TATUYO INDIGENOUS COMMUNITY, Brazil — In the middle of the Amazon forest, along the banks of the Rio Negro, a young woman in face paint was bored. The coronavirus pandemic had cut off the flow of visitors, further isolating this Indigenous village, accessible only by boat. So Cunhaporanga Tatuyo, 22, was passing her days, phone in hand, trying to learn the ways of TikTok.
She danced to songs, dubbed videos, wildly distorted her appearance — the full TikTok experience. None of it found much of an audience.
Then she held up a wriggly, thick beetle larva to the camera.
“People ask, ‘Cunhaporanga, is it true that you really eat larva?’
“Of course we eat them! Do you want to see?”
The bug met its end (“Mmmhhh,” Cunhaporanga said), and a new viral star was born — streaming from the most remote of locations. Cunhaporanga’s home is a cluster of thatched-roof huts along the river’s edge, surrounded by nothing but Amazon jungle. The dozens of residents who live here are fellow members of the Tatuyo people. They paint their faces in bright red, wear elaborate feathered headdresses, live alongside squawking macaws that Cunhaporanga warns should not be mistaken for pets, and survive off whatever they can grow or catch.
All of it is now a vivid backdrop for what has become one of the most dynamic and fastest-growing social media presences in Brazil. In little more than 18 months, Cunhaporanga has collected over 6 million TikTok followers, simply by showing scenes from her everyday life. To her, the activities she posted were unremarkable. But for her growing audience, they brought into sudden intimacy a world that could not have seemed more distant.
Cunhaporanga offering a bowl of larvae to her family to eat: 6.7 million views. Cunhaporanga brandishing a tool used to make cassava flour: 16.1 million views. Cunhaporanga dancing on the pristine banks of the river — it’s still TikTok, after all — to a viral pop song: 4.1 million views.
As social media reaches into the Amazon rainforest, one of digital media’s final frontiers, it is opening an unprecedented window into Indigenous life, clearing away the barriers once imposed by geography. For the first time, some of the planet’s most isolated peoples are in daily communication with the outside world without the traditional filters of journalists, academics or advocates.
“This is an important opportunity,” said Beto Marubo, a member of the Marubo people, whose village just got the Internet and is already going viral. “The Brazilian people don’t know Indigenous people, and from this lack of information has come all sorts of terrible stereotypes like Indigenous people are lazy or indolent or unhappy.”
The digitalization of Indigenous life is now colliding with some of Brazil’s most powerful political currents. President Jair Bolsonaro rose to power lamenting the size of Indigenous territories and advocating that they be opened up to business interests. He has described their inhabitants as incomprehensibly foreign. “Indians don’t speak our language, don’t have money, don’t have culture,” Bolsonaro said in 2015 as he publicly plotted a run for the presidency. “They are native peoples. How did they come to have 13 percent of the national territory?”
On one slice of that Indigenous land last month, Cunhaporanga — who speaks flawless Portuguese and considers herself to be fully Brazilian — was walking in the sun, TikTok on her mind. She wanted to continue to show her people’s culture but didn’t know how long she’d be able to. She looked up at the village’s satellite antenna, installed in late 2018, and sighed. The community’s monthly Internet bill was $65.
“It’s really expensive,” she said, still unsure about how to earn much on a platform that’s often difficult to monetize. Some followers have donated a few bucks here and there, but not much. Now her father, the village chief, was saying the community might soon have to cancel its Internet connection. That would cut off her access to social media — and could end her TikTok career.
Cunhaporanga tried to push that thought away. She instead wondered what her next TikTok story would be.
Preserving a threatened culture with social media
By now, she knows larvae are viral gold. Nearly every video of the squirmy little critters, which are harvested from an Amazonian palm tree and allegedly taste like coconut, brings in millions of views. But when she published that first video, they were, to her, just everyday food — as basic as flour or fish.
She was stunned by the response: Within hours of the video’s posting, more than a million people had watched.
