This Indigenous man survived a 10-year Amazonian odyssey—but not COVID-19

After a violent ambush, Karapiru wandered the forests of eastern Brazil for a decade. On July 16 he became another victim of the pandemic.

Photographs By Charlie Hamilton James
Published 29 Jul 2021, 13:24 BST
Carapiru
Karapiru, a member of Brazil’s Awá tribe, poses in his home in Tiracambu in 2017. He survived an ambush in the late 1970s that set him on a 10-year trek in the eastern Amazon. He died of respiratory illness from COVID-19 on July 16.
Photograph by Charlie Hamilton James

The Indigenous survivor of a deadly ambush that sent him wandering alone for 10 years across 900 miles of rugged highlands in eastern Brazil has died of COVID-19 symptoms, according to fellow tribespeople and rights activists.

Karapiru, whose name means Hawk in his native Awá, died in a hospital in the Amazonian state of Maranhão on July 16. Although fully vaccinated, he developed severe symptoms of the disease while in his adoptive village of Tiracambu, where he had lived for the past several years. He was evacuated to the city of Santa Inés where took his last breaths.

Karapiru’s death in an isolation ward, far from his loved ones and his people, carried echoes of the suffering and loneliness that marked his life and his extraordinary tale of survival.

“His story epitomises what the Awá and other isolated groups went through, especially in the face of a moving frontier,” says Louis Forline, an anthropologist at the University of Nevada, Reno, who has dedicated his career to studying the tribe and advocating for them. “He is emblematic of their whole struggle and saga and everything they went through.”

Karapiru was born into a nomadic community of hunter-gatherers sometime in the late 1940s or early 1950s, when the Awá were still uncontacted by outsiders. There is no record of his birth.

In those days, the outside world had barely touched the ancestral homelands of the Awá, which sprawled across much of Maranhão. But in the 1960s, the world’s largest deposits of iron ore were discovered in the neighbouring state of Pará. To haul the ore east to the Atlantic coast for export, a 550-mile-long railroad was built across Maranhão, splitting the Awá’s territory in two.

It didn’t take long for waves of settlers and ranchers to follow. By the early 1970s, they were fanning out into the forests, snatching up land, fencing it off with barbed wire. They drove off the Awá at gunpoint. Almost overnight, it was as if the Awá had become trespassers in their own land.

“The white men wanted to kill Indians,” Karapiru told me when I visited Tiracambu on assignment for National Geographic in 2017. He spoke in Awá as a fellow tribesman translated to Portuguese. “They didn’t like us. They were mad because we were passing through their fences. They shot at us. They sent dogs to chase us.”

Karapiru was the father of an infant daughter and a young boy when ranchers ambushed him and his family one day in the late 1970s. The attack launched him on a decade-long odyssey that rights advocates call a testament to the resilience of Brazil’s Indigenous peoples in the face of suffering and cruelty inflicted by colonisers.

“Ranchers need to get rid of the presence of Indians to gain title to the land they are trying to take,” said Sydney Possuelo in an interview in Brasilia in 2017. “So they went out to attack Karapiru’s group. This kind of practice continues to this day.” Possuelo served as the director of the Department of Isolated Indians within Brazil’s Indigenous affairs agency, FUNAI, for nearly two decades, interrupted by a two-year stint as president of the agency. A consummate field agent and Amazonian explorer, he is considered one of the foremost experts on Brazil’s Indigenous people and a leading advocate for the protection of isolated tribes.

Indigenous leaders fear that isolated tribes such as the Awá—as many as 70 separate groups scattered throughout the Brazilian Amazon—are once again facing heightened risk of violent dispossession. President Jair Bolsonaro and his allies in the legislature have ramped up efforts to roll back protections of Indigenous territories and eliminate some reserves altogether.

Today, up to a hundred Awá, out of the total population of roughly 600, still roam shrinking pockets of woodlands in Maranhão as isolated nomads. The Indigenous rights group Survival International has called the Awá the “world’s most threatened tribe.”

