The Unknown Indian: The Incredible Story of an Uncontacted Tribe Member

Karapiru escaped death when miners invaded his Brazilian forest home. But the harrowing experience wasn't his last.

Karapiru 4.jpeg
Survival International

His name means "Hawk" in his language. Yet even with the acuity of vision the moniker suggests, Karapiru could not have foreseen the tragedy that befell his people, the Awá tribe of northeastern Brazil. He could never have imagined the day that he would have to flee for his life far into the rainforest, a shotgun pellet burning in his back, his family mown down by gunmen. Nor could he have known that this brutal day would be the first in a decade of solitude and silence.

Karapiru's ancestral homeland lies in Maranhão state, between the equatorial forests of Amazonia to the west and the eastern savannahs. To the indigenous Awá, however, the land has only one name: Harakwá, or, "the place that we know."

The 460 members of the Awá tribe live by hunting for wild pigs, tapirs and monkeys, traveling through the rainforest with 6-foot bows and by gathering forest produce: babaçu nuts, açaí berries, and honey. Some foods are considered to have special properties; others, such as vultures, bats, and the three-toed sloth, are forbidden. The Awá also travel by night, lighting the way with torches made from tree resin.

The tribe nurtures orphaned animals as pets; they share their hammocks with raccoon-like coatis and split mangoes with green parakeets. Awá women even breastfeed capuchin and howler monkeys and have also been known to suckle small pigs.

The Awá year is divided into "sun" and "rain"; the rains are controlled by celestial beings called mai ra who oversee vast reservoirs in the sky. When the moon is full, the men, their dark hair speckled white with king vulture feathers, commune with the spirits through a chant-induced trance, during a sacred ritual that lasts until dawn.

For centuries, their way of life has been one of peaceful symbiosis with the rainforest. But over the course of four decades, they have witnessed the destruction of their homeland -- more than 30 percent of one of their territories has now been razed to make way for cattle ranches -- and the murder of their people at the hands of karaí, or non-Indians. Today they are one of the last nomadic tribes in Brazil. As they are so few in number (there are fewer than 100 uncontacted Awá, some of whom live outside any protected area), they are surrounded on all sides by hostile frontier forces such as ranchers, loggers and settlers who invade and kill with impunity; as a result, much of their forest has been destroyed. They are now also the most threatened tribe on Earth.

Karapiru's harrowing story really begins with a chance discovery in 1967 when American geologists were carrying out an aerial survey of the region's mineral resources. When the helicopter needed to refuel, the pilot decided to land on a treeless summit high in the Carajás Mountains. One geologist reputedly noticed a scattering of black-grey rocks on the ground. In fact, the soil beneath him contained what a geological magazine would later refer to as, "a thick layer of Jaspilites and lenses of hard hematite." In layman's terms, the prospectors had just touched down on the planet's richest iron ore deposit.

Their discovery swiftly gave rise to the development of the Great Carajas Project, an agro-industrial scheme financed by the U.S., Japan, the World Bank, and what was then known as the European Economic Community (now the European Union). It consisted of a dam, aluminium smelters, charcoal camps and cattle ranches. Tarmacked roads and a long-distance railway cut through the Awá tribe's territory in order to transport workers in and minerals out.

The project's industrial showpiece was a chasm gouged from the forest floor -- one so vast that it could be seen from space -- and one which would, in time, become the world's largest opencast mine.

The Great Carajás Project was devastating for the region's environment and its tribal peoples, despite the fact that in return for the billion-dollar loan, the financiers had asked the Brazilian government to guarantee that its indigenous territories would be mapped and protected.

But there was a fortune to be made from the forest, so a flood of ranchers, settlers and loggers soon began to pour into the region. Huge bulldozers gouged the land, tearing through layers of soil and rock to reach ore, bauxite and manganese. Ancient trees were chopped and burned; the black of charcoal ash replaced the deep green of the forest's foliage: Harakwá became a polluted, scarred, muddy vision of hell.

To the invaders the Awá tribe was nothing more than an obstacle to their territory's natural treasure trove; a primitive nuisance that they needed to fell together with the trees.

So they started killing them.

Some were inventive in their killings: several Awá died after eating flour laced with ant poison; a "gift" from a local farmer. Others, like Karapiru, were shot where they stood -- at home, in front of their families.

Karapiru believed that he was the only member of his family to survive one such massacre. The killers murdered his wife, son, daughter, mother, brothers and sisters. Another son was wounded and captured.

Severely traumatized, Karapiru escaped into the forest, lead shot embedded in his lower back. "There was no way of healing the wound. I couldn't put any medicine on my back, and I suffered a great deal," he told Fiona Watson, director of field and research at tribal rights organization Survival International. "The lead was hot in my back, bleeding. I don't know how it didn't become full of insects. But I managed to escape from the whites ."

