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Video of tribe's first contact shows both tension and friendly overtures

Today the Brazilian Indian affairs department, FUNAI, posted an 8-minute video (also above) of a complex contact episode between members of an isolated tribe and outsiders, some of whom appear to be Brazilian officials. Seven tribespeople first made contact in late June along the Upper Envira River in western Brazil, and subsequently contracted influenza. After being treated by a FUNAI medical team, the tribespeople, ranging in age from about 12 to 21, returned to their Amazon forest village.

The video shows young tribesmen, all male, interacting with what appears to be the Brazilian government contact team and local villagers. In the first 2 minutes of video, the young men gesture from across a river at officials and villagers. According to anthropologist Kim Hill of Arizona State University, Tempe, they frequently repeat words in the Panoan language family meaning “friend” as well as “good or beautiful.” Later (minute 3:04), the tribesmen accept bananas, a welcome gift of exchange among isolated people in the area. But one appears to be carrying a rifle (minute 3:40). And the young men then take cloth, a machete, and an ax from a household, (minute 6:18), despite repeated shouts of “No!”

FUNAI has a history of filming contacts with tribal people and making them public, and these videos are valuable, says anthropologist Robert Walker of the University of Missouri, Columbia. “It’s kind of good to know what happened, and it shows how complicated these situations are,” Walker says. 

But Walker is struck by the strained nature of some of the filmed episodes. The young tribesmen in the video, “want axes, machetes, and cloths, and they probably want food,” he says. “But FUNAI did not provide this for them, because they are so completely underfunded.”

There was plenty of opportunity for misunderstanding, he adds. “It’s not like a nice, sustained contact. Things are still really sketchy.”