National Geographic : 2014 Jan
kayapo 53 The four-year-old boy capered at the edge of the abyss, laughing and exulting as if it was the most marvelous day of the year. When we all started down, he ran on ahead, and I found myself thinking about the night after the big chiefs had gone, when one of our guides, Djyti, came to visit, and we asked him a crucial question. “Can you be a Kayapo and not live in the forest?” Djyti thought for a while, then shook his head and said no. Then, as if contemplating something unthinkable, he added: “You are still a Kayapo, but you don’t have your culture.” In the past some anthropologists have fetish- ized cultural purity, fretting over the introduc- tion of modern technology. But cultures evolve opportunistically like species—the Plains Indians of North America picked up their iconic horses from the Spanish—and strong traditional cultures will privilege themselves, making the accommo- dations they think will ensure their futures. We can question whether a man dressed in a par- rot feather headdress and penis sheath is more valuable than one in a Batman T-shirt and gym shorts. But who can be blind to their knowledge of forest plants and animals or to the preemi- nent values of clean water, untainted air, and the genetic and cultural treasure of diversity itself? It is one of the richest ironies of the Amazon that the supposedly civilized outsiders who spent five centuries evangelizing, exploiting, and exterminating aboriginal people are now turning to those first inhabitants to save ecosystems rec- ognized as critical to the health of the planet—to defend essential tracts of undeveloped land from the developed world’s insatiable appetites. My four-year-old friend—I never did learn his name—had run all the way home long be- fore I staggered back to the easy walking of the airstrip. It was nearly dark. Maybe his mom had plunked him in front of a TV to watch a video of a Kayapo ceremony or a Brazilian soap opera. And maybe to him the day was no great lark either, nothing memorably distinct from all the other days. Still, it seemed hard to imagine a more perfect life for a kid his age than to be a free and footloose Kayapo at home in the forest. Long may he run. j A band of Kayapo warriors (left) moves through the forest with shotguns and axes in search of fresh game. In a more leisurely posture, a festively dressed father waits for his baby’s name-giving ceremony to begin.