Uncontacted tribes and imperialism

The New York Review of Books is running an article on “uncontacted tribes” (warning: link includes National Geographic-style nudity). When one hears about such groups, it seems amazing that such pockets of isolation could exist in our globalized economy, etc. — that is, until you realize that they’ve (justifiably!) constructed their entire lives around avoiding white people:

In the Amazon, remaining uncontacted groups are isolated by a third barrier [i.e., other than geographical and linguistic isolation], that of abject fear stemming from the horrendous atrocities of the rubber boom. Those events of a hundred years ago remain very much a living memory that is indelibly inscribed into the consciousness of every child living in isolation. Uncontacted Amazonians live a fugitive existence in the farthest headwaters of tributary streams, often above cataracts and beyond where even a small dugout canoe can pass. Here they live in perpetual fear of being detected and enslaved or killed by the white man.

One starry evening, after we had both had a few beers, an Amazonian acquaintance of mine loosened up and recounted to me the life he had led as a child before his extended family established contact with the outside world. They moved their camps frequently, and when they did, they took pains to cover up the evidence of their presence, especially the fireplace. The ground was smoothed out, the ashes were scattered widely, and the charred spot was hidden under a cloak of dead leaves. When the family crossed a stream, they erased their footprints behind them to leave no trace. Anyone they might chance to meet who wasn’t one of their little group was assumed to be a mortal enemy.

And so it is with the Flecheiros (the Arrow People), a group of uncontacted Amazonians living in the headwaters of the Itaquaí and Jutaí rivers on the Brazilian side of the Perú–Brazil border. Feared by their Amazonian neighbors and possessing a reputation among outsiders for unprovoked ferocity, they had resided in isolation in their headwater redoubt since the collapse of the rubber boom.

Although they’ve certainly chosen a radical path, it seems hard to blame them — seeing how other related groups were being exploited by outsiders, they basically opted out of the world. To the extent that this isolation impoverishes their lives — and I think it clearly does — I think we should regard this phenomenon as yet another of the brutal consequences of colonialism and imperialism.

3 thoughts on “Uncontacted tribes and imperialism

  1. Why does their presumed isolation impoverish their lives?
    After all they do live within their own multi-dimensional Sacred Canopy which has provided them with everything they need for hundreds of years.
    Perhaps they should take up residence in/on a stinking garbage pit outside of Rio de Janeiro, or become one of the billion or more human beings now living in The Planet of Slums as described by Mike Davis, or move to the USA and become an obese couch potato TV addict and simultaneously learn about how they have been “saved” by Jesus.

  2. Frederick –
    I think he assumed the isolation impoverishes their lives because of what was described in the second paragraph of the text he cited (and as detailed in the entire article he linked).
    He is only saying that the isolation, among other things, has an impoverishing affect on their lives – meaning that in one sense their life is impoverished by their isolation. I don’t think he is saying that their life is completely impoverished because of it. Based on his other posts and writings, I also don’t think he would disagree that the isolation, in some ways, would enrich their lives.
    ‘Taking pains to cover up evidence of their presence’ in their own home, or as you call it ‘multi-dimensional Sacred Canopy’, is part of their remaining isolated from the white man. Not being able to leave any evidence of living in your own home sounds like something that would impoverish someones life.

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