The Project

The marsh by Lake Piyulaga, facing west (1981-83). This is where men who've been out fishing bring home their catch, and where the women drew water before wells were dug in the village.
The marsh by Lake Piyulaga, facing west (1981-83).

Historic 1924 Films that Captured Images of Wauja Ancestors

In 1924, an expedition visited the Wauja, a remote rainforest community in Central Brazil, and shot the first movies ever made of these people. This precious footage was deposited at the National Museum in Rio de Janeiro, where it remained, unseen by the Wauja or their descendants, for nearly a century.

When anthropologist Emilienne Ireland first conducted research with the Wauja in 1981, she showed them xeroxed copies of some of the still photographs that had been published in an old book recounting the expedition. The oldest Wauja were thrilled and amazed to recognize several former chiefs and other important historical figures in these photos. Since then, the Wauja knew that a film of this expedition also existed, although another thirty years would pass before they had the chance to see it.

Thanks to digital technology, it finally has become possible to bring copies of these precious films to the Xingu. In January of 2012, for the first time, the Wauja saw their own ancestors brought to life on film, including renowned chiefs and other figures they’ve heard so many stories about, but whose faces they never expected to see.

Roncador-Xingu Expedition Records Wauja During a Period of Migration

In addition to the iconic Rondon footage, in January of 2012 the Wauja also saw films from the Roncador-Xingu expedition of 1941-48, which included a fascinating map showing the Wauja located on “Kuluseu” (Culiseu) River, where Wauja elders said they had gone to escape from their enemies in those times, the Ikpeng. The young Wauja adults were surprised to see this, because the Wauja have resided on another river, the Batovi, for generations.

The 1964 Schultz Films Not Yet Shown

We had hoped also to show the Wauja ethnographic documentary shorts filmed in 1964 by the late anthropologist and photographer Harald Schultz. The arrival of the Schultz films were eagerly awaited by the Wauja, because the Wauja have reason to believe they may contain the only surviving images of Chief Karaputan, younger brother and co-chief of the late Chief Walakuyawa, and father of Itsautaku, who today is the principal shaman of the community.

However, despite months of communications with museum officials, these films are still tied up in red tape. The museum officials express genuine enthusiasm for the idea of letting the Wauja see the footage, but say they currently do not have budget to make a digital copy of their digital masters, and cannot allow outsiders to make the copies themselves. Furthermore, there are other projects that have greater priority at this time. Although the Wauja have been waiting nearly half a century to see this footage (since 1964), it appears they must continue waiting. We will continue negotiating with the museums in question for permission to have the digital masters copied, a straightforward and inexpensive process.

As part of the project in January 2012, a short video was shot showing Wauja elders in full ceremonial regalia formally addressing these museum directors residing in faraway Brazilian cities. The elders asked to see digital copies of all historic films and photographs of their ancestors, including, in one case, the only known portrait of the mother of one of the chiefs. This chief explained that his mother died when he was still an infant, and so he has no memory of her. In the video, he movingly explains that he simply wants to see his mother’s face, a request that he says is wrong to deny. Since the elders in the video spoke in their own indigenous language, subtitles will be added before the video is delivered to museum officials.

Importance of the Elders’ Commentary on these Films

The Wauja take pride in performing time-honored stories from their own large body of oral literature, and they also have a keen interest in their cultural history. Learned men and women of chiefly descent can trace their ancestors back as many as six generations, listing not only the name of each chiefly ancestor, but also his principal accomplishments and exploits, and the names of villages he founded and led during his lifetime. Therefore this project is of utmost interest to Wauja elders and youth alike.

In January-March of 2012, the Wauja were shown several of these historic films, with the younger generation recording the commentary and recollections of their elders. This reunion of past and present was directed and shot by the rising generation of Wauja filmmakers, with training and equipment provided by the project team, which includes veteran filmmakers. The footage will be available to the various participants of the project to edit independently or jointly as they see fit. Digital copies of all footage shot (whether by Wauja or non-Wauja) will be deposited with the Wauja community, to be used in their documentary, as well as a teaching resource for their village school.

While the first phase of the project in early 2012 successfully documented reactions to the images of Wauja ancestors in both the 1924 Rondon films and the 1941-48 Roncador-Xingu films, more work needs to be done. The Wauja still have not been given access to the Schultz films of 1964, which are likely to contain rare, perhaps unique, images of close family members of living Wauja. It is essential that the remaining historic films be made available to the Wauja without delay. There are only a few very elderly Wauja who can identify people and events in the old films. If their knowledge is not recorded for posterity, the ancestors in the old films will remain forever nameless spirits, and strangers to their own descendants.