Awá families start out on a hunting trip from Posto Awá, established by the Indigenous affairs agency FUNAI to settle nomadic Awá hunter-gatherers after agents made contact with them during the 1970s and 80s. Today perhaps a hundred uncontacted Awá nomads still live in the forest, as the grip of the outside world tightens around them.
Photograph by Charlie Hamilton James

A life on the run

“They shot at us as we ran away,” Karapiru said in 2017, recalling the ambush. His wife was cut down, along with their infant daughter. Karapiru assumed his son also was dead.

“I was hit in the back,” he said, raising his T-shirt to show a cluster of small lumps close to his spine where buckshot had lodged. Bereft of his loved ones and suffering searing pain, Karapiru set off into the forests to get away, believing he was the lone survivor of the attack.

The days turned to weeks, then months. He travelled by night and slept by day to avoid detection. He followed a line of rugged hills that led south, surviving by his wits, hunting wild animals with a long bow and arrows he fashioned from the forest. Years passed.

“I made spears from bamboo,” he said. “I killed a monkey. I walked along a river. It was full of fish!” Still, he endured long bouts of thirst and hunger—and the unimaginable loneliness of years without human contact.

“I felt great sadness for my family,” Karapiru said. But for all he suffered, the sparkle in his eyes and the sense of wonder with which he recounted his ordeal betrayed no trace of bitterness or resentment.

Karapiru’s wanderings eventually led him out of the hills and into a settled area of plowed fields and pasturelands, dotted with homes and outbuildings. Wild game had become scarce, and Karapiru took to killing farm animals under cover of darkness. A farmer’s suspicions were aroused one morning when a squealing pig bounded into his yard with an arrow in its flank. He raised a posse of local residents, and they ended up converging on a naked man clutching a bow and several arrows, smiling at them timidly. He relinquished his weapons without hesitation.

The farmer who lost his pig took Karapiru into his home, fed him, clothed him. But what to do with him? No one could understand a word he spoke. They were in the state of Bahia, hundreds of miles from anywhere that still harbored such índios bravos—“wild Indians," the popular term for uncontacted Indigenous people in rural Brazil. He called FUNAI.

It was 1989. Sydney Possuelo had recently founded FUNAI’s isolated Indians department to protect the rights of Indigenous communities still living apart from the outside world—the so-called “uncontacted tribes.” He drove out to Bahia and brought Karapiru back to his home in Brasilia while he tried to solve the mystery of who this man was and where he had come from.

“The Indian was lucky,” Possuelo told me last week. Karapiru’s guileless charm had put the men who found him at ease, and they repaid his kindness with hospitality. “History has shown that encounters of that sort almost always result in the death of the Indian.”

Seen from the air, Posto Awá is one of four settlements founded by FUNAI within three separate Indigenous reserves to provide food, protection, and medical care to Awá communities. Since the 1970s, the Awá have suffered violence and disease at the hands of outsiders entering their ancestral homelands.
Photograph by Charlie Hamilton James

Emotional encounter

During the 1970s and early 80s, Possuelo had led FUNAI efforts to contact scattered bands of Awá to save them from violence at the hands of land-hungry settlers. From the moment he laid eyes on Karapiru, Possuelo had a hunch—something about his appearance and the way he held himself—that he was from the Awá tribe, then known by their compound name “Awá-Guajá.” He asked colleagues in Maranhão to send an interpreter to help solve the riddle of Karapiru.

The translator who turned up at Possuelo’s apartment was a young Awá man named Tiramukum. He’d been orphaned as a boy and raised by agency personnel at a FUNAI post. He studied the man sitting across from him.

“I looked at his face,” Tiramukum told me in an interview four years ago when I visited the settlement of Posto Guajá, in the Alto Turiaçu Indigenous Territory. “I asked what his name was. He replied, ‘My name is Karapiru.’ My heart was thumping,” Tiramukum said. “I thought it was going to explode.”

“My hairs stood on end,” Possuelo said, recounting the moment when Karapiru and Tiramukum recognised one another. Both father and son had survived the ambush some 10 years earlier; each had assumed the other was long dead. They embraced and wept.

“They killed my sister. