He Spent Years Forging Ties With the Amazon's Most Isolated Tribes. Then He Realized His Mistake

While living among the native tribes of the Brazilian Amazon, Sydney Possuelo discovered a human society that has no awareness of the modern world. He learned that the best way to protect it is to stay away

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Sydney Possuelo with members of the Korubo tribe.
Sydney Possuelo with members of the Korubo tribe.Credit: Nicolas Reynold
Ayelet Vardi

The first time members of the various isolated tribes in the Amazon region of Brazil met Sydney Possuelo, they would try to figure out the strange white being who had appeared in their midst.

“They wanted to see if we were the same thing,” Possuelo recalls with a smile. “They asked me to open my mouth, to see what was inside, they touched my face and my beard. Women from several tribes asked me to open my zipper and looked at my penis, and then they called their husbands to see. If my expedition included women, the men would feel their chest and loins to make sure that they were in fact women and not men. In one case, a man from one of the tribes took the hand of a member of the expedition who was black and rubbed it back and forth, trying to remove the color, until he understood that this was the skin color.”

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Few people have devoted and risked their lives for the Amazon tribes like the impressive 80-year-old adventurer who now sits across from me.

In his 60 years of work, Brazilian-born Possuelo has made contact with seven tribes that had never previously been exposed to white people, was responsible for demarcating about 15 percent of Brazil’s territory as protected reserves for the indigenous communities, and afterward adopted an opposite – and revolutionary – policy of avoiding contact with those peoples, in order to protect them. With machete in hand and without an academic degree, he became an ethnographer and spent years in the jungles in the company of the native peoples.

For years Possuelo worked for and headed the Department for Isolated Indians in FUNAI, Brazil’s National Indian Bureau. His efforts have made him the foremost authority in the field, a spokesman for the indigenous tribes of the Amazon region and one of the most admired and decorated activists in the world. Without him, dozens of tribes would have become extinct.

We meet in Brasilia, the country’s capital, where he now lives, on a hot, dry day in August. Under coronavirus restrictions, the conversation takes place in the open air. In a very un-Brazilian way, he arrives exactly on time, wearing a khaki shirt, three-quarter pants and sandals. In almost all the photographs of him, some of them from decades ago, he is dressed the same way and has the same piercing look and the same beard, with his hair pulled back from his bald spot in the same way. Only its color has faded with the years. He carries nothing on him except for some antimalaria medication (he has contracted the disease 39 times) and a combination watch-and-compass which, he says, is “also important for getting around in the city” (possibly because he doesn’t have a cellphone).

Possuelo greets me with a broad smile and a firm handshake. Within seconds he creates a feeling of tranquility and sincerity, putting an interviewer at ease instantly. Perhaps his captivating, charismatic character is what sets him apart from hundreds of others who failed in their attempts to befriend the isolated tribes.

Possuelo with members of the Zo’é tribe.
Possuelo with members of the Zo’é tribe.Credit: Para

Gift of a machete

Possuelo remembers well his first encounter with a people who had never seen a white person, in 1978.

“It was the Maia tribe, who live in the Javari Valley, accessible only by boat,” he says. “We looked for them after learning that they had encountered illegal loggers, and we were worried about their wellbeing. On our way there, the river began to overflow. We were forced to abandon the boat and we walked through the forest in water. Suddenly we saw a native person. He seemed calm. I took my machete and gave it to him as a gift. He looked at me and started to walk, so we followed him without knowing where we were going. We came to a small hut, where we had to bend over in order to enter.

“There was me, four indigenous people who worked with me and two we’d met from the Maia tribe. Native peoples usually speak two or three languages, but the ones we met didn’t speak any of the languages known to my team members. Night fell, and we huddled together to sleep in the hut. I was the only person with white skin. They were afraid of me, because they’d heard about things that the white person does. To feel safe passing the night with me, they slept right on me.

“At dawn,” Possuelo continues, “I went outside to stretch a little, waiting to see what would happen next. From hand gestures we understood that the rest of the tribe would arrive soon. We didn’t know whether something violent was about to happen. We didn’t understand them and they didn’t understand us. I told my team that if something were to happen, we would shoot into the air. The indigenous people who were with me knew better than I did that in an encounter with the isolated tribes there are two possibilities: Either they get along with you, or they kill you.

