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Living Peacefully With One's Neighbors

Imagine that your community and a neighboring community had been at war a half century ago. Many men had been killed, and women and children had been kidnapped.

Then, imagine what it would take for those two communities to sit down together to look at archival films of life in their region, share memories of common ancestors, and allow their children to interact peacefully with one another.

In January, that is exactly what will be happening in the heart of the Amazon rainforest, when the Wauja and Ikpeng peoples come together to view historic films made by Brazilian and German explorers almost a century ago.

The Ikpeng currently number over 300 people living in the Xingu Indigenous Park in Brazil's Mato Grosso state on a southern tributory of the Amazon River.  They speak a Carib language, and were first encountered by outsiders in the early 20th century. While the Ikpeng prided themselves as warriors, they could not hold back the encroachment of the dominant Brazilian society.

Like many indigenous communities, they suffered severe depopulation because of western diseases and other effects of the expansion of Brazilian settlers deeper into indigenous territory. This depopulation and the resulting shortage of women of child-bearing age, in turn, were among the reasons that the Ikpeng kidnapped women from neighboring communities.

Almost fifty years ago, one such raid resulted in the capture of the daughter of the Wauja chief and another young girl. This raid, when combined with the suffering caused by other Ikpeng raids over many years, led the Wauja people to mount a retaliatory raid to rescue the two girls.  Tragically, the Wauja raid led to the deaths of many Ikpeng while not rescuing the girls.

The Wauja, currently numbering nearly 400 people in three villages, speak an Arawakan language whose word for "warrior" translates literally as "someone whose main talent is losing his self-control."  For that reason, the raid against the Ikpeng and the resulting deaths are seen as a source of shame, even many decades later.

Over the last forty years, both communities have tried to forget the raid and killings, as they brought dishonor to Ikpeng warriors who faced defeat, as well as the Wauja rescue party members whose participation in the retaliatory raid is viewed as a necessary but dehumanizing act.  The one surviving Wauja woman whose kidnapping led to the Wauja raid still has a family in the Ikpeng village, and has never returned to the Wauja community.  Ikpeng and Wauja individuals have met at Brazilian-run outposts and in border towns, but there have not been frequent inter-group meetings between the Wauja and Ikpeng in the same way that the Wauja meet regularly with their Mehinaku, Yawalapiti, and Kamayura neighbors.


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Over the last few years, the digital revolution that has affected every corner of the globe has started to affect the people of the Amazon as well.  While, in former times, young Wauja would gain access to the broader world through stories told by their elders around a campfire, they now have access to email, Skype and Twitter.  Indigenous identities that were presented only at intertribal events are now being showcased on Facebook pages, where profile pictures range from traditional indigenous clothing to hip-hop fashion that would pass for normal on any street in New York or Rio de Janeiro.

With increased literacy in Portuguese (the national language of Brazil), improved Google Translate and other translation tools (allowing access to websites in other languages), and increased access to the internet (both in their rainforest communities and at internet kiosks in communities bordering the rainforest), young indigenous Brazilians are developing an awareness of themselves as indigenous people with both a local community identity and an identity that encompasses all indigenous people everywhere. 

Like young multi-racial people in the United States, who now can proudly acknowledge the many parts of their cultural background on the federal census, Amazonian indigenous youth are using multiple indigenous names, displaying cultural markers from multiple linguistic and ethnic communities, and friending other young people – including those who are members of groups that might have been mortal enemies just a generation ago.

Putting aside any remaining animosities, a meeting has been scheduled in January of 2012, where the one remaining former Wauja captive, her descendants, and others with Wauja ancestry will join the rest of the Ikpeng community in welcoming members of the current Wauja community.  Together, they will view the historic films and, in so doing, welcome back Wauja ancestors whose spirits and images were captured in the films taken almost a century ago.

When the films are shown to the community, elders of both Ikpeng and Wauja backgrounds will be asked to remember the names of the ancestors shown on the screen.  Young Abuja and Ikpeng will use their newly-acquired video skills to capture these recollections.  And doubtless many will use the internet to send tweets, emails, Facebook postings, and YouTube videos into the digital universe, as this latest chapter of Amazonian history unfolds.

It's hard to know what effect this single encounter will have on the Wauja and Ikpeng communities.  But, if historic enemies can lay aside their weapons and use new avenues for communication and understanding to connect with their shared past, then maybe peace is possible in other parts of the world as well.

For more on this historic meeting of the Wauja and Ikpeng peoples, see

Phil Tajitsu Nash

Phil Tajitsu Nash ( teaches at the University of Maryland.

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