt little connection to the island. They knew neither the tribe's central myths nor its language.

But Idjarruri wanted them to know their land, the possession the Karaja cherish above all else. The land where thousands of their ancestors had shed blood, fighting colonists and other tribes. The land that holds everything you need, Idjarruri told his children repeatedly. The patrimony, he called it.

Idjarruri wasn't suddenly anti-globalization. He spoke of computers and faxes and television as "exchanges," a return favor for what the Indians had taught the Portuguese about taking regular baths and hammocks and fishing.

But in his gut he knew that such exchanges could be dangerous. The glare and chatter of television, the easy grasp of commercial goods, the ubiquitous sweep of technology could whittle away a person's sense of home.

He also had a name to uphold. His late grandfather, Uatau Karaja, had been a fierce guardian of Indian rights. Idjarruri didn't want to admit it, but the Karaja saw him as an extension of his grandfather, a leader of his people. What kind of leader would he be if his own children rejected the ways of the tribe?

His mantra today is "Neither isolation nor integration." Yet, as a new millennium dawns, what does that mean? Does it mean his children can watch "Independence Day" and "Dead Poets Society" over and over, as long as they also view videotapes of tribal ceremonies? That they can marry outside the tribe as long as they rear their children in the culture of the Karaja? That they can reject tribal mythology and language as long as they're committed to the land?

Ultimately, for the Karaja and other indigenous groups around the world, the question is this: Having survived four centuries of neglect and oppression at the hands of colonizers and their own leaders, how will they negotiate a more subtle but no less critical challenge--the amorphous, unrelenting force known as globalization?

Brazil's Indians already have waged a 500-year war against globalization. So it's no wonder that they have become an international symbol of native peoples' struggle to stave off change. Images of startled, isolated, naked Indians with shiny black-haired bowl-cuts and primitive weapons have become a late-20th century cliche.

The Karaja are among the poorest of Brazil's tribes; their island is among the least developed of the nation's 187 indigenous territories. The Karaja, who lived across north-central Brazil, saw their numbers tumble from 45,000 earlier this century to roughly 3,000 today.

"The Karaja were absolutely devastated by contact," said John Hemming, an expert on Brazil's Indians. From campaigns of enslavement to the stripping of their land, the Indians saw their culture shredded by colonizing Portuguese and Brazilian adventurers.

There are an estimated 6,000 indigenous groups around the world. Their histories are tragically similar: Outside group discovers land awash in natural resources. Outsiders decide that indigenous people stand in their way. Indigenous group gamely fights back, but finds itself overwhelmed and pushed to society's margins.

The Brazilian Indians became so despised that some academics blamed the country's chronic social and economic underachievement on the high percentage of Brazilians--perhaps one-third--who are at least part Indian.

Over the years--through Brazil's rubber boom, the discovery of gold and diamonds, and the construction of a road network through the Amazon--the Indians' yearning to retain their land and values has repeatedly collided with the development blueprints of multinational corporations and Brazilian regimes. "In every confrontation between 'progress' and the interests of the Indians," notes Joseph Page in his book, "The Brazilians," "the latter have had to yield."

Numerous groups remain isolated or semi-isolated, and Sydney Possuelo, the famed discoverer of Indian tribes, keeps finding new ones. Yet far more Indians have meshed into Brazilian society. Today many Indians speak Portuguese, sometimes at the expense of their tribal tongue. More wear oxfords and khakis than grass skirts and loincloths.

What is new at the end of the 20th century is that Brazilian Indians want change--on their terms. They're grappling with how to use globalization to affirm their values, rather than be enslaved all over again.

Defying the Stereotype Idjarruri Karaja embodies that struggle. By the time he returned to the Ilha do Bananal, his serious demeanor, his blazing dark brown eyes, his glistening black hair, had become well known among Indians. In the early 1980s, they chose him to present to the government a report on the pitiful state of Indian education. He toiled for Indian rights to education, land and work. In the early 1990s, he helped organize a meeting in Rio de Janeiro of indigenous peoples from around the world.

