Washington Post South America correspondent Reel delivers a moving, well-constructed account of a latter-day Ishi in the embattled Amazonian rainforest.
Tucked against the Bolivian border, the Brazilian state of Rondonia was long among the least-explored landscapes on the planet. That began to change with the advent of industrial logging and agriculture. With that transformation, unknown people were flushed out of the fallen jungle, American Indians who had been living Neolithic lives in the woods for thousands of years. Two fieldworkers with FUNAI (Brazil’s National Indian Foundation) embarked to chronicle these “isolated Indians,” as they were officially known. Beginning in 1994, Marcelo and Altair, as they are familiarly called in the book, set out not just to do anthropological triage work in those wounded habitats, but also to protect the Indians from the loggers, ranchers and farmers who were pouring into Rondonia, and who despised the do-gooders (“Some of the farmers…called [Marcelo] a hippie who wanted to be an Indian. They weren’t entirely wrong”). Shortly after beginning the work of their “Contact Front,” Marcelo and Altair began to hear tales of a mysterious wild Indian who was unlike any of the other native peoples of the area—the Brazilian equivalent, perhaps, of A.L. Kroeber’s Ishi. But unlike Ishi, this man would not leave his ever-mobile home, even as the bullets flew and the trees came crashing down. In a narrative that is full of suspense—not least when a would-be rescuer nearly takes an arrow for his troubles—Reel documents the fieldworkers’ efforts over more than a decade to coax “The Indian,” as he is called here, into safety.
Unlike the story of Ishi, however, this one has a happy ending—a payoff that isn’t entirely anticipated, given all the other tragic aspects of the tale.