One of my most extraordinary and life-defining experiences was the time I witnessed the first-ever gathering of tribal peoples from the northwestern Brazilian Amazon rainforest. In attendance were hundreds of indigenous people from 26 different tribes. The unprecedented gathering was organized by the Kayapo tribe, with the goal of uniting all the indigenous peoples around a common threat they faced — a proposed series of colossal hydroelectric dams that, if constructed, would have flooded and destroyed their forest homelands.
Some of the tribes present at the meeting had not encountered each other previously while others were traditional enemies. Each tribe could be identified by their unique body paint and beads, distinct feathered headdresses, particular chants and songs, and even their weapons of choice (ironwood clubs, machetes, bows and arrows). Some arrived in small chartered bush planes from far-flung dirt airstrips while others had traveled by river in canoes for days or weeks to get to the meeting’s location in the then small Brazilian frontier town of Altamira. Rock star Sting was also in attendance.
The feeling of fierce determination and unity at the gathering was euphoric. It was my first time outside of North America and I was swept away by the intensity, unfamiliarity, and strangeness of it all. But mostly I was inspired to join the struggle. The gathering garnered international attention and marked the emergence of Brazilian indigenous people as a force to be reckoned with.
The climax of the Altamira Gathering happened just after the hydroelectric utility’s chief engineer spoke. A Kayapo woman named Tuira Kayapó, whose body was adorned with painted designs and beads, rose from the crowded room brandishing a large machete in the air. As she walked towards the dam engineer seated at the stage, she said, "You are a liar! The energy you speak of doesn't help us eat or drink. The story that you are telling us is worth nothing." The tension in the room was immense as Brazilian military officers with automatic weapons watched on, along with arrow-clad indigenous body guards charged with protecting their people. Tuira Kayapó raised her machete when she stood before the engineer. At that instant it was as if everyone’s breathing paused and time stood still. She then gently and slowly slapped each side of the dam engineer's face with the flat side of the machete. The engineer never flinched. After the incident, reporters from Brazil and across the world gathered around Tuira Kayapó asking her to explain her bold action. They wanted to know if she had ever considered hurting or killing the engineer. She was reported as saying, "Sometimes a man needs to learn a lesson and if you kill him he doesn't learn that lesson".
Post script: The situation in the Brazilian Amazon is even more perilous now than it was then. The Brazilian government not only recently prevailed (in the face of logic and significant public unrest) in building the Belo Monte dam (the world's fourth largest) but is now moving ahead with a massive scheme to build 40 large dams on Amazonian rivers. The Kayapo, despite setbacks such as the Belo Monte dam, have been hugely successful in protecting a very large swath of rainforest that contains many of their villages. Read more about their efforts here.
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