National Geographic : 2014 Jan
kayapo 49 there are questions whether Belo Monte alone will be cost-effective or whether the government will come back later and say we need to build these other dams.” THE MORNING OF the great chiefs’ arrival in Kendjam, two dozen Kayapo women, bare- breasted in black underwear and ropes of col- ored beads, went through what seemed like a dress rehearsal, chanting and marching around the kapôt. Around 4 p.m. the sound of a plane drew a crowd to the airstrip. Ropni and Mekaron-Ti disembarked with a third chief from the south named Yte-i. Ropni is one of five elder Kayapo who still wear the lip disk—a mahogany puck the size of a small pancake that extends the lower lip. He carried a wooden war club, shaped like a medieval sword. As he stood by the plane, a woman approached, held his hand, and began to sob. In a different cul- ture bodyguards might have hustled her away, but Ropni seemed unfazed and in fact began sobbing as well. The anguished weeping was not the re- sult of some fresh catastrophe but a form of ritual Kayapo mourning for departed mutual friends. That evening in the men’s house, Ropni ad- dressed the Kendjam villagers, vaulting across octaves with the glissading intonation of Kayapo speech. He stabbed the air with his hands and thumped his club: “I don’t like Kayapo imitating white culture. I don’t like gold miners. I don’t like loggers. I don’t like the dam!” One of his purposes in coming to Kendjam was to find out why the chiefs of the eastern part of the territory had been accepting money from Eletrobras. Boxes of brand-new 25-horsepower boat motors were stacked on the porch of the Pro- tected Forest Association headquarters. Ropni’s village and other villages in the south had stead- fastly refused money from Eletrobras, money that activists said was an attempt to dampen indig- enous opposition to Belo Monte. The consortium building the dam was investing in wells, clinics, and roads in the area and was paying a dozen vil- lages nearby an allowance of 30,000 reais a month (roughly $15,000) for food and supplies, which Schwartzman describes as “hush money.” The first Kayapo encounters with the grimy Brazilian banknotes led to the coining of their evocative word for money: pe-o caprin, or “sad leaves.” More and more sad leaves were a part of Kayapo life, especially in villages close to towns on the Brazilian frontier. In the Kayapo village of Turedjam, near Tucumã, pollution from clear- cutting and cattle ranching had wrecked the fish- ing grounds, and it was not uncommon to see Kayapo shopping in supermarkets for soap and frozen chicken. For three nights Pukatire led Ropni and Mekaron-Ti and Yte-i to our camp, where they would sit on the schoolhouse veranda, lighting their pipes and drinking coffee and telling sto- ries while vampire bats veered through the wan aura of a fluorescent bulb. “In the old days men were men,” Ropni said. “ They were raised to be warriors; they weren’t afraid to die. They weren’t afraid to back up their words with action. They met guns with bows and arrows. A lot of Indians died, but a lot of whites died too. That’s what formed me: the warrior tradition. I have never been afraid to say what I believed. I have never felt humiliated in front of the whites. They need to respect us, but we need to respect them too. I still think that warrior tradition survives. The Kayapo will fight again if threatened, but I have counseled my people not to go looking for fights.” He barked for more coffee, and then, seemingly agitated, took his cup to the edge of the veranda, away from the circle of schoolhouse chairs. For a long while, he stared into the darkness. On the day the chiefs left, there were letters they needed to sign—FUNAI paperwork au- thorizing various matters they had discussed. Mekaron-Ti, who was fluent in the Western world as well as the forest world, signed his name quickly like someone who had written a thousand letters. But Ropni held the pen awk- wardly. It was striking to see him struggle with the letters of his name, knowing what esoteric expertise was otherwise in his hands, how deftly he could fasten a palm nut belt, or insert a lip plate, or whittle a stingray tail into an arrow- head, or underscore the oratory that had helped boats to Facebook pages, they have shown without compromising the essence of their culture.