The Last of the Tribe: The Epic Quest to Save a Lone Man in the Amazon by Monte Reel, Scribner/Simon & Schuster, 288 pages
In 1996, a health-aid worker delivering medicine to Indian villages in Southern Amazonia heard tall tales spun by lumber workers of a lone tribesman wandering in the rain forest near the Guaporé River Valley. The worker passed the rumors on to the federally funded Isolated Indians Division of the National Indian Foundation, known as FUNAI.
Founded in the late 1980s under a new Brazilian constitution, FUNAI was tasked with identifying tribal groups and setting aside land for them. In
The Last of the Tribe, former Washington Post South America correspondent Monte Reel delves into FUNAI’s search for the one they called “the Indian of the Hole,” an elusive “wild man” who appeared to be either separated from his people or the only surviving member among them.
For Marcelo dos Santos, who led FUNAI’s Guaporé Contact Front, the expedition became an obsession driven by a childhood love of the forest — a place that earned the title “Green Hell” due to its reputation as a “miasmal sump that didn’t brim with life so much as fester with it” — and a sense of duty to the Native cultures crumbling all around him. Following in the footsteps of previous “ sertanistas” — those who search the Amazon jungle for indigenous populations, monitor their movements, and try to protect them and their homelands from the advancing modern world — dos Santos embedded himself with the Natives, often adopting their customs and dress. (“If you want to be one with nature,” Reel writes, “you have to let nature be one with you.”)
In the 1970s, the Brazilian government offered incentives to its citizens who agreed to settle Rondônia, an unspoiled region where dos Santos and his contact team believed the lone Indian dwelled. A ferocious land grab ensued, with the promise of cheap 250-acre plots enticing more than 70,000 outsiders to the area. Likening the Amazonia settlement to westward expansion in the United States, Reel says that the Brazilian government saw an opportunity to strengthen the country’s position in the global economy and that it had to move fast for reasons both monetary and patriotic. “If Brazil didn’t take advantage of the Amazon’s economic potential,” he writes, paraphrasing former Brazilian president Emílio Garrastazu Médici, “other countries might swoop in and seize the opportunity. ‘ Integrar para não
entregrar’ became the government’s mantra, meaning that Brazil should integrate the Amazon into the economy instead of surrendering it to someone else.”
But what of the Indians who had lived in Rondônia for centuries? Where was the federal interest in their preservation? When stricter international logging standards were created to quell deforestation in the late 1980s, Brazil’s government was slow to hop on the conservation bandwagon. The world’s hunger for Amazonia’s precious mahogany wood had expanded greatly, and cattle production thrived in areas where the land was deemed too infertile to farm traditional crops for human consumption.
Members of FUNAI soon found themselves on the front lines in holding Brazil’s farmers, loggers, ranchers, and government agencies accountable for their blatant disregard of new laws restricting land use. They made enemies fast, often within their own ranks.
Reel is skillful in shining light on the swiftly formed groupthink among many Amazon settlers, who believed that national progress far outweighed the protection of an “uncivilized” population. He juxtaposes the poetic journey of the Indian of the Hole and other tribesmen with the political corruption and human-rights violations that continue to threaten tribal cultures. Reel thrills with a writing style that strikes a delicate balance between high adventure and exhaustively researched historical narrative (the book’s footnotes account for almost 20 pages). Except for one misstep — the drawn-out description of a packing manifest for rain-forest exploration that reads like a chapter on preparedness pulled from some Amazonian Cub Scout handbook — Reel keeps the narrative engaging and evenly paced. (Film rights to The Last of the Tribe have reportedly been sold to Hollywood producer Doug Liman, whose credits include The Bourne Identity and Mr. and Mrs. Smith.)
While doggedly pursuing the Indian through the rain forest with the help of expert trackers recruited from two tribes that waver between conflict and situationally prudent truce, the FUNAI team encounters poison arrows, creepy crawlers, angry beasts, and homicidal ranchers with secret federal alliances.
Participants in the decade-plus mission to find the Indian of the Hole soon become a mirror image of the Indian’s own struggle to survive. After numerous close encounters with the Indian, FUNAI team members find themselves hunted by their own enemies in ranching and government. And they, like the lone tribesman, just want to be left alone. This is when Reed turns the light bulb on high — not by revealing the tribesman’s fate but by exploring the possibility that the Indian of the Hole doesn’t want to be “saved” at all and that his isolation is self-imposed. His ability to trust those who wish to protect him has eroded in tandem with the memories of his own people. No amount of land set aside for him will bring them back. Perhaps running away from things both familiar and frightening has become the new cultural standard for this misunderstood, displaced tribe of one.