The Last of the Tribe: The Epic Quest to Save a Lone Man in the Ama­zon by Monte Reel, Scrib­ner/Simon & Schus­ter, 288 pages

Pasatiempo - - In Other Words - — Rob DeWalt

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.

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