Catch the Wauja on PBS

When many of you helped us to fund this project two years ago, we were able to do the work we promised, albeit with less cameras and equipment per village. It was a great example of cultural repatriation, as the Wauja saw the old film of their ancestors, while young Wauja filmed the reactions of their elders.

We are happy to report that the project continues to bear fruit. John Paul Davidson, the BBC Series Producer and Director, was surprised and impressed when the Wauja filmed the BBC film crew while the BBC was filming the Wauja. He wrote about the experience:

“When we arrived in their village, its size and scale came as a surprise to me. Now almost twice as big as the last time I was there, with double the population, the huge cathedral-like houses made of thatch and bamboo were in immaculate condition. A few of them even had satellite dishes attached. The young men were not only computer literate but also very up to date, requesting the best editing hardware and software available.

“In spite of embracing modern technology, it was gratifying to see their ritual life was as rich as I remembered it. Without any provocation they dressed up with feathers and the elaborate body paint that characterizes their rituals and started a series of dances that mirror some of their favourite myths.

“And as we filmed them, they filmed us. It felt like a good exchange. At the end of the day there was much discussion about the relative merits of cameras, lenses, microphones and then how much of our equipment we could leave behind.

“I expect Wauja-made films will soon be out there on YouTube, and they will prove a valuable resource in safeguarding both their lands and traditions.”

Read the full article.

As another connection with the community you helped, you can see the Wauja this week on your local PBS station as part of the BBC’s four-part series, titled “Brazil with Michael Palin,” hosted by the former Monty Python member. Check your local PBS station listings, and look for the segment called “Into Amazonia.” It will be shown several times in many cities, and is scheduled for June 16th here in the DC area. The Wauja (and Emi) can be seen starting at the 41st minute of the segment. If you miss it on TV, you can see it on the PBS website.

Thanks again for your help and interest, and please keep in touch with us.

How the Project Went in Brazil

Update from project producer Emilienne Ireland

Together with the young Wauja filmmakers, we shot a wide array of material, far greater in scope than we had expected. We had originally planned to focus on documenting the conversation between generations as the elders commented on the historical films we brought. The Wauja enthusiastically cooperated in this project, but they took it in new directions, as well.

People recorded messages describing their concerns about climate change and the new problem of outbreaks of wildfires in the rainforest understory each dry season. They recorded scenes of an unnaturally dried-out forest during the wet season, and dangerously violent windstorms, which the elders say are unlike the storms of years ago. They made short videos about proposed hydroelectric projects in their region that threaten their river systems and way of life. They made videos of elders talking about about declining fish stocks and recalling recent instances of massive fish die-offs, in which thousands of dead fish were seen floating downriver. In other videos, elders in full ceremonial regalia formally addressed museum directors in faraway Brazilian cities, asking to see digital copies of all historic films and photographs of their ancestors.

They made videos of elders describing how, as the area around the protected Xingu National Park is deforested by ranchers, large fauna (particularly jaguars and anacondas) lose their territories and crowd into areas near the Wauja. For the first time in living memory, one of the Wauja villages recently had a problem with a jaguar that prowled the village itself by night and picked off their dogs, one by one, until the Wauja set a trap and killed it, fearing it eventually might attack a human being.

In the village of a neighboring ethnic group, a woman was safely inside her own home at night, when she happened to squat briefly against the house wall. Suddenly a jaguar thrust its arms right through the foot-thick thatch wall and tried to catch her. She was was clawed across her stomach, but otherwise was unhurt. However, the incident is utterly bizarre and unnatural. No one can recall ever hearing of such a thing in times past.

In two of the Wauja villages I visited, very large anacondas have been seen near the bathing area used by the community, and in one of the villages, a man lost two hunting dogs to anacondas. In each case, the dog was walking along the riverbank, when the anaconda suddenly lifted its head and neck out of the water and snatched the dog in the presence of its owner. As the Wauja note, how can small children be safe if alert hunting dogs are defenseless? These stories are as frightening to the Wauja as they are to us. The Wauja say that as a result of widespread deforestation, animals have been pushed out of their old territories and forced to occupy inhabited areas they would have avoided in times past.

