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

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.