National Geographic : 2014 Jan
kayapo 35 ears of the youngest among them were pierced with conical wooden plugs as thick as a Magic Marker. Kayapo pierce their infants’ earlobes as a way of symbolically expanding a baby’s capacity to understand language and the social dimen- sion of existence; their phrase for “stupid” is ama kre ket, or “no ear hole.” The kids watched closely as we unloaded our gear, including some gifts for our hosts: fish- hooks, tobacco, 22 pounds of high-quality beads made in the Czech Republic. Barbara Zimmerman, the director of the Ka- yapo Project for the International Conservation Fund of Canada and the United States–based Environmental Defense Fund, introduced us to the village chief, Pukatire, a middle-aged man wearing glasses, shorts, and flip-flops. “A k a t e - m a i ,” he said, shaking hands, and adding the bit of English he’d picked up on a trip to North America: “Hello! How are you?” Kendjam looks timeless, but it was estab- lished only in 1998, when Chief Pukatire and his followers split off from the village of Pukanu, farther up the Iriri River, after a dispute about logging. “Fissioning,” as anthropologists call it, is often the way Kayapo resolve disagreements or relieve the strain on resources in a particular area. The village’s population is now 187, and for all its classic appearance there are additions that would have boggled the minds of Pukatire’s ancestors: a generator in a government-built nurses’ station; a solar panel array enclosed in a barbed wire fence; satellite dishes mounted on truncated palm trees. A few families have TVs in their thatch houses and enjoy watching videos of their own ceremonies, along with Brazilian soap operas. Pukatire showed us to a two-room schoolhouse built a few years ago by the Brazil- ian government—a pistachio-colored concrete structure with a tile roof and shutters and the luxe marvel of a flush toilet fed by well water. We pitched our tents on the veranda. The heat of the day began to build, and a drowsy peace settled over the village, broken now and then by squabbling dogs and operatic roosters rehears- ing for tomorrow’s sunrise. The ngobe, or men’s house, was deserted. At the edge of the central plaza, or kapôt, women sat in the shade of mango and palm trees, shelling nuts and cooking fish wrapped in leaves and buried in coals. Some headed out to the charred earth of their swidden gardens to tend crops of manioc, bananas, and sweet potatoes. A tortoise hunter returned from the forest, loudly singing in the Kayapo custom to announce his successful quest for the land turtles that are a vital part of the village diet. To- ward evening the heat ebbed. A group of young warriors skirmished over a soccer ball. About 20 women with loops of colored beads around their necks and babies on their hips gathered in the kapôt and began to march around in step, chant- ing songs. Boys with slingshots fired rocks at lap- wings and swallows; one stunned a white-throated kingbird and clutched it in his hand—the yellow- breasted bird glaring defiantly like the peasant unafraid of the firing squad in the famous Goya painting. Families filtered down to the Iriri for their regular evening baths, but there were cai- mans in the river, and they did not linger as dark- ness fell. Eight degrees south of the Equator, the blood orange sun sank quickly. Howler monkeys roared over the dial-tone drone of the cicadas, and earthy odors eddied onto the night air. AT FIRST GLANCE, Kendjam seems a kind of Eden. And perhaps it is. But that’s hardly to say the history of the Kayapo people is a pastoral idyll exempt from the persecution and disease that have ravaged nearly every indigenous tribe in North and South America. In 1900, 11 years after the founding of the Brazilian Republic, the Kayapo population was about 4,000. As miners, loggers, rubber tappers, and ranchers poured into the Brazilian frontier, missionary organiza- tions and government agencies launched efforts to “pacify” aboriginal tribes, wooing them with trade goods such as cloth, metal pots, machetes, and axes. Contact often had the unintended effect of introducing measles and other diseases to people who had no natural immunity. By the Chip Brown’s most recent story profiled climber Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner. Martin Schoeller’s portraits appeared in the October 2013 photography issue.