Advertisement
YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

A People Edges Toward Extinction

Massacre Survivors Face Their Final Days

Brazil: In 1964, a judge and cashew baron sent thugs into the Amazon to wipe out the Juma and cut off their ears. Only 12 escaped. Then came disease and, finally, the jaguar.

January 18, 1998|TODD LEWAN | ASSOCIATED PRESS

IN THE AMAZON RAIN FOREST — Kare was resting inside the round hut, listening for the sounds of the jungle. Only the wind whispered in the treetops. It was unnervingly quiet.

He swung out of his hammock, picked up a club and stepped outside.

And screamed.

An old man, Marima, snapped awake, grabbed his spear and scrambled outside. A jaguar had Kare by the neck, thrashing the muscled young Juma Indian around like a cat with a mouse.

Marima plunged his spear into the jaguar again and again until its air-shaking howls ceased and it lay still in the mud.

Once, the Juma tribe numbered in the thousands, an ancient civilization of warriors and hunters, mystics and poets, romantics and philosophers ruling a swath of a great wilderness.

The tribe was down to eight people: two old men, two old women, three young girls and Kare, the last Juma warrior, bleeding at their feet.

Without Kare, who would father the next generation of Juma?

What would become of a tiny band lost in a nameless corner of the world's biggest rain forest?

*

The Juma, who told their story to a reporter at their jungle home last year, aren't the only Indians facing extinction. Already, in this century alone, 87 Amazon tribes have vanished from the Earth.

No one knows how many native people lived in Brazil when Portuguese navigator Pedro Cabral came ashore in 1500; estimates vary from 1 million to 11 million. Only about 320,000 remain.

Like the Indians of North America, native Brazilians have perished in war, in slavery, by starvation, and from diseases brought by invaders. About 170 tribes survive. Fifty-four, including the Juma, live beyond the reach of modern society in unexplored pockets of the Amazon.

But not for much longer.

Gold miners, loggers and poachers are pressing into uncharted areas of the rain forest, endangering the last tribes that cleave to the cultures of their Stone Age ancestors.

"What's happening to the Juma is what's in store for isolated tribes across the Amazon if the government doesn't act to keep settlers away," said Sydney Possuelo, director of the Federal Indian Bureau's Department of Isolated Indians. His sertanistas--frontiers-men--seek out isolated tribes and prepare them for the arrival of outsiders.

Without protection, he said, "90% of these isolated tribes will disappear within a generation."

Some Brazilians don't see anything wrong with that. "Why keep the Indians in a time bubble?" asks Gilberto Mestrinho, a former three-time governor of Amazonas state.

Reilli Franciscato, a sertanista in Labrea, a hamlet on the Purus River 500 miles southwest of the jungle city of Manaus, poses a different question: "Why do we have this need to wipe out this diversity of humankind, to become clones of one another?"

*

Kare was losing a lot of blood.

Aroka, the Juma headman, knew there was only one thing to do: Take the young warrior to the enemy. Perhaps the white men had a magic cure.

The Juma carried Kare more than 30 miles on their backs, moving quietly through the dense foliage, thigh-deep swamps, chest-high rivers. The black sky was splintering into shards of crimson and violet when they came upon a wide, muddy trail.

It was a scar left in the forest long ago by an abandoned highway project. There was no name for this place; it was not on any map or chart. The Juma didn't know where else to look for white men, so they set up camp and waited.

Aroka made a fire and the old woman, Inte, knelt before it and began the ancient Juma sobbing ritual. The Juma believe weeping allows them to communicate with each other, to see flashes of the past, to make contact with the forces of nature, to speak with the spirits of the dead.

They wept as the wind carried off the day, and the skin of the last Juma warrior turned cold.

*

Anthropologists believe the Juma were once part of the Tupi-Kawahib, a people who migrated to the Madeira River region of the Amazon in the 17th century.

Within a generation or two, about 3,000 tribesmen split off from the Tupi-Kawahib to form their own tribe. They called themselves Juma, which means "fierce." Their neighbors called them "giant people with big feet."

The first official record of the Juma appears in the 1880 ledger of Antonio Rodrigues Labre, an army colonel ordered to clear the jungle of "hostile savages" at the start of the rubber boom. They "fight fiercely for their freedom," the colonel wrote.

The Juma, their spears and arrows no match for firearms, fled into the forest. When the Amazon rubber trade collapsed after World War I, the attacks paused. But in 1953, the world found them again.

Rubber tappers, nut gatherers and hunters pressed into Juma territory between the Mucuim, Jacare and Ipixuma rivers. The Juma responded by attacking a barge loaded with cashew nuts on the Punicici River, slitting the throats of five whites. The barge owner paid gunmen to kill two Juma families as they slept. Shortly afterward, a settler was found floating, headless, in the Mucuim River.

Advertisement
Los Angeles Times Articles
|
|
|