The fine balancing act of holding your traditions in the fist of one hand and embracing the changes of the present in the open palm of the other is well known throughout history. The Kayapo people, who have managed to successfully withstand the unrelenting attacks of guns, germs and steel that have defeated many indigenous peoples of North and South America, are grappling once again with the infiltration of outside influences that could potentially destroy everything they have built. The Kayapo is one of the wealthiest and most influential indigenous tribes in Brazil. Their opposition isn’t so foreign to the rest of us, for it has already dramatically changed the way of life for many of us- modern technology. In addition to multi-billion dollar infrastructures being built on their land and the right to self-govern, this time they are also fighting to not be pacified by Facebook and Brazilian Novellas on TV.
That night Chief Pukatire wandered over to our camp with a flashlight. “The only things we need from the white culture are flip-flops, flashlights, and glasses,” he said amiably.
“In the 1980s and ’90s the Kayapo rallied, led by a legendary generation of chiefs who harnessed their warrior culture to achieve their political goals. Leaders like Ropni and Mekaron-Ti organized protests with military precision, began to apply pressure, and, as I learned from Zimmerman, who has been working with the Kayapo for more than 20 years, would even kill people caught trespassing on their land. Kayapo war parties evicted illegal ranchers and gold miners, sometimes offering them the choice of leaving Indian land in two hours or being killed on the spot. Warriors took control of strategic river crossings and patrolled borders; they seized hostages; they sent captured trespassers back to town without their clothes.”
“After four decades of plans dating back to Brazil’s military dictatorship, four decades of studies, protests, revised plans, court rulings, court reversals, blockades, international appeals, a film by Avatar director James Cameron, and lawsuits, construction finally began in 2011 on the $14 billion Belo Monte. The complex of canals, reservoirs, dikes, and two dams is located some 300 miles north of Kendjam on the Xingu, where the river makes a giant U-turn called the Volta Grande. The project, which will have a maximum generating capacity of 11,233 megawatts and is slated to come on line in 2015, has divided the country. Its supporters defend it as a way of delivering needed electricity, while environmentalists have condemned it as a social, environmental, and financial disaster.”
“But Pukatire sounded a lament I heard over and over: “I am worried about our young people who are imitating whites, cutting their hair and wearing stupid little earrings like you see in town. None of the young people know how to make poison for arrows. In Brasília the Kayapo are always told they are going to lose their culture and they might as well get it over with. The elders have to speak up and say to our young people, ‘You can’t use the white man’s stuff. Let the white people have their culture, we have ours.’ If we start copying white people too much, they won’t be afraid of us, and they will come and take everything we have. But as long as we maintain our traditions, we will be different, and as long as we are different, they will be a little afraid of us.”
“In the Xingu Valley there had hardly ever been a more able pair of hands. But in the realm that required penmanship, the great chief was like a child.”
“What may be the most crucial of all, they have their land. “The Kayapo aren’t entering the 21st century as a defeated people. They aren’t degrading themselves,” Zimmerman told me. “They haven’t lost a sense of who they are.”
All quotes are from Chip Brown’s story for the January 2014 edition of National Geographic.