For the next 10 years, Karapiru was on the run. He walked for nearly 400 miles across the forested hills and plains of Maranhão state, crossing the sand dunes of the restingas and the broad rivers that flow into the Atlantic.

He was terrified, hungry and alone. "It was very hard," he told Survival International. "I had no family to help me, and no one to talk to."

He survived by eating honey and small Amazonian birds: parakeet, dove and the red-bellied thrush. At night, when howler monkeys called from the canopy, he slept high in the boughs of vast copaiba trees, among the orchids and rattan vines. When the grief and loneliness became too much, he would talk quietly to himself or hum as he walked.

More than a decade after he had witnessed the murder of his family, Karapiru was spotted by a farmer on the outskirts of a town in the neighboring state of Bahia. He was walking through a burned section of forest, carrying a machete, a few arrows, some water containers, and a chunk of smoked wild pig.

They greeted each other. The farmer gave him shelter in exchange for chores, and provided him with food he had never eaten before -- manioc, rice, flour and coffee -- for which Karapiru developed a taste. He discovered a little about the ways of the karai, the white man, learning that his hosts kept cattle and slept in a bed, which he found extremely uncomfortable.

He was a man who had spent ten years "fleeing from everything."

"It was very sad," he says. But just as Hawk could not have envisaged his long years of suffering, neither could he have predicted the joy that was soon to come.

Once news spread that a solitary, unknown Indian had emerged from the forest, an anthropologist visited him. Karapiru tried to recount his story, telling the anthropologist that he had seen his family brutally cut down; that he had spent a decade in silence and that he was now the only one left.

But there was a problem: the anthropologist couldn't understand the language he spoke. Believing it to be part of the Tupi language group, he thought Karapiru might be a member of the Avá Canoeiro tribe, so officials from FUNAI, the government Indian affairs department, sent Karapiru to Brasilia. There he was introduced to Avá Canoeiro speakers, in the hope they would be able to understand each other. They couldn't. So in a final attempt to communicate with Karapiru, FUNAI sent a young Awá man called Xiramukû to talk with him.

The meeting with Xiramuku was one Karapiru could never have imagined. Not only could Xiramuku understand Karapiru's language, but he used one specific Awá word that instantly transformed Karapiru's life: he called him "father." The man standing in front of Karapiru, talking to him in his mother tongue, was his son.

Xiramuku persuaded his father to leave the farmer's house and live with him in the Awá village of Tiracambu. After years of isolation, Karapiru once more led an Awá way of life: eating game hunted in the rainforest, sleeping in a hammock, and keeping monkeys as pets.

Since then, Survival International has discovered that Karapiru has remarried, has several children and lives near his son in an Awá village. "I feel good here with the other Awá"' he says, "I found my son after many years, which made me very happy."

Karapiru 3.jpg
Survival International

Although Karapiru has found some measure of peace, his tribe's problems aren't over. Armed ranchers and criminal logging gangs, together with the grisly help of hired guns called pistoleiros are once again shooting the Awá on sight. "The invasions of white people in Awá territory is not good," says Karapiru. "We don't like it. After what happened to me, I try and hide from white people." Death is the usual price of indigenous resistance to invaders.

Their forests are disappearing faster than in any other indigenous area in the Brazilian Amazon. "Satellite images reveal that over 30 percent of one Awá territory has already been destroyed, despite the land having been legally recognized," says Watson of Survival International. The land they call Harakwá, "our place," is beginning to take on the appearance of a post-apocalyptic wasteland. Their forest is chopped down by loggers and colonists who work day and night to sell wood and clear land for cattle pasture.

The forest game on which the Awá survive is becoming increasingly hard to find, as the animals die and bird life scatters. "The loggers are destroying our land," Pire'i Ma'a, an Awá man, told Watson recently. "Monkeys, peccaries and tapir are all running away. Everything is dying. We are all going to go hungry. We are not finding any game, because the white people use guns and kill all the game."

The Carajás train, whose long cargo wagons rattle along the boiling tracks, carrying thousands of tons of iron ore, passes just yards from the forest where uncontacted Awá, who are some of the last uncontacted people on the planet, live. If forced into contact with outsiders, however, many could die. Survival International research has shown that up to 50 percent of uncontacted peoples die on first contact with outsiders from Western diseases to which they have no immunity.

Almost a year later, the situation is still so serious that a Brazilian federal judge has described it as a "real genocide."

Karapiru is now extremely concerned for his daughter's future. "I hope the same things that happened to me won't happen to my daughter," he says. "I hope she will eat lots of game, lots of fish, and grow up to be healthy. I hope it won't be like in my time."