We sailed upstream on the Rio Solimões for two weeks with the Veleiro del Amazonia from Manaus. Our goal is to go to the border area with Peru and Colombia and visit Pedro Inácio Pinheiro. He is the cacique geral (‘general captain’) of the Tikuna, the largest indigenous people of Brazil with more than 35,000 members.
The Tikuna live scattered along the upper reaches of the Rio Solimões in the northwestern Amazon region. Their territory extends from the border with Peru and Colombia to the Auatí-Paraná river, about 400 kilometers downstream over the Alto Solimões. Although there are a few communities in Peru and Colombia where several thousand Tikuna live, the majority of this indigenous people reside in Brazil.
Since the second half of the seventeenth century, the Tikuna had regular contact with whites. Spanish and Portuguese missionaries brought them and their neighboring tribes together in mission posts, where many were converted to Christianity. Later, these mission posts were transferred to civil authorities and transformed into settler towns. The settlers exploited the indigenous population as cheap labor. The rise of the rubber boom in the second half of the nineteenth century brought a dark period of slavery and exploitation for the Tikuna, by local rubber barons.
Even though the rubber era came to an end in the early twentieth century, little changed for the Tikuna. They remained under the control of local white farmers. This situation worsened in the 1970s with the arrival of the messianic preacher José Francisco da Cruz. Only after his death in 1984 could the Tikuna free themselves from religious oppression from Christianity and once again experience their own traditional lifestyle and religious practices.
In this ethnic revival, Pedro Inácio Pinheiro played an important and central role. The rediscovery of old traditions gave the Tikuna the courage to stand up for their own culture. This new ethnic awareness is linked to a political struggle for self-determination and the official demarcation of their own territory. To defend the common interests of the scattered members, the ‘General Council of the Tikuna People’ was established. In addition, the Tikuna organize their own education and have started the Centro Magüta*, a research and documentation center annexed to a museum in Benjamin Constant, a small river town on the border with Colombia.
Upon arriving in the Tikuna village of Vendaval, along the Igarapé Preto (a tributary of the Alto Solimões), we find that Pedro Inácio Pinheiro—or Ngematücü, as his Tikuna name goes—is not at home. He is in another village, we are told, in Nova Jerusalem. There he is attending a festa da moça nova, a fertility festival where young girls are initiated. Because this can take days, we have a problem. Without the captain’s permission, we cannot move freely in the area.
In the evening, we hang our hammocks uncertainly. On the bank above the boat stand men, women, and children. Most look on with silent faces. A small boy starts to cry and hides fearfully behind a woman in a white, torn dress.
In 1988, the Brazilian government recognized a large part of the Alto Solimões basin as the territory of the Tikuna people. On March 28 of that year, armed illegal loggers invaded the community of Boca do Capacete near Benjamin Constant. This group had previously been forced to leave the registered area by FUNAI, the Brazilian government service for the protection of indigenous people. The attackers killed fourteen people, including five children, and threw their bodies into the river. Twenty-three people were injured. Most of the victims were people trying to escape by boat. Only four bodies were found and recovered.
Next to the boat, there is a splash. It could be a dolphin, but it could also be a stone thrown from the darkness. In the village, small fires burn under shelters. Dogs bark. Somewhere a radio plays. Then it becomes quiet, except for the rustling of the cockroaches that have flown to the light of our lantern. Under the net spread over my hammock to protect against the carapanas, the notorious malaria mosquitoes, it is stiflingly warm, but still, when I finally fall asleep, I dream that I am cold. I am in an open plane, and the pilot steers the machine up and down. We skim low over water-filled streets and canals. Below, a priest—a father in a white cassock—raises his folded hands in prayer, as if to ward off a plague. The plane shakes and trembles. I wake up startled. My hammock swings back and forth. Flashes of light cast a ghostly glow on the surroundings. The water in the river churns. We tie down the tarpaulins as best we can and move the boat to a place where the storm has less impact.
To be continued…
*The members of the Tikuna people call themselves Magüta; Tikuna is the name given to them by the whites.