When he came to Txuiri, he wanted the village to defy the stereotype of the backward Indian. It took more than two years of cajoling and negotiating, but he got both electricity and telephone lines in February 1997.

Today in Idjarruri's house, a computer with a 200-megahertz Pentium processor sits on a tablecloth decorated with renderings of Christmas elves. A printer, phone and old gray telephone-fax machine also rest on the table.

Nearby, in front of a dingy, cracking vinyl couch, sits a color television with a 15-inch screen. On a shelf above, movies: "Anastasia," "Mad Max 2," "Final Judgment."

Seventeen-year-old Idjarrina, whose bedroom door sports the typical teenager's "Don't Enter" sign under a skull and crossbones, has a stereo system. His brother Idjawala, 15, has one too.

One Sunday morning, Nahuria, all bright eyes, giggles and flowing brown hair, stretches out on the couch, watching TV. She loves cartoons. She loves TV. She is embarrassed to admit that she watches it a good three hours a day. This morning, she watches "Ghostbusters" while she absent-mindedly cradles a video game on her lap.

Her father always tells his children that they as individuals and the Karaja as a people must become economically viable. Computers, TV and fax machines must be just a beginning.

"The people in the world who get respect are those who are economically strong," he says. "I've tried to prepare my children for this. It's hard to tell someone that their culture is important if they don't know if they're going to eat tomorrow."

By culture, Idjarruri does not mean the ballet. He means land. Language and myth may be critical parts of any culture, but it is land, including the rivers that ripple through it, that has always bound indigenous people together. Language disconnected from land loses much of its unifying power, and eventually dies. Myths that explain who the Karaja are would lose their meaning without a sense of place.

In Brazil, the land brought them food--through hunting, gathering and fishing. The land was their source of healing--through its plants and herbs. That land, on the eastern edge of the Amazon rain forest, is a place bursting with mango trees and palms. Thousands of cattle wander about. Stretches of forest are full of wildcats. Rivers teem with fish--from the tiny, fierce piranha to the gargantuan pirarucu, one of which can feed a whole village.

Txuiri is a little less than an hour's drive from the nearest town (drive--or canoe--across a river, then head straight on a long red-clay road). But most of the villages are at least two or three hours from towns.

Someday soon, Idjarruri's sons will leave this land. Idjarrina plans to earn a law degree. Idjawala plans to become a veterinarian. The question is whether they will return.

It is hard to overstate how badly Idjarruri wants his children to stay on the island. He says he might even prevent them from marrying the women they love--if they are not of the Karaja.

But many years ago, the father did just that. When Idjarruri asked his parents for permission to wed Adais, who has both European and Indian blood, he explained that so few Karaja women had a secondary education, he would never meet a woman who could match his intellectual curiosity. They said yes.

Today, Idjarruri says that since anyone who marries his children would thus have a claim to tribal land--and since the land must remain in the hands of the Karaja--he expects his sons to honor his wishes. "It's not racism," he says. "It's protecting our patrimony."

His sons say they're open to marrying outside the tribe. "I'm going to marry whomever I fall in love with," Idjawala says.

A few seconds later, Idjarrina says: "I'm going to marry whomever God has chosen for me."

Idjarruri's determination to maintain his tribal land is far from unusual. Whether it is the Melanesian in West Papua, the Innu in eastern Canada or the Masai in Kenya, the struggle for sovereignty over territory remains paramount.

Activists and indigenous peoples often protest against companies that are mining or building dams. Yet more and more, they fear not bulldozers, but a small box with wires that has the potential to do as much damage as colonizers and adventurers ever did.

"TV imposes on people a perspective," says Rudolph Ryser, chairman of the Center for World Indigenous Studies in Olympia, Wash. "It sells products that to the kids are new, modern, mysterious. So the kid looks around and says, 'Why don't we have these things? Is something wrong with us?' So they don't want to stay in the village."

Television has so dazzled some tribal communities in Brazil that leaders have had to set limits. In one tribe, "people would just sit around and watch it all day," says Saulo Feitosa, vice president of the Indigenous Missionary Council, a Roman Catholic organization. "Now they can only watch at night--and only the news or soap operas."