She started to yell to her family, telling them to come see. She held out her iPhone 7, bought with money saved from selling arts and crafts to tourists. She had used it to open an account on Instagram, where she’d painstakingly grown a following of about 1,000 people. But this reaction was new and bewildering.
“Caramba!” she said. “How could so many people be interested in something I eat every day?”
Her parents and brother peered into the phone, trying to decipher what it all meant. The comments offered little guidance:
“Simple eating,” one person said of the larva.
“What does it taste like??” another asked.
“Pure protein,” one more person said.
Cunhaporanga’s father was hesitant. Pinõ Tatuyo had been an early and enthusiastic advocate of bringing the Internet to the village. He felt the digital age had arrived and there was no going back. His people had to embrace technology to connect to the world — and teach it who they were. He himself had done a YouTube video in full headdress — “A little presentation about who I am!” he named it — and created an Instagram account, where he eventually attracted 12,000 followers. But Cunhaporanga’s TikTok story was different. This wasn’t a few thousand people. This was millions.
“Be careful,” he told her. “There are a lot of things that could go wrong that could cause us problems.”
But they agreed this was a powerful tool to safeguard and document a culture they felt was increasingly under threat. Cunhaporanga promised she would be careful to honor her culture and family, went back to her phone and got to work — answering the questions that had started to pour in from all over Brazil. On why the Tatuyo paint their faces: “To keep at bay negative energy.” On her breakfast of açai: “You have no idea how good this is.” On whether they use shoes: “When going into the forest.”
Cunhaporanga’s videos tapped into a defining quirk of TikTok. Some of its biggest stars aren’t famous — at least not in the traditional sense — but ordinary people introducing audiences to their extraordinary lives. A beekeeper in Austin has attracted 9.6 million followers. A mother of six boys has 1.7 million. A scientist at the South Pole has accrued 940,000 in less than five months.
In the Amazon, Cunhaporanga showed people a common meal of ants and cassava. Then the language of her people. Then chibé, a mixture of water and cassava flour.
Her following didn’t lift into the millions, however, until she began to harmonize the discordant. In one video, she partnered with the bright-green macaw that lives in the village, dubbing a voice-over alongside the indifferent animal. In another, her 11-year-old brother, clad in a feathered headdress, begins to twerk. In yet another, a Roddy Ricch rap song plays while her family builds an earthen firepit. “I ain’t no player, I just got a lot of baes,” the American rapper intones, as Cunhaporanga’s shoeless mother stomps down the mud.
It was absurd. It was hilarious. It was TikTok.
She wanted to make more.
Six million followers, and struggling to pay bills
Cunhaporanga’s phone was lighting up with messages and notifications. A video she’d posted showing how she removes her face paint with water and soap was taking off. More than 2 million people had seen it, and millions more soon would. But inside her family’s hut, she was already setting out on her next TikTok story.
She asked her father and younger brothers to fetch their kariços, a traditional flute. Her brother Pico, who commands his own TikTok following, 960,000-strong, quickly complied, generally thrilled by the attention. Her father also retrieved his flute. But he remained unsure about social media. He was happy to teach people about his culture. But what tangible benefits had TikTok brought the village?
Six million followers, and they were still just barely scraping by, worried about paying their electric and Internet bills. They were digitally famous, but somehow poorer than ever. If the virus continued keeping away tourists, he worried he’d have to cancel the Internet and disappoint his daughter.
“The situation is terrible,” he said. “Really difficult.”
But he put away those thoughts for now, descending alongside his son to the communal meeting hall, wearing his headdress and playing the flute. Cunhaporanga stood in front of them, filming.
“Hey, everyone,” she said. “Today I brought my father and brothers to play this instrument that’s a part of our ceremonies for when we receive visitors.”
The song Cunhaporanga captured was haunting and melodic. She showed the video to her brothers and father. They smiled and said it looked great. She didn’t think it was her best work — and worried about its potential to go viral — but wasn’t too stressed.
“It’s enough,” she said, “for TikTok.”