He begins with gifts -- a machete, a pair of scissors, a honed steel knife. Years ago, in the Amazon jungle, his father taught him this.

His father taught him to lay the gifts closer and closer to the government post, until the Indians lost their fear of him and emerged to offer their own gifts, their shells, their knives of wood, their parrot-feather hair ornaments. His father taught him patience also, which was more important, and the instinct for sensing when the wrong words or a bad move or an eclipse of the moon might turn the mood of the contact and make the Indians angry enough to kill him.

Apoena Meirelles is an Indian agent for the Brazilian government. Sertanista is the Portuguese word for his profession -- man of the frontier. He is 32 years old, and his work requires him to be the the first Brazilian to make peaceful contact with Indian people who have never exchanged more than arrows and gunfire with the nation that surrounds them.

He learned the work from his father, Francisco Meirelles, who learned it from an Army colonel, who learned it from Candido Mariano da Silva Rondon, the turn-of-the-century Army officer who convinced Brazilian officials that a national protective service must defend the Indians' right to live in peace.

For the last two years, in a country of nuclear physicists and furious industrialization and ministers fending off the world's international lenders, Meirelles has been trying to establish contact with the Uru-Eu-Uau-Uau, one of the last known uncontacted Indian groups in Latin America.

He does this because he believes he must -- that if men like him do not lay the bridge to indigenous people, then 20th century Brazil will come crashing onto their land and both Indians and whites will die in the meeting. There is nothing romantic or alarmist about that; white people have rifles and shotguns and dangerous viruses, and Indians have long slender arrows with tips barbed like fishhooks so that they cannot be pulled out without tearing open the wound.

"The best would be never to have to do this work," Meirelles said in soft Portuguese as he sat in the night heat of Lourdes Indian park, a 40-year-old Indian agency outpost 120 miles northeast of the Uru-Eu-Uau-Uau territory. "But I'm not an idealist. The world and society would have to stop growing for that to happen. And since that's not possible, you have to work with reality.

"When you do an attraction" -- the sertanista word for initial contact -- "it's because the Indian group is being persecuted, or creating problems for somebody. So you have two choices. You do the attraction . . . or you don't do the attraction, and the group is going to collide with the forces of society -- colonists, miners, rubber hunters."

Meirelles and his wife have two small children -- their 5-year-old daughter Taina (an Indian word for "morning light") was born while Meirelles was deep in the jungle, and it was a full week before a radio contact reached him with the news. By the time the children are Meirelles' age, there will probably be no more sertanistas. Meirelles watches his 2-year-old son commune with toy airplanes and knows the child will not grow up the way he did, eating monkey and turtle and absorbing slowly the lessons of his sertanista father.

"The sertanista is a figure that's worn out," Meirelles said, "a figure that's ceasing to make sense. The sertanista has to be an administrator now."

With only four known uncontacted groups left in the entire Amazon basin, administration is much of what Meirelles does these days. The title he carries is delegate -- the chief representative of FUNAI, Brazil's national Indian agency, for the whole southern chunk of Amazonia. For the 15,000 Indian people who live within his area's park reserves, Meirelles is the head functionary and go-between.

He travels by single-engine airplane over huge expanses of thick green treetop, the shadow of his airplane passing suddenly over the thatched roofs of Indian communities. He sets out park boundaries, checks radio equipment, flies the wounded out to health clinics, tells encroaching colonists that they cannot put houses or coffee plants on Indian lands.

He does not harbor many illusions either about FUNAI or the outside world that invariably creeps behind him toward the Indian groups he sets out to protect. Meirelles has been attacked by Indian-protection groups for leading the white world's assault on tribes and allowing disease to set in.

He has heard, directly or indirectly, nearly every accusation that has been leveled at FUNAI over the years -- incompetence, insensitivity, corruption, gradual genocide. He knows what a measles epidemic does to indigenous people, and the level of despair that sweeps through them as the shaman finds he has no power to stop the dying.

He is a close friend of Antonio Cotrim Soares, a committed FUNAI agent who publicly lashed out 10 years ago at FUNAI's apparent unwillingness to confront problems such as the widespread venereal disease spread through Indian communities by Amazon highway workers.

"I am tired of being a gravedigger for the Indians," Cotrim said, and then quit.

Meirelles was removed that year from his directorship of an Indian park after he held an impassioned press conference to say FUNAI was doing nothing about the large numbers of settlers invading the lands of the reserve.

"In less than four years, the lands of the Cintas Largas and the Surui have been divested," Meirelles said then. "Epidemics already have left their mark, and the tribes already have begun the first steps down the long road to misery, hunger, and the prostitution of their women . . . . I would rather die fighting alongside the Indians in defense of their lands and their rights to live than to see them tomorrow reduced to beggars on their own lands."

So there is no relish in Meirelles' voice when he talks about putting out machetes and scissors to attract Indians into peaceful contact with white men. But neither is there shame.

"Look at these people," Meirelles said quietly, nodding at the Gaviao and Zoro Indians who stood eating sugar cookies in the yellow light of the one outside bulb that burned at the Lourdes post.

They wore loose trousers, colored shirts or shapeless dresses that sometimes started below their breasts. Behind them in the night shadows were their chickens, their pigs, their wide rice and banana fields, the tall television antenna they had connected that afternoon so the post's one small black and white set would finally receive an image.

"They don't look exactly the way people want Indians to look -- all natural," Meirelles said. "But they are Indians who go on being Indians. They have clothes, electric lights, sandals, shoes -- but they have a culture. They haven't disappeared into Brazilian society. They think of themselves as Gaviao and not Brazilian. They speak their own language. Maybe this wouldn't have been possible if someone hadn't made peaceful contact with them."

He was born in a boat on a jungle river, as his mother tried to get to a government post from the Indian village where they lived. His father was upriver, and Indian women helped with the birth. The tribe was the Xavante, his father's most famous contact, the boat carrying the newborn baby was named after Pimentel Barbosa, the sertanista who preceded Francisco Meirelles into Xavante territory and was killed by the Indians.

They named the baby Apoena, after a Xavante chief. He grew up shuttling between port towns, city schools and the jungle where his father worked. They visited villages, set up attraction posts, went up the Tapajos River looking for a French explorer who had left French Guyana and disappeared into the Brazilian Amazon.

Meirelles was going to be a pilot. He went to Rio to study, but it was a frantic time for students, and the politics of the young began to consume him. It was Francisco Meirelles who finally talked Apoena into coming back to the jungle. Francisco Meirelles was getting old, he said, and in the midst of a long contact with a Surui Indian group in southern Amazonia. He wanted his son with him. "So" -- Meirelles laughed -- "I went back to my old career."

They worked the attraction together, laying presents for the Surui and picking up the gifts that unseen Surui would leave behind. Then Francisco Meirelles caught malaria. He had to go down to the city to rest. And Apoena Meirelles, who was 21, was left to face the first Surui confrontation alone.

He remembers the day they emerged from the woods. Meirelles stood quite still, watching them call him in words he did not understand. There were eight of them and in front was a Surui man, his head and nose decorated with bright feathers, holding a bow with its arrows pointed at the ground.

Meirelles saw that he and the Surui man must be nearly the same age. They were both very frightened. Then Meirelles was not quite certain what happened -- perhaps the Surui man shared his thoughts -- but all at once they both began to laugh.

Meirelles picked up two large metal knives and tried to hand them to the Surui man. But the Surui would not touch them, so Meirelles set the knives among the arrows the man held, allowing the Surui to carry the knives away without touching them. The Surui ripped two feather ornaments from his head and tossed them at Meirelles' feet. Then the Indians turned and disappeared back into the forest.

"The attraction work for me is something very simple, easy, like making a child like you," Meirelles said. "The things you leave for an Indian -- the knife, the machete -- are like leaving candy to a child. The hard part is when you start to say no. In attraction work you've given him everything, and you have to tell him that it won't always be like that. Then he wants a watch, a radio and finally a television. You have to show him that he has the conditions and resources to get these things himself."

A mutual hostility sometimes simmers between Indian agents and anthropologists, both because of individual personalities and the nature of the sertanistas' work.

"The fact is that if it weren't for us, the sertanistas, none of those anthropologists would be able to write a single book," Meirelles said. "They say sertanistas don't have the theoretical, academic preparation to understand the culture of the Indians. Well, those who have the training to study mythology and family relationships don't have the sensitivity for making a contact. We have that sensitivity. You know whether the Indian is going to attack or not much more by instinct than by knowing their language or culture."

Like the government officials who are directing the assault on Brazilian Amazonia from their offices in the national capital, Meirelles believes development of the jungle is inevitable -- that the country's only alternative would be to stop its population from growing and to turn back 50 years.

Like many of the sociologists and anthropologists who have fought that assault for the last 15 years, he believes that the kind of development Brazil has chosen is crushing the people who now live in Amazonia.

But Indians are not getting the worst of it, Meirelles said. Rubber hunters, gold miners and poor farming families are all scrabbling for survival here.

"The Indian in this process is in better shape than the native non-Indian man," he said. "At least Indians have their own land, a medical team just for them, functionaries just for them . . . . Indians don't pay taxes on their production.

"A reserve is not laid out according to the number of Indians who live there, but according to their needs. Here two hundred-something Indians have almost 400,000 hectares 988,000 acres . The poor colonist who goes to the colonization agency and asks for land -- they aren't going to give him more than 100 hectares 247 acres . . . . It's not an ideal situation. But compared to the worst off, the Indians are in a relatively good position."