The tensions at play in Scott Wallace’s narrative of the thirteen-week expedition through the Western Brazilian Amazon region led by the wilderness scout and native-rights Brazilian activist Sydney Possuelo ten years ago are ominously and quietly restive in the title: The Unconquered: In Search of the Amazon’s Last Uncontacted Tribes (2011). The “last” of anything is usually in a class headed for extinction, and what one might argue is a linguistic inadequacy in the use of the marked terms of “unconquered” and “uncontacted” may very well indicate Wallace’s conceptual capitulation, however reluctant, concerning those of the Neolithic lifestyle inhabiting Brazil’s federally designated indigenous lands. Most of us would rather be “victorious” and not “unconquered”, “autonomous” rather than “uncontacted”.
Wallace, at the time a forty-something National Geographic reporter, accompanied a team of 33 men by boat and canoe south up the Itaquaí River, east across dense virgin rainforest, and north again by newly-hewn canoes back down the Jutaí all with the objective of discovering the most recent actively occupied areas and wandering patterns of native tribes as yet uncontacted by modern-day peoples. The area surveyed, the Javari Valley Indigenous Land, had been recently designated as off-limits to profit-making enterprises, such as logging, gold-prospecting and non-subsistence fishing, with the perpetuity of this designation depending on the government’s ability to establish empirically these patterns of tribal peregrination. Wallace’s reflections on the economic and political pressures on the expedition, on the native communities the undertaking is meant to protect, and on the interpersonal dynamics among team members (both non-indigenous experienced bushmen, indigenous from groups more recently contacted, and indigenous from groups less recently contacted) during the journey make one aware of the fact that productive communication can be fiercely elusive when there is so much to be gained by might.
This theme is supported by an interesting undercurrent exploration of Possuelo’s consistent use of pretense and fiction in engaging with members of tribes very recently contacted. Possuelo, former head of Brazil’s National Indian Foundation and, at the time of the expedition, head of a specialized unit called the Department of Isolated Indians, is a forceful personality who can be “surly, contemptuous, explosive” (122) with his crew, but is a zealous protector of native interests, according to Wallace. On the way to the lands of the uncontacted tribes, Possuelo makes visits to recently contacted tribes, both to assess how they are thriving and to gather information on the whereabouts of the “Flecheiros”, the “Arrow People”. At a Kanamari fireside discussion, Possuelo asks if anyone in the tribe still hunts with arrows, and upon being handed a sample of their worn and little used arrows, Possuelo fit the arrow, then suddenly aimed it at a member of his own native contingent, “Eu sou flecheiro!” he cries. Wallace notes, “The Kanamari laughed and hooted. At first I wondered why Possuelo would choose to ridicule the Arrow People. But I was probably just reading too much into a moment of frivolity he’d seized to bring some laughter into the lives of a largely forsaken people” (p. 104).
At another Kanamari village further upriver, the villagers report no sightings of the elusive uncontacted people but only of jaguars. Possuelo drops into a feline crouch, springs, and claws the air: “‘I want to meet three jaguars!’ he snorted. ‘I’ll take them on all at once – bare-handed! I have no fear! Eu sou valiente!’ The men howled with delight.” (121) Before boarding the boat to depart the next day, Possuelo was “clutching an imaginary microphone, spoofing the caged, earnest tone of a broadcaster. ‘The bearded man was last sighted in the jungle three years ago, accompanied by a band of armed Indians,’ said Possuelo, raising an eyebrow. He paused for rhetorical flourish. ‘The people call them os cavernosos – the men of the caves.’ The Kanamari laughed.” (129).
In a poignant passage, Possuelo speaks with Maya, female chief of one of the most recently contacted tribes, the Korubo (known as the “head-bashers” ), some members of which had murdered trespassers, including an officer from the department Possuelo represented. They discuss the moment when they first met. Possuelo sings to her the lullaby that he had sung that day in 1996 hoping to gain the villagers’ trust. In the extended moment of shared reminiscence, Possuelo “engaged the Indians by bulging his eyes and making wild facial contortions, digging into his vast actor’s repertoire of comic melodrama and vaudevillian slapstick, like a born entertainer. He listened, in turn, to what they had to say, and they could tell he was listening. He had a knack for seeking out common points of reference and evoking shared memories. No matter if the Korubo inhabited an entirely different reality, Possuelo possessed an uncanny ability to get inside their minds and their hearts” (416-417).
There is a question always pressing along the edges as one reads Wallace’s narrative: how would a twenty-first century person communicate with a person who has been living a Stone Age existence, indeed, not even enjoying the use of stones, as the Amazon basin offers none up? With one who has no written language, no knowledge of the last eight thousand years’ worth of scientific discoveries, technologies, medical advances? Possuelo's moments of animation, pretense, and narration suggest that he possesses some significant procedural knowledge concerning the power and psychology of fiction. Possuelo’s actions, as documented in Wallace’s very engaging narrative, are in line with anthropologist Chris Knight’s claim that “A willingness to entertain fictions … is a precondition for the emergence of ‘deep social mind’” (288). Possuelo is simply demonstrating the human tendency to engage in “community-wide, socially empowering make-believe” (Knight, 302). Arguing against a Darwinian model of language evolution, Knight claims that in fact “speakers and listeners are trading in pure intentions, and these cost nothing at all” – and are thus a uniquely human capacity neither vulnerable to nor in need of millennia of shifting ownership through warfare, of enhancement, or of development.
Wallace, Scott. (2011). The unconquered: In search of the Amazon’s last uncontacted tribes. New York: Crown Publishers.
Knight, Chris. (2009). Language, ochre, and the rule of law. In R. Botha & C. Knight (Eds.). The cradle of language. (pp. 281-303). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
This is without a doubt one of the most interesting reviews I've read about "The Unconquered." Thank you very much for such a thoughtful treatise.
Thank you, Scott Wallace, for your kind words about the piece, and for writing this book through which I learned and felt so much. It was a great pleasure to read.
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