Idjarruri's boys seem firm in their commitment to the land, which heartens their father. After earning his law degree, Idjarrina plans to raise cattle--"money that's alive," he calls the animals--on the island, a place that he says "is big enough for my dreams."

Idjawala says he would never flee the island. In fact, last July, during a six-week computer course in Brasilia, Idjawala grew ill. His gorgeous black hair fell out. He lost 19 1/2 pounds. He survived the course only by coming home on weekends. "He missed home so much," Adais Karaja says.

Nahuria is aghast at her brothers' expressions of kinship with the land.

"Can you imagine that?" she says. "When I grow up, I'm going to travel around the world."

By the time Nahuria grows up, perhaps more of Brazil's indigenous communities will have connected to the global economy. Her father dreams that by then the Ilha do Bananal will have fashioned prosperous agricultural and fishing export projects. He foresees the remote island, with its astonishing array of birds and 38 species of mammals, emerging as a magnet for eco-tourism.

On many fronts, the lives of Brazil's Indians, while still impoverished, have improved. Health workers reach even the most isolated villagers to provide regular vaccinations. More Indians go to school, although as a group they remain far behind the rest of the population. Young, sophisticated Indian politicians have started to find their voices. Indian population numbers are easing upward again.

Encounters With Globalization

Still, few native groups have wholly embraced globalization. An exception is the Kayapo tribe, believed to be the country's wealthiest indigenous group, which has used profits from lumber and gold extracted from its territories to purchase fancy cars and fine homes.

For now, however, Indian encounters with globalization tend to occur at the shallowest levels. The village of Wari-Wari, about 60 miles south of Txuiri, is typical. Its 180 residents--members of the Javae, a tribe with close ties to the Karaja--have a generator that, when they can gather the money to buy diesel fuel for it, runs three hours a day.

When the generator isn't working, a suffocating darkness falls on the village. The only light comes from the steady, tiny flashing of fireflies and distant bolts of lighting knifing through the sky.

Wari-Wari has no running water, no telephones, three radios and, of course, a 12-inch television. The TV, cloaked in a dusty, cracking brown tarp, sits atop an old wooden table in Nilton Javae's hut. On the same table lie a machete and small calculator. The room also contains a hammock, a small transformer and a second TV that does not work.

The people of Wari-Wari take enormous pride in these connections to a faster world. Their thirst to be a part of the outside is almost palpable. During several days of interviews, Walter Wassure, the village spokesman, smiled only twice. Once, when he sees a U.S. dollar bill--a 20--for the first time. And again when he is asked if he has heard of Mike Tyson.

"He's brutal," Wassure says. "We saw him bite the ear," meaning he watched Tyson chomp Evander Holyfield's ears during their last championship fight.

They have heard of the Internet--and would like to use it. But they have never heard of Bill Gates.

They know who Bill Clinton is. And Monica Lewinsky. "We heard about her when Mr. Clinton was having those troubles with Iraq," Wassure says.

They adore American-made films. Asked to name their favorite actors and movies, they spit out a list.

"Rambo One," Wassure says.

"Arnold Schwartz," says Wilson Hariana, referring to Schwarzenegger.

"Van Damme," says Nilton Javae.

"Movies that show American Indians killing the whites," Hariana says.

Anything else?

"Rambo Two and Three."

Back in Txuiri, one evening just before 9, Adais stands in front of her home and lets out a whoop, something like a rooster's cock-a-doodle-doo. Within moments, dozens of villagers--mothers with suckling babies, young men on their bicycles, old women--gather in front of Idjarruri's home.

For more than an hour, they sigh, laugh and gape at the videotaped images of their tribesmen chanting deep-throated chants and dancing in circles, wearing headdresses of gold and red and purple feathers, their legs, arms, chests and backs marked with lines of jenipapo fruit blended with charcoal.

"We could show it 10,000 times," Idjarruri says, "and they would watch it 10,000 times."

When the videotape whines to its end, the contented viewers spill out into the village, their shadows spreading under the lights along the main dirt path as they shuffle home.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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