A Week With a Kamaiurá Community in the Brazilian Amazon

Urban and suburban residents usually have little or no contact with rural forest cultures. For example, 84% of Brazilians live in urban areas and rarely travel to places without tourism infrastructure. As a Brazilian who has visited an indigenous tribe in one of the world’s most precious sources of natural wealth —the Amazon — I am unfortunately an exception in my country.
Back in December, my husband and I traveled to Xingu National Park and spent a week in a Kamaiurá aldeia (indigenous village). We got this opportunity through a friend who works with the Kamaiurá, an indigenous group numbering fewer than 500 people.
This visit was a bigger gift than I was expecting; it gave me an understanding of what life should be about. In many ways, these people’s lives are calmer, slower and healthier than what we are used to in the cities. Rather than trying to control their environment, they respect and understand its power. I am not an anthropologist or a specialist in indigenous culture; this story is based purely on my observations.
The journey from Brasília to the village involved an overnight bus ride, followed by a two-hour drive in the back of a flatbed truck and an eight-hour boat ride downriver. On the final leg of our journey, the scenery slowly transformed as our boat slid past wide vistas of deforested farmland outside the national park to thick forest and river beaches.
We arrived after dark, with no sense of the surrounding landscape. The wood and straw houses have electricity provided by gas generators for a couple of hours each night (at least when they have petrol). The light doesn’t extend beyond the center of the homes.As soon as we arrived we met our host, Maiaru, and his father, the cacique (Portuguese word for chief). Maiaru is next in line to be the village chief. They made us feel at home, and by 9 p.m. we were off to “bed.” Sleeping in a hammock in the forest amid the fresh air, the extreme silence of the wild and the complete darkness of a place so far from any city was extremely comfortable and relaxing.
That night, we closed our eyes to the world we knew, awaking the next morning to a new reality in the Xingu. The sun revealed the aldeia, with nearly a dozen homes forming a large circle. In the middle was the men’s hut, which was off-limits to all women. Each home had its own agricultural patch near the surrounding forest where families plant mandioca, a potato-like root which is the base of their diet. Nearby was a large lake, invisible to us the night before, from which Kamaiurá were returning from their morning baths.
The kids were playing unsupervised, a practice that is not so common in cities. At one point I saw children throwing mangoes at a wasp nest, and ran to warn the parents. The answer I got was, “They will just learn to respect nature, and not disturb the wasps next time.” I couldn’t argue with that; they were right.
The next few days went by at a really slow pace. At first I was even anxious to do something — a reflex from the busy life I normally live.
The day starts with the women preparing mandioca. After harvesting the root, they peel off its skin, grind and soak it, and finally squeeze the flour dry. They then spread the flour on a ceramic tray over the fire to make the beiju, which looks like a huge pancake. It can be eaten as it is or used as a wrap for fresh fish. Community members snack on it throughout the day, or grab a mango or banana from a tree. There is no need to wait for lunch or dinner time, because for them this is a silly tradition invented by city people.
Food preparation takes less than two hours every morning. During the rest of the day, the women love to work with handicrafts and are very talented. Men are usually fishing, chatting in the men’s hut or relaxing in their hammocks, which is probably the most common activity of the village. In the afternoons, both men and women take turns playing soccer in the center of the village.
This way of life is often out of step with the city lifestyle. Earlier in the week, one of the cacique’s 25 kids was visiting Brasilia, my hometown, and we had taken him to go sightseeing and shopping before traveling together to Canarana, the nearest city to the aldeia. During those three days, I observed that the structure of a city seemed to confuse him.
I also saw how even though the city dwellers didn’t know anything about groups like the Kamaiurá, they loved to express their opinions. For example, I met a taxi driver in Canarana who thought the índios were lazy for sitting on the sidewalks and watching life pass before their eyes instead of getting a job. Yet neither he nor most Brazilians had ever been to the indigenous areas to observe their way of life. It can be easy to judge based on our own experiences, yet who are we to judge?
Witnessing this prejudice made me very sad. In my view, the Kamaiurá are beyond special. They know they are part of nature, and so they live with it. Their homes are located in one of the most beautiful places on Earth, and they have kept it that way for over a thousand years without trying to “develop” it.
However, since outsiders began to interfere — directly and indirectly — with this land, communities like theirs face many daily challenges. For example, the Belo Monte dam currently being constructed further north on the Xingu River will undoubtedly impact the flow of fresh water on which many indigenous communities depend.
Even from far away, our actions can help preserve environments like the Amazon home of the Kamaiurá. Learning about indigenous cultures is a start, but we can also support initiatives to preserve their environment and avoid buying products that somehow profit from deforestation and forest exploitation.
To preserve this immense cultural wealth, I believe the world must keep the forest intact and to let the people who live there — and only them — use its resources.
Luana Luna is CI’s photo and graphic design coordinator in the president’s office.