Documenting not only Problems, but also Aspirations
In addition to documenting their concerns, the Wauja also documented their successes and their hopes for the future. They proudly made videos of their ceremonial dances, and of their parents telling stories at home. They made astonishing videos of groups of men calling birds and monkeys in the forest by imitating the calls of the various species. The videos show the animals approaching the men in response. They took their cameras to community meetings, recording comments by parents and children regarding their expectations for the new bi-lingual school curriculum.

They made video messages for kinsmen and sweethearts living in other villages, which I carried with me as I traveled from one village to the next. None of the messages were private. Whenever they were played, whether inside a house or in the public plaza, a small crowd would gather to peer intently at the camera’s display screen.

Some of the video messages were formal, such as the elderly father giving sage advice to his newly married son residing in another village. Some messages were pure stand-up comedy, such as the outrageous video from an amorous young man, who lavishly described his many excellent qualities to his would-be sweetheart, provoking general hilarity everywhere I went, along with endless requests to “play it again!”

Focusing on What’s Essential
One female elder, after hearing a recording of sacred music made by her late father 30 years ago, asked me to set up the equipment so that she could make a recording herself. As I held the microphone, she began to intone in formal cadence “I am Pere, your grandmother, your great-grandmother. I am a song master.” A song master is a ritual leader who is expert in sacred songs. I was stunned as I realized she was speaking directly to her descendants, and to posterity. She exhorted her listeners to never abandon the old songs, and she sang several passages spontaneously, closing with, “Sing! Keeping singing, always sing, and do nothing but sing! Sing these songs, all of you who hear my voice!”

When it was time for me to say goodbye and start my journey back to the States, she approached me. “I would like you to bring me something when you return,” she said softly. I smiled inwardly, because she had treated me with utmost generosity and kindness throughout my stay in her home. We have known each other for thirty years, since the days when I lived alongside her in her late father’s home. Her son, who was an infant then, is a talented young videographer now, as well as the village health worker. “What would you like from my country?” I asked, thinking she might ask for fine glass beads in a special color, as she had in the past. “I want you to bring me a tape recorder like the one you are using,” she replied. “A good one. I want to record all the songs I know.”

That is how I measure the success of this project. My sincerest thanks to all of you who made personal contributions to make it happen. In these times, most of us cannot afford non-essential expenditures. Thank you for demonstrating that you consider the Wauja project — essential.

First Photos From Piyulaga

The Wauja community has been very supportive of the Return of the Captured Spirits project, as you can see from the first picture below. The second shot shows the bank of part of the Culuene River on the trip from the small border community of Canarana to the main Wauja village at Piyulaga. The final shot shows children playing in the main plaza at Piyulaga, with the large Wauja houses in the background.

Wauja children watching the arrival of visitors
Arriving in the Wauja Village
Three young Wauja children watch excitedly as the Return of the Captured Spirits team arrives in the main Wauja village of Piyulaga in January 2012 with their laptops, projector, video equipment, and other gear to show the historical movies and shoot the new RCS video. [Photo credit: Mori Rothman]
Banks of the Culuene River
Traveling By Boat to the Wauja Village
Visiting the main Wauja village at Piyulaga started with an airplane ride from Rio de Janeiro to Cuiaba, in the center of Brasil. From there, an all-day bus ride to the border town of Canarana was followed by a three-hour truck ride on back roads to the Culuene River. Eight hours by motor boat bring visitors to a landing where gear can be transferred to a truck that takes about 45 minutes to get to the entrance to Piyulaga. Before trucks and motorboats, the trip was done by canoe and walking, and took a lot longer. [Photo credit: Mori Rothman]
Wauja children playing in the center of Piyulaga
Children Playing in Piyulaga
Wauja children, like children everywhere, enjoy riding their bikes, hanging out with friends, and watching the goings-on in the village. When the Return of the Captured Spirits team arrived, several children tagged along on every outing, whether to the schoolhouse, the bathing area, or the Chief’s house. [Photo credit: Mori Rothman]

Arrival and First Films

Thanks to our many Return of the Captured Spirits (RCS) supporters, we were able to start the trip to the Wauja community on January 10th. Emi Ireland and Phil Tajitsu Nash left from D.C. for Rio, and Jeffrey Ehrenreich and Mori Rothman left from NYC. Marcelo Fortaleza Flores left a little later from Paris, and our colleague Rafaela Vargas, who could not come for this phase of the project, stayed behind to help with online logistics.

After a short time in Rio to buy hammocks (much better than the ones you can get in the U.S.) and complete other logistical tasks, we flew to Cuiaba, the capital of the state of Mato Grosso in central Brasil. There, we were treated to wonderful hospitality by Regina and Giuliano, the mother and brother of Rafaela, before taking a long bus ride to the border town of Canarana.

In Canarana, we met with Chief Atamai, who had had to leave the village for a medical treatment, as well as other Wauja who are working and living in a community so small that you can literally walk across it in a few minutes. We stayed in the house of Aroca, whom we had met in 1996 when he was the schoolteacher in the Wauja village, and were given warm hospitality by Aroca and his wife Lorita, daughter Rafaela, and Rafaela’s friend Renata.

During two nights at the Wauja house in Canarana, we showed some of the 1946 films as well as videos of North American Indians to Chief Atamai and about 20 local members of the Wauja community. One night we used a sheet for the projection screen and the second night we just projected from the laptop directly to the wall. One both nights, the audience was extremely interested in the images they saw, and the comments about ancestors and practices they saw on the screen were fascinating. We will report in more detail later.

At 4am on January 19th, we loaded the five of us, a Wauja guide, and many bags of camera equipment, trade goods, and gear onto two trucks for a three hour ride to the Kuluene River. True to its name as the rainy season, we were treated to three straight hours of torrential rain, and we were very grateful for our two drivers, who knew how to navigate the many puddles and other obstacles on the roads to the river.

Once at the Kuluene, we had to transfer the gear into a long boat, cover it all with a tarp, and position ourselves as close to the back as possible so that the boat would rise up in the water as we moved forward. We started riding in the boat about 8am, and had no idea that what should have been an eight hour ride would end up 16 hours later with a midnight arrival in the Wauja village of Piyulaga. In short, the motor failed several times, and we ended up being helped by members of the Kuikuru tribe and then landing at the village of the Yalawapiti tribe, who loaded us in a truck and drove us to where the Wauja could pick us up and drive us to their village.

We will have more posts describing the initial encounters at Piyulaga in more detail, but the summary is that we arrived safely, the greeting by the Wauja community was enthusiastic, we had a comfortable lodging situation in the Chief’s house, and the films have been well-received. In fact, seeing the Wauja sitting around the center of the village on the hard-packed earth, watching the images being flashed on a taut bedsheet against a star-filled sky, Emi was reminded of seeing movies shown at a drive-in movie theater, but without the cars.

Please stop back again soon, as we now will be updating this site regularly with photos, videos and text. Thanks again to all who have made this project possible.

—Phil Tajitsu Nash

Common Dreams Features RCS

The progressive website Common Dreams featured an article on Return of the Captured Spirits by team member Phil Tajitsu Nash. Please forward to your networks.


Living Peacefully With One’s Neighbors

by Phil Tajitsu Nash

Imagine that your community and a neighboring community had been at war a half century ago. Many men had been killed, and women and children had been kidnapped.

Then, imagine what it would take for those two communities to sit down together to look at archival films of life in their region, share memories of common ancestors, and allow their children to interact peacefully with one another.

In January, that is exactly what will be happening in the heart of the Amazon rainforest, when the Wauja and Ikpeng peoples come together to view historic films made by Brazilian and German explorers almost a century ago.

The Ikpeng currently number over 300 people living in the Xingu Indigenous Park in Brazil’s Mato Grosso state on a southern tributory of the Amazon River. They speak a Carib language, and were first encountered by outsiders in the early 20th century. While the Ikpeng prided themselves as warriors, they could not hold back the encroachment of the dominant Brazilian society.

Like many indigenous communities, they suffered severe depopulation because of western diseases and other effects of the expansion of Brazilian settlers deeper into indigenous territory. This depopulation and the resulting shortage of women of child-bearing age, in turn, were among the reasons that the Ikpeng kidnapped women from neighboring communities.

Almost fifty years ago, one such raid resulted in the capture of the daughter of the Wauja chief and another young girl. This raid, when combined with the suffering caused by other Ikpeng raids over many years, led the Wauja people to mount a retaliatory raid to rescue the two girls. Tragically, the Wauja raid led to the deaths of many Ikpeng while not rescuing the girls.

The Wauja, currently numbering nearly 400 people in three villages, speak an Arawakan language whose word for “warrior” translates literally as “someone whose main talent is losing his self-control.” For that reason, the raid against the Ikpeng and the resulting deaths are seen as a source of shame, even many decades later.

Over the last forty years, both communities have tried to forget the raid and killings, as they brought dishonor to Ikpeng warriors who faced defeat, as well as the Wauja rescue party members whose participation in the retaliatory raid is viewed as a necessary but dehumanizing act. The one surviving Wauja woman whose kidnapping led to the Wauja raid still has a family in the Ikpeng village, and has never returned to the Wauja community. Ikpeng and Wauja individuals have met at Brazilian-run outposts and in border towns, but there have not been frequent inter-group meetings between the Wauja and Ikpeng in the same way that the Wauja meet regularly with their Mehinaku, Yawalapiti, and Kamayura neighbors.

Over the last few years, the digital revolution that has affected every corner of the globe has started to affect the people of the Amazon as well. While, in former times, young Wauja would gain access to the broader world through stories told by their elders around a campfire, they now have access to email, Skype and Twitter. Indigenous identities that were presented only at intertribal events are now being showcased on Facebook pages, where profile pictures range from traditional indigenous clothing to hip-hop fashion that would pass for normal on any street in New York or Rio de Janeiro.

With increased literacy in Portuguese (the national language of Brazil), improved Google Translate and other translation tools (allowing access to websites in other languages), and increased access to the internet (both in their rainforest communities and at internet kiosks in communities bordering the rainforest), young indigenous Brazilians are developing an awareness of themselves as indigenous people with both a local community identity and an identity that encompasses all indigenous people everywhere.

Like young multi-racial people in the United States, who now can proudly acknowledge the many parts of their cultural background on the federal census, Amazonian indigenous youth are using multiple indigenous names, displaying cultural markers from multiple linguistic and ethnic communities, and friending other young people — including those who are members of groups that might have been mortal enemies just a generation ago.

Putting aside any remaining animosities, a meeting has been scheduled in January of 2012, where the one remaining former Wauja captive, her descendants, and others with Wauja ancestry will join the rest of the Ikpeng community in welcoming members of the current Wauja community. Together, they will view the historic films and, in so doing, welcome back Wauja ancestors whose spirits and images were captured in the films taken almost a century ago.

When the films are shown to the community, elders of both Ikpeng and Wauja backgrounds will be asked to remember the names of the ancestors shown on the screen. Young Abuja and Ikpeng will use their newly-acquired video skills to capture these recollections. And doubtless many will use the internet to send tweets, emails, Facebook postings, and YouTube videos into the digital universe, as this latest chapter of Amazonian history unfolds.

It’s hard to know what effect this single encounter will have on the Wauja and Ikpeng communities. But, if historic enemies can lay aside their weapons and use new avenues for communication and understanding to connect with their shared past, then maybe peace is possible in other parts of the world as well.

This article was also featured on

Keeping in Touch Via Social Media

The young Wauja, like young people everywhere, are using Facebook, emails, and other social media tools to stay in touch. Emi Ireland, an anthropologist who speaks Wauja and who has been in touch with the community since 1980, receives calls via Skype as well as emails from the Wauja on a regular basis in her home in suburban Washington, D.C.

The Wauja are very excited about the trip that is planned for January 2012, and are grateful to everyone who is helping to make the project a reality, including the many donors and supporters.

Launch of Fundraising Campaign

Today, we are launching a campaign to raise money for our trip in January to visit the Wauja communities in the Amazonian rainforest in Brazil. Rather than depend on one or two big donors, we are using a “crowd sourcing” model of fundraising, which asks for smaller amounts from more people.

To support this project, please use your credit card or make a paypal transfer to at Paypal. One hundred percent of donations are being used to support the project. If you have any questions, please contact us directly.

You can also help us by spreading the word on Facebook, YouTube, or Twitter @ReturnofSpirits.


Preserving a Connection with the Past
Anthropologist Emi Ireland recalls a conversation with some members of the Wauja indigenous community in Central Brazil, when they first realized that she lived in a large city, surrounded by people who were complete strangers to her.