“As we were planning an escape route, the leaves beneath us started shaking and we heard voices of children and of a woman. That was a good sign. Suddenly they started to emerge. At first we saw a woman with a child at her breast, then gradually more people arrived bearing gifts: fat, juicy worms wrapped in leaves. We breathed a sign of relief and bit into the worms. They were tasty and nourishing, with a taste of coconut. We wanted to stay with the tribe, understand who they were, but we received a message on the mobile radio to return to base. [In general] tribesmen don’t count above five, so to explain to them that I would be back in 35 days, I took a rope and made 35 knots. I showed them how to untie each knot, which represents a day, to make it clear to them that on the day when there would be no more knots, I would arrive.”

They don’t count?

Possuelo: “Not really. They also don’t speak in terms of days or months. If they want to talk about a period in which they were children, they will gesture with their hands to show the height they were at that time. If they want to arrange a meeting during the day, they will say: ‘When the sun is in that place, I will come to your home’ and point to the location of the sun in the sky. If they want to set a meeting on a different day, they will say, ‘Let’s meet when the moon appears the second time’ – namely, in two months. Their whole approach to time is different from ours. If they had planned to go fishing one day, and it rains, they will fish when it is not raining. No big deal. We live in a society where you always have to stick to a timetable. Their life is not dictated by time.”

But many encounters of that kind did not end peacefully. “Hundreds of members of expeditions were killed over the years trying to make contact,” Possuelo relates. “We don’t always know why they choose to kill one person and not another. I think it’s because the indigenous peoples see white people as belonging to a single tribe, and many times they killed someone because they attributed to him actions of a different white person who attacked their tribe.

“In the process of making contact with the Arara tribe [in 1981], who lost thousands of warriors in a war against white people, they started to shoot arrows at us,” he adds. “I remember that suddenly a river of arrows landed on us from deep inside the forest. One of the people who worked with me was hit in the chest with two arrows, and one penetrated his shoulder. Another worker had his stomach split open by an arrow.”

One of Possuelo’s team members leaves gifts for the Korubo tribe. Not long afterward, he was murdered by members of the tribe.
One of Possuelo’s team members leaves gifts for the Korubo tribe. Not long afterward, he was murdered by members of the tribe. Credit: Erling Sandstrom

“The process of creating contact doesn’t happen in one day,” Possuelo notes. “It can take weeks, even months. For example, we made contact with the Korubo tribe – one of the most isolated tribes, who lost hundreds of warriors over the years – through singing. We got to within a kilometer of their region, and we started to sing. We sang in a very loud voice, because people who show up quietly are usually an enemy, whereas friends announce their arrival. After we finished singing, the native people from the tribe sang back to us. In return, we left them gifts, such as knives, machetes and axes.

“The face-to-face encounter with them took place eight weeks later. Despite this, one of my staff was murdered by them sometime afterward. A few of the native people pounced on him from behind with a club and beat him to death. I didn’t ask them why they had done it, so they wouldn’t think I wanted to avenge his death.”

How do you communicate with a tribe if you don’t speak its language?

“In the first meetings, communication is carried out by gestures and mime. When you want to sleep, you put a hand next to your head. For example, when I first met with the Zo’é tribe, I pointed to myself and said ‘Sydney,’ and then I pointed to one of them and they said ‘Poturo.’ So at first we called them the ‘Poturo tribe.’ It was only later that we realized that poturo is the piercing they have – the bone of a monkey’s foot [or a piece of wood] that is inserted into the lower lip. The bone, which can be removed and reinserted like an earring, is one of the tribe’s most prominent markers. The piercing of the lower lip is done in childhood as part of a rite of passage.”

Looking for adventure

Nothing in Possuelo’s childhood obviously prepared him for the person he would grow up to be. He was raised in São Paulo by parents who were both actors. “My parents weren’t especially successful, but they had a rich imagination, which my sister and I inherited,” he says. “Today I know that imagination is a marvelous tool that helped me forge a new reality.”

During his adolescence he first heard the story of the three Villas-Boas brothers, who took part in the Roncador-Xingu expedition of adventurers in 1943, sponsored by the Brazilian government to prepare the jungle for the settlement of white people. The mission was a partial success; a few bases were created. The brothers were so enchanted by the beauty and the cultural richness of the tribes they encountered, however, that they decided to stay, living along the Xingu River in the southern Amazon region. They were adopted by the tribes that lived by the river and became their guardians in the face of the gold miners, hunters, fishermen, loggers, ranchers and all the other groups with vested interests who arrived with the white people. For 20 years they campaigned to demarcate the Xingu area as a protected reserve constituting territory of the indigenous population. Their achievement created a precedent, with significant implications for the survival of the indigenous peoples in Brazil as well as in neighboring countries.

Possuelo with the Korubo tribe. Some children in indigenous communities breastfeed up to the age of 7.
Possuelo with the Korubo tribe. Some children in indigenous communities breastfeed up to the age of 7. Credit: Nicolas Reynold

Possuelo: “When I was 15, I saw an interview with one of the brothers on television that piqued my curiosity. The Amazon was then a mysterious region, unfamiliar in Brazil. The stories of their journeys and encounters with other civilizations fired me with a passion for adventure that didn’t relent. I decided that I must meet them.” He finally managed to do that when he was 17, and by age 18, he was their personal assistant.

“In those first years, I never got to the Amazon region,” he laughs. “I was their assistant in the rear; I helped them keep the books, organize equipment and so on. In the meantime, I read about the indigenous peoples and their way of life, and I changed from being a kid who wanted to be part of an adventure to an activist who fought to protect the isolated tribes.”

After a few years of staff work, Possuelo paid his first visit to the Xingu reserve. “We would go on marches of a few days along rivers that were very difficult to navigate,” he says. “I flew there a lot and stayed for months at a time, and then I truly began to get to know the native peoples, to eat their food, to sing with them. The better I got to know them, the more I esteemed them and the more I wanted to help them. In 1961, we [the brothers and other activists] succeeded in getting their land demarcated as a reserve. It was the first marking of indigenous peoples’ land in Brazil. It was an act of tremendous importance.”

Shortly afterward, Possuelo underwent training and qualified as a sertanista, within the framework of FUNAI. The term derives from sertão, which today has a different meaning, but basically means “big jungle.” A sertanista is thus “one with knowledge of the sertão, who knows about fauna, flora, can run expeditions, protects indigenous people, etc. For the indigenous tribes, the idea of the sertanista, which came into being when white people first reached Brazil in the 16th century, always bore negative connotations. They viewed sertanistas as frauds who wanted to create ties of friendship for purposes of enslavement and conquest. The job description changed only in the 19th century, and the role of the sertanistas underwent a radical change.

The lengthy periods that Possuelo spent among the native peoples enabled him to become deeply acquainted with their way of life, customs and belief system.

“Everyday life is similar among the tribes that live in the jungle,” he notes. “They will always live close to a water source, where they also bathe. There are defined tasks for women and men inside and outside the home. The distribution of labor depends on sex, age and season. In the dry period, the men will get up at first light, around 4 A.M., take a little timbó (a poisonous plant resembling the root on which Tarzan swings) and set out in canoes on the river. Closing off a section of the river, they fill it with the timbó, which deprives the fish of oxygen. They will wait for the fish to die, collect them, and by 6 A.M. they will already be back home.”

The tribes fish and hunt for almost all species living in and around the river, including birds and mammals, particularly wild boar, tapirs, gazelles, monkeys, turtles and paca, a type of rat. Some tribes avoid eating certain foods if they clash with their own particular mystical realm. For example, one tribe doesn’t hunt turtles, because they believe that the spirits of the dead can return in the form of that animal.

The vast majority of the tribes are not gatherers, but rather plant and grow their food from among the selection the forest offers: bananas, papayas, nuts, corn, palm trees, açaí palms, guarana and pequi (a fruit the size of an orange from which oil bearing medicinal qualities is also made). Possuelo relates that the women are usually responsible for feeding the family and are the ones who usually do the planting and harvesting. In some tribes, the men are often responsible for lighting the fire. “All the tribes with which I’ve been in contact use the same method to create fire, which consists of rubbing two sticks until smoke appears. The process takes 10 to 15 minutes.”

One of Possuelo’s team members after he was attacked by the Arara people. “I remember that suddenly a river of arrows landed on us from deep inside the forest.”
One of Possuelo’s team members after he was attacked by the Arara people. “I remember that suddenly a river of arrows landed on us from deep inside the forest.”

How many meals do they eat a day?

“In the West we are slaves of time, so most of us eat at regular hours, three times a day. The indigenous peoples eat when they feel hungry. One of the dishes I like best is called mutape. It’s a type of stew made from fish, fowl or game of some sort, which is coated with flour and sprinkled with salt made from the root of a marine plant.”

There are many afternoon tasks: building huts and canoes, making bows and arrows, replacing roof straw, and preparing hammocks and eating utensils. There’s always work, but nothing is done in haste. In the evening, the men of the Kayapo tribe, for example, gather in the “men’s hut” and smoke pipes with tobacco. They talk about the tribe’s plans and try to find solutions for conflicts. Then they return to their huts. “On the following day, everything they agreed on will be canceled, time and again,” Possuelo says with a smile, “because in the end it’s the women who decide.” He’s not joking: In this tribe the women are considered very dominant.

“Tribes people live in a very respectful milieu,” Possuelo continues. “They don’t talk a lot, they listen more. It’s very rare to see problems or friction in their everyday life; there’s a very natural flow in the life of the tribe. And all without the need for police, firefighters or ambulances. No one is attacked or robbed. It’s a far more tranquil environment than ours.”

If a conflict arises, how is it resolved?

“Every tribe has a chief, but not the type of leader we are used to. The chief advises, he doesn’t decide for anyone. The tribe will decide together whether to accept his advice. No one rules anyone else. Because their value system is very much bound up with the mystical realm, they don’t punish people. It’s the mystical realm that will mete out punishment. They believe that if someone did something bad, he won’t catch fish or won’t succeed in the hunt. He will become unlucky.”

The intricacies of the mystical world, transmitted orally from one generation to the next, are what confer meaning on day-to-day life: “The large tribes have fantastic tales about the creation of humans, languages, animals. In the colder regions they gather around the bonfire in the evening and tell stories of heroism, talk about the stars, describe how night was created – and the children are there, listening.”

Mystical traditions are marked in parties and ceremonies several times a month. “Everyone without exception takes part in the parties,” Possuelo says. “It’s a delightful sight to see a woman dancing with her baby until daybreak.”

Possuelo and colleagues in the Amazon jungle.
Possuelo and colleagues in the Amazon jungle.Credit: Nicolas Reynold

In the course of talking about tribal traditions, Possuelo is reminded of a story that saddens him deeply. “We organized a mission of physicians to come to one of the villages we were in contact with, in order to vaccinate them (so they wouldn’t die from white peoples’ diseases). One of my staff, whose name is Wellington, went hunting with a few members of the tribe and tried to hurry them back to the village to meet with the doctors. There was also a boy of 9 or 10 in the group. The boy was carrying a burning ember and stopped every few minutes to blow on it so it wouldn’t go out. That slowed down the group very much. After repeatedly asking the boy to keep going, Wellington took the ember from him and threw it into the river, and thus they got to the village on time.

“Wellington noticed that the boy was sad and offered him a box of matches to replace the ember. The boy looked at him tearfully and said, ‘Yes, but that fire was lit by my great-grandfather, who passed it on to my grandfather, who passed it to my father, who passed it to me.’ It was the family fire and it was the boy’s task to safeguard it and pass it on to the next generation.

“That story has stayed with me for many years – it taught me an important lesson about respecting the other,” Possuelo says. “Even when we help, we need to understand who we are helping, what their value system is, what their traditions are. Wellington wanted to get back to the village, and without understanding at all – he destroyed a tradition of generations in the family.”

Of sex and smell

The nature of spousal and family relationships differs from tribe to tribe. In the Zo’é tribe, for example, there are men and women with two, three and sometimes more partners. The mature women of 35 to 40 play an important role in transmitting sex-related information to young men. A young man will go to the husband of a mature woman and request that she teach him. In return, he will offer to help with the hunt or with growing and harvesting crops.

In other tribes, Possuelo explains, there might be a monogamous relationship between a man and a woman. Mostly, though, the man will have more than one wife, as long as he can support a large family that includes additional women and children. The first wife he married will always have paramount importance vis-a-vis the others.

Expressions of intimacy in public are frowned on.

“In all my years with the tribes I have never seen native peoples having sexual intercourse,” Possuelo says. “They will have intercourse when no one is in the hut, or they will find a place where they are alone. They do not express feelings of love, do not caress, kiss or embrace. As far as I know, there is no foreplay or romantic prelude in sexual relations. The sex is more basic. They also don’t use contraceptives. The women have teas that they prepare when they want to become pregnant or when they want to avoid pregnancy.”

Possuelo with a woman from the Zo’é tribe, with a traditional bottom-lip piercing.
Possuelo with a woman from the Zo’é tribe, with a traditional bottom-lip piercing.Credit: Para

Nor are a woman’s breasts considered sexual organs, Possuelo adds. The breast has a very clear purpose: to feed the babies. “Breastfeeding, by the way, lasts far longer than with us,” he says. “Children usually nurse until the age of 5, and I’ve seen children who were still breastfeeding at the age of 7.”

The act of relieving oneself is also very private. “I have never smelled excrement or urine in the tribes, and I have never seen them relieving themselves,” Possuelo says. “They will leave the communal area, go a long way off, make a hole in the ground and then cover it.”

By the way, is it true that they think we [white people] have an odd smell?

“Yes, and there are a number of reasons for that. First, their sense of smell is more highly developed than ours. Second, they usually don’t wear clothes and they wash in the river several times a day, so no odor clings to them. In contrast, white people come to the jungle dressed in clothes in which they perspire a great deal because of the awful humidity. Tribes people are also very much aware of internal body cleanliness. Occasionally they will mix a number of plants and do a ceremony of internal cleansing, in which they drink the mixture with the aim of throwing up and cleansing themselves from within.”

No rules or tasks are imposed on the children of the tribe. Everyone has a parental approach to all the children, who know they have a place in the community from the moment they’re born. They will not have to fight or kill to assure their place. The parents don’t ask what they want to be when they grow up, if they will study or whether they’ll be happy. A boy will almost always do what his father and grandfather did.

Both boys and girls undergo rites of passage from childhood to maturity.

Possuelo: “In the Xingu tribe, for example, when a girl menstruates for the first time, she undergoes a process of separation from the community. She is allotted an isolated area in the hut, where she remains for almost a year. In this period she learns how to make utensils, how to cook, and becomes a woman. At the end of the isolation, a party is held for her. The boys also undergo a period of separation from the community, which can last for even two years, when they eat special food that is supposed to help them develop muscles, and they learn from the elders of the tribe.

“The ceremony of the dead is perhaps the most impressive I’ve ever seen,” he adds. “To white people it will look more like a party. When an important person dies, the indigenous people believe that his soul is still with the tribe, and therefore they will invite hundreds of people from neighboring tribes to a party that celebrates his life, his death and his rebirth. The preparations will take several months [but the bodies themselves are buried after death]. At the end of the ceremony, which lasts two days, a tree trunk, symbolizing the dead and decorated by the deceased’s family, is placed in water. The tree trunk is heavy and does not float. They believe that the moment it sinks, the soul is free to go to the place where it is meant to go.”

The first encounter with the Maia tribe.
The first encounter with the Maia tribe.Credit: Nicolas Reynold

Who we serve

Possuelo’s main purpose was always to protect the indigenous tribes. To that end he toiled to forge ties with them – and for that reason he also reversed his basic approach to them over the years.

“Those were the years [in the late 1960s] when the modern conquest of the Amazon region began,” he notes. “The military regime that came to power in Brazil planned to build many highways. One of them, the Trans-Amazonian, sliced through the heart of the region, from the west to the sea in the east. The Brazilians didn’t imagine that the construction of the highways would lead to encounters with so many tribes living in the forests. The native peoples found themselves under attack, dying from diseases borne by the people who were sent to build the roads, and losing their trees and lands to a highway, a dam or a ranch. They found themselves being pushed aside forcibly.

“In the 1970s and 1980s, I took dozens of missions into the jungles and mediated many conflicts between the white people and the tribes. There was a nomadic tribe that was attacked repeatedly by miners. I made contact with them in order to protect them, and at a later stage we demarcated territory for them. I made contact with other tribes, too, because after nine years of war against the building of the road in their territories, they almost became extinct. I didn’t stop to think what would happen after I’d succeeded in my mission. The thought was that I was preventing killing on both sides. Over the years, I came to understand that for the indigenous peoples there is no gain in the work we were doing. Establishing contact with them meant loss of autonomy, land, tradition of independence and identity. The process did not respect or really see them.

“My change of approach took shape gradually – it was a process of years. None of us who worked together ever met up as a group or asked themselves what they were actually doing and whose good they were serving. In 1986, I convened the first conference that dealt exactly with this. At that stage I no longer had any doubt that there was nothing positive about forging contact with these tribes – and I managed to convince my other colleagues to shift policy. I introduced a new approach of not making contact and of respecting the tribes’ right to remain isolated.

“I was appointed head of the national department for isolated tribes in Brazil, and I had one goal: to identify where such tribes exist, to demarcate the territory they live in and to let them live their lives according to their values. I also tried to persuade neighboring countries to revise their policies about the tribes in their territory, and most adopted my approach. Since then, I have demarcated 166 indigenous peoples’ lands throughout Brazil. This does not give them ownership of the land, but it does recognize it as a reserve in which only they are permitted to live, and stipulates that no one can buy the land.”

Possuelo estimates that there presently remain 22 tribes in the Amazon region with whom contact has never been made. They are small tribes with a total population of a few hundred between them. They have a distinctive language and history, and they live the way modern societies did thousands of years ago. It’s very possible that they are aware of white peoples’ existence – some from stories they heard, some who saw them from a distance but did not approach.

What is your greatest worry today?

“I am very worried about the policy of the Brazilian government under President Jair Bolsonaro. He is taking a capitalist approach that sees only the economic potential of the Amazon region and nothing more. [He is also considering reducing the lands of the tribal peoples.] The coronavirus also worries me. My son, who is now in the Javari Valley with an indigenous group, just recovered from the virus after being infected by someone in the tribe. The pandemic is trickling down into tribes whose members have a fragile immune system. It is liable to eradicate many of them, and the government is doing nothing. At the same time, the tribes are enduring attempts at conversion by missionaries who are exploiting the chaotic situation. Religious conversion for the native peoples means destruction of their culture.”

What have you learned from the indigenous peoples?

“I never tried to teach them, so I learned far more than I taught, and received more from being with them than they got from being with me – primarily in terms of simplicity, respect for the world in which we live, solidarity. I was a white person who looked at thousands of indigenous people and learned from them. They were thousands of indigenous people who looked at one white person. They believe that nature, which always provided for them, will not disappoint them, and therefore they respect it and make do with what it brings them. They believe in it, because they know that when they get up in the morning to fish or to build another hut, it will be there. They believe that nature will always work in man’s favor. I hope that our society will internalize these insights and change its relations with nature.”

If we lose them, what do we lose?

“We lose part of our humanity and our humaneness. They are our ties to the past, which they are living in the present. They are an eternal reference to what we once were. The naked person, the person without the concepts and the prejudice of modern society. They are living in the heart of the jungle in simplicity; they are the purer side of humanity, not driven by material considerations. They represent the person who is closer to our essence. The world without them will be a poorer place.”

Ayelet Vardi is a journalist, filmmaker and social entrepreneur, the founder of the Cinema Tribu media production company, and initiator of Cinema Cause, a collective of filmmakers donating their skills to help selected international NGOs raise funds.

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