The Modern Dignity of an Uncontacted Tribe

The documentary Piripkura explores the resolve of indigenous people who persist in the forests of Brazil despite shifting circumstance.

Tamandua (left) and Pakyî (right), the two remaining members of the Piripkura tribe
Tamandua (left) and Pakyî (right), the two remaining members of the Piripkura tribe (Zeza Filmes / Courtesy of Cinema Libre Studio)

By some estimates, there are more than 100 “uncontacted tribes” in Brazil, mostly in the western reaches of the Amazon rainforest. These are indigenous peoples who live beyond the direct control, and sometimes knowledge, of the Brazilian state. Their groups vary in size but are, in many cases, quite small. Researchers from FUNAI—the Brazilian government agency that upholds indigenous rights—released footage in July of a single man who continues to live on his 8,000 hectare territory by himself. Dubbed “the Man of the Hole” for his practice of digging deep pits, he is the sole survivor of a tiny tribe attacked by ranchers in the 1990s. Little is known about the man himself: not his name, or the name of his vanished people, or the language he speaks. He avoids contact with outsiders, insisting on leading his solitary life in the forest in which he plants vegetables, forages, hunts, and manages to survive.

That he can live in this way is a measure both of his fortitude and of the effect of Brazilian laws that protect his territory from economic development. Approximately 13 percent of Brazil’s land area is reserved for indigenous peoples, including huge swaths of the Amazon rainforest. Without those regulations, farmers, ranchers, loggers, and miners would gobble up the land. FUNAI sent a team to film the Man of the Hole not out of curiosity, but out of necessity; the agency needed proof that he was alive and healthy to renew the protections around his territory.

The documentary Piripkura, now streaming on Amazon Prime Video, follows a similar FUNAI mission, in search of the Piripkura people, a tribe that consists of only two men, Pakyî and Tamandua. The uncle and nephew maintain a nomadic existence in the rainforest of the western state of Mato Grosso, hemmed in by ranches and farms. They boast “ninja” survival skills, according to the expedition leader, Jair Candor.

Media coverage of uncontacted tribes often delights in painting indigenous groups as people out of time, hunter-gatherers in the age of Seamless. In November, an American missionary was killed trying to reach North Sentinel Island in the Bay of Bengal, home to a remote tribe thought to number about 100 people. Grainy images shot from a helicopter in 2004 of naked islanders brandishing spears flooded the internet. But when they first appear in Piripkura, Pakyî and Tamandua offer a different kind of spectacle. What is striking about them is not their timelessness, but rather their very modern resolve to persist against the odds, to be free from the outside world.

That independence is likely to come further under threat from the incoming far-right president, Jair Bolsonaro, who has pledged not to reserve any more land for indigenous peoples. In previous years, Bolsonaro has said he would arm ranchers in their conflicts with native groups and has lamented that the Brazilian army was not as efficient as the American cavalry in exterminating indigenous tribes. When trying to put a more benign gloss on these statements, Bolsonaro has claimed that government protections unfairly exclude indigenous people from the benefits of 21st-century life. “The natives want doctors, dentists, television, internet,” he said recently. “We will give them the means to be like us.”

And yet many natives like Pakyî and Tamandua do not share that aspiration. They rarely live in oblivious remove from modern comforts; indeed, their lives have been shaped by the wider world around them. The Piripkura were slaughtered decades ago in an attack typical of the often-brutal frontier between indigenous peoples and an expanding, pioneer Brazilian society. That Pakyî and Tamandua chose a life in the forest is in keeping with a long history of indigenous peoples resisting forced incorporation into states. Researchers believe, for instance, that the nomadic Awá people were once settled agriculturalists but changed their ways to survive incursions. Many uncontacted tribes in the Amazon sought refuge deeper in the rainforest after the rubber boom of the 1870s. What seem like unchanged, primordial modes of being are actually lifestyles produced by shifting circumstance.

One virtue of the film’s somewhat rough style (which marries tremendous moral complexity to the cinematographic sophistication of The Blair Witch Project) is the transparency with which it sees the two men. After failing to find them, the FUNAI workers have a huge stroke of luck. The Piripkura come to them. Pakyî and Tamandua emerge from the forest only because they must, after the palm-bark torch they had kept burning for 18 years went out. They are short, wiry, and unclothed, moving in front of the cameras and in the presence of strangers with furtive half steps. Despite the solicitousness of the FUNAI workers, the two men keep a guarded distance. They lie together in a hammock, illuminated by the glow of the television news (broadcasting the latest from Brazil’s rolling impeachment and corruption scandals of 2016). They laugh as a friendly FUNAI worker dances to entertain them, and they patiently undergo the pokes and prods of a nurse.

Zeza Filmes / Courtesy of Cinema Libre Studio

But all the while they are itching to leave, a fact that Candor, the bearded, lugubrious expedition leader, repeats grudgingly. When Candor finally rekindles their torch in a cooking fire, they disappear back into the forest, waving goodbye with the only Portuguese word they seem to know: “Ciao!” “Let’s wait another 20 years for their fire to go out and see if they come back again,” Candor says.

In the middle of what is at times a slow, halting journey of a film, that astonishing sequence provides a moment of wonder. The rhetoric used to describe threatened indigenous peoples often directs attention to their culture, to their knowledge of the forest, to their lore and language—as if they can only have value to broader society as repositories of ancient wisdom and know-how. But the Piripkura now consist of two men who have lived alone in the forest since at least 1989, when Candor first met them. In the FUNAI camp, Pakyî and Tamandua huddle close together and you can’t help but imagine their intimacy, the loneliness of their existence and the enormity of their bond.

Candor explains that their names have not always been Pakyî and Tamandua, but have changed over the years. This molting of names is not elaborated on further, but it suggests a kind of wistful proliferation in the Piripkura world, the peopling of the forest with past selves. Tamandua, the nephew, has grown up entirely under the eaves of his uncle, not within a larger community. When together in the jungle, do they tell each other jokes? Do they talk about their dreams? Do they speak of worlds beyond their own? The full shape of their lives together cannot be known, but it certainly shouldn’t have to bear the weight of an immutable cultural inheritance.

Piripkura shows great humility in seeing indigenous people not as curious relics of some long-ago time, but simply as people who want to live freely, to live apart. Though viewers are taken on a search for the Piripkura, the film accepts that some chasms can’t be bridged. The two men are allowed to remain inscrutable, different, even unknowable. None of the FUNAI workers can speak their language. In one extended shot, Candor and a colleague sit in silence next to Pakyî and Tamandua; these four men from different worlds can say little to one another, and simply scratch at the mosquitos that bite them indiscriminately.