The Journey

The main village of Piyulaga, facing east (1981-83).

The main village of Piyulaga, facing east (1981-83).

Getting to Piyulaga

To get to the main Wauja community of Piyulaga, we entered the Xingu National Park, the indigenous reserve where the Wauja and neighboring groups live. There are no roads leading from outside the Park to the Wauja village, so the only access is by light plane or boat. From Canarana, we took a truck for several hours along the unpaved road leading to the river at edge of the Xingu Reserve, and then took a small motorboat to the area where the Wauja live. As we were arriving during the height of the rainy season, we knew that if the rains had made the road from Canarana impassable, we would have had to come in by light plane. Fortunately, the driver of the truck apparently had magical powers. He nimbly skirted deep mudholes, knew precisely which ruts to avoid, and managed to drive at a brisk clip on a roadbed of deep mud for several hours without getting stuck.

We did not have comparable good fortune on the boat ride. Our young boatman, unbeknownst to us, had never operated an outboard motor before. Naturally, he soon flooded the engine and we spent several hours breaking down, drifting aimlessly, restarting the balky engine, making a little progress, and breaking down again. A boatload of Indians from another community, mostly mature men, stopped to help us, and roundly scolded our young boatman for failing to bring tools and an oar. They opened our ailing motor, made some adjustments, got it running again, and went on their way. After a comical series of further mishaps and hardships, including getting lost on the river on an inky black night with no moon and the stars covered by clouds, we arrived at about 3:00 AM, utterly exhausted, in the main Wauja village, called Piyulaga. You can see it in Google maps.

After that experience, I did not get in a boat without a skilled boatman, tools and an oar. This incident was the first evidence I saw of a subtle but fundamental change in recent years. Young men today are less skilled on the water than the previous generation. Wauja boys today grow up spending most of their days in the village schoolhouse, not exploring the rivers and forests from dawn to dusk. When I first lived with the Wauja thirty years ago, it was a foregone conclusion that any adult Wauja male could expertly handle a boat and never get lost. These days, although young men are still far more adept at navigating the river than most outsiders would be, few are as skilled as their fathers once were. In fact, during the month I spent in Piyulaga, the chief’s grandson, about 19, got lost when he went out fishing right near the village. His father had to go out at dusk to find him and bring him home again a few hours later.

Traveling to the Villages of Piyulewene and Ulupuene

There are two other Wauja settlements that currently have no airstrips and can be reached only by boat. You can see these communities in Google maps: Piyulewene, located on the Rio von den Steinen, roughly eight hours downriver (north) by motorboat from the main village, Piyulaga. In the opposite direction is the village of Ulupuene, located about seven hours upriver (south) from Piyulaga, along the Rio Batovi. If you follow the course of the rivers in Google maps, you can see why the logistics of our project were daunting: the many twists, turns, and oxbows of these serene and meandering rivers make the distances by water two or three times the distance as the crow flies.

Travel in the Xingu has changed dramatically in recent years. Until the mid-1990s, the Wauja traveled on the water by paddling their dugout canoes, even for long trips. The Wauja began using motorboats in order to patrol their waters and drive out poachers who were coming deep into the Xingu Park to steal commercial quantities of fish. When the poachers would speed by in motorboats, the Wauja were powerless to pursue them in dugout canoes. Without motorboats, they could not defend their territory.

Nowadays the Wauja use aluminum boats powered by outboard motors for most river travel. They use dugout canoes only for fishing near the village. In the 1980s, the Wauja had only one village, but today there are three villages, separated by long distances. In the days of canoe travel, such distances were rarely traveled, if at all, because they required overnight stops along the riverbank without shelter. Today, these distances can be traveled in less than a day by motorboat, but this new mobility comes at a great cost. Traveling on the river has become horribly expensive.

Because there are no gas stations in the rainforest, you must buy all the gasoline and motor oil you will need in border towns on the edge of the Park, and bring it in with you. If you run out while you are inside the Park, you must use borrowed gasoline just to get back to a border town to buy more and bring that in. The gasoline is transported in heavy 60-liter plastic drums that are stamped in large type, “DO NOT REUSE”, but obviously have been used many times. As you travel by motorboat, the smell of gasoline and exhaust faintly taint the air, which is otherwise probably some of the freshest anywhere in the world.

In years past, when I traveled with the Wauja in their dugout canoes, gliding silently on the water, we often would get very close to animals before they noticed us. But the roar of the motorboat can be heard a mile away, and as you travel you see birds far in the distance fly up and scatter in alarm. You never hear birdsong, low conversation, or the whisper of calm water slipping along the hull. Just the deafening engine noise.

The Wauja hate being dependent on gasoline, and have asked me to find out whether there exist affordable solar-powered electric boats that can haul heavy loads of families, fish, and manioc harvests. If any of my readers have suggestions, please send me an email. By affordable, I mean comparable in cost to a plain aluminum boat with a 40-hp engine.

During the project, I visited each community in turn to show the old films and deliver HD cameras to the Wauja so they could make their own record of events. In the main village of Piyulaga I was accompanied by the other team members. We also shot our own videos and stills, leaving digital copies with each community. For more details, see How the project went in Brazil.

(Stormclouds during the rainy season, roughly from October through March.
The specks on the rooftop are chickens.)

In addition to the three Wauja villages, I also visited the Ikpeng, Carib-speaking people who, until 1964, were the traditional enemies of the Arawakan-speaking Wauja. The Ikpeng village is located downriver from the Wauja. Residing among the Ikpeng is a woman called Kamiru, the eldest daughter of a deceased Wauja chief. Many years ago, when she was an adolescent girl, she was stolen by the Ikpeng as a war captive, and married to an Ikpeng man. Her grandfather is one of the great Wauja chiefs shown in the old films. We provided digital copies of these films to the Ikpeng Cultural Center in her community. Kamiru is not the only Wauja residing in this community. Because the Ikpeng were traditional enemies of the Wauja, over the years, certain Wauja sought political asylum there. As a result, it so happens that one of the oldest living Wauja, a woman named Kainyun, is found today residing in the Ikpeng village. As I has hoped, I was able to interview both Kamiru and Kainyun in the spring of 2012, and to record Kainyun’s extensive commentary about the the historic films and still images.

For a more about the Wauja’s relation with the Ikpeng, see team member Phil Tajitsu Nash’s opinion piece, Living Peacefully With One’s Neighbors, published just before he visited the Wauja again in 2012.