Out of Time- page 6 | Travel | Smithsonian
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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)

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?

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Is Sydney Possuelo right? Is he doing the isolated tribes of Brazil any favors by keeping them bottled up as premodern curiosities? Is ignorance really bliss? Or should Brazil’s government throw open the doors of the 21st century to them, bringing them medical care, modern technology and education? Before I left Tabatinga to visit the Korubo, the local Pentecostal church’s Pastor Antonio, whose stirring sermons attract hundreds of the local Ticuna Indians, took Possuelo to task. “Jesus said, ‘Go to the world and bring the Gospel to all peoples,’ ” Pastor Antonio told me. “The government has no right to stop us from entering the JavariValley and saving the Indians’ souls.”

His view is echoed by many church leaders across Brazil. The resources of the exclusion zones are coveted by people with more worldly concerns, as well, and not just by entrepreneurs salivating over the timber and mineral resources, which are worth billions of dollars. Two years ago more than 5,000 armed men from the country’s landless workers movement marched into a tribal exclusion zone southeast of the JavariValley, demanding to be given the land and sparking FUNAI officials to fear that they would massacre the Indians. FUNAI forced their retreat by threatening to call in the military.

But Possuelo remains unmoved. “People say I’m crazy, unpatriotic, a Don Quixote,” he tells me when my week with the Korubo draws to a close. “Well, Quixote is my favorite hero because he was constantly trying to transform the bad things he saw into good.” And so far, Brazil’s political leaders have backed Possuelo.

As we get ready to leave, Ta’van punches his chest, imitating the haka, asking me to perform the dance one last time. Possuelo gives the clan a glimpse of the outside world by trying to describe an automobile. “They’re like small huts that have legs and run very fast.” Maya cocks her head in disbelief.

When I finish the war dance, Ta’van grabs my arm and smiles a farewell. Shishu remains in the hut and begins to wail, anguished that Possuelo is leaving. Tatchipan and Marebo, lugging war clubs, escort us down to the river.

The canoe begins its journey back across the millennia, and Possuelo looks back at the warriors, a wistful expression on his face. “I just want the Korubo and other isolated Indians to go on being happy,” he says. “They have not yet been born into our world, and I hope they never are.” 

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