Out of Time

Less than a decade after their first contact with the outside world, the volatile Korubo of the Amazon still live in almost total isolation. Their fiercest champion, Indian tracker Sydney Possuelo, is trying to keep their world intact. But how long can he, and they, hold out?

On the lookout for enemies, a warrior named Ta'van leads a patrol through the jungle. Several hundred Indians—some never seen by outsiders—live in the Amazon's Javari Valley. (Paul Raffaele)
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The semi-nomadic clan moves between four or five widely dispersed huts as their maize and manioc crops come into season, and it had taken Possuelo four lengthy expeditions over several months to catch up to them the first time. “I wanted to leave them alone,” he says, “but loggers and fishermen had located them and were trying to wipe them out. So I stepped in to protect them.”

They weren’t particularly grateful. Ten months later, after intermittent contact with Possuelo and other FUNAI fieldworkers, the clan’s most powerful warrior, Ta’van, killed an experienced FUNAI sertanista, Possuelo’s close friend Raimundo Batista Magalhaes, crushing his skull with a war club. The clan fled into the jungle, returning to the maloca only after several months.

Now Possuelo points out Ta’van—taller than the others, with a wolfish face and glowering eyes. Ta’van never relaxes his grip on his sturdy war club, which is longer than he is and stained red. When I lock eyes with him, he glares back defiantly. Turning to Possuelo, I ask how it feels to come face to face with his friend’s killer. He shrugs. “We whites have been killing them for decades,” he says. Of course, it’s not the first time that Possuelo has seen Ta’van since Magalhaes’ death. But only recently has Ta’van offered a reason for the killing, saying simply, “We didn’t know you then.”

While the men wield the clubs, Possuelo says that “the women are often stronger,” so it doesn’t surprise me to see that the person who seems to direct the Korubo goings-on is a woman in her mid-40s, named Maya. She has a matronly face and speaks in a girlish voice, but hard dark eyes suggest an unyielding nature. “Maya,” Possuelo tells me, smiling, “makes all the decisions.” By her side is Washman, her eldest daughter, grim-faced and in her early 20s. Washman has “the same bossy manner as Maya,” Possuelo adds with another smile.

Their bossiness may extend to ordering murders. Two years ago three warriors led by Ta’van and armed with their clubs—other Indian tribes in the JavariValley use bows and arrows in war, but the Korubo use clubs—paddled their dugout down the river until they came upon three white men just beyond the exclusion zone, cutting down trees. The warriors smashed the whites’ heads to pulp and gutted them. Possuelo, who was in Atalaia when the attack occurred, rushed upriver to where the mutilated bodies lay, finding the murdered men’s canoe “full of blood and pieces of skull.”

Grisly as the scene was, Possuelo was not displeased when news of the killing spread quickly in Atalaia and other riverside settlements. “I prefer them to be violent,” he says, “because it frightens off intruders.” Ta’van and the others have not been charged, a decision Possuelo supports: the isolated Indians from the JavariValley, he says, “have no knowledge of our law and so can’t be prosecuted for any crime.”

After possuelo speaks quietly with Maya and the others for half an hour in the clearing, she invites him into the maloca. Jemi, Magna and most of the clan follow, leaving me outside with Jumi and a pair of children, naked like their parents, who exchange shy smiles with me. Ayoung spider monkey, a family pet, clings to one little girl’s neck. Maya’s youngest child, Manis, sits beside me, cradling a baby sloth, also a pet.

Even with Jumi nearby, I glance about warily, not trusting the head bashers. About an hour later, Possuelo emerges from the maloca. At Tabatinga I’d told him I could do a haka, a fierce Maori war dance like the one made famous by the New Zealand national rugby team, which performs it before each international match to intimidate its opponents. “If you do a haka for the Korubo, it’ll help them accept you,” he says to me now.

Led by Maya, the Korubo line up outside the maloca with puzzled expressions as I explain that I’m about to challenge one of their warriors to a fight—but, I stress, just in fun. After Possuelo tells them this is a far-off tribe’s ritual before battle, Shishu, Maya’s husband, steps forward to accept the challenge. I gulp nervously and then punch my chest and stamp my feet while screaming a bellicose chant in Maori. Jumi translates the words. “I die, I die, I live, I live.” I stomp to within a few inches of Shishu, poke out my tongue Maoristyle, and twist my features into a grotesque mask. He stares hard at me and stands his ground, refusing to be bullied. As I shout louder and punch my chest and thighs harder, my emotions are in a tangle. I want to impress the warriors with my ferocity but can’t help fearing that if I stir them up, they’ll attack me with their clubs.

I end my haka by jumping in the air and shouting, “Hee!” To my relief, the Korubo smile widely, apparently too practiced in real warfare to feel threatened by an unarmed outsider shouting and pounding his flabby chest. Possuelo puts an arm around my shoulder. “We’d better leave now,” he says. “It’s best not to stay too long on the first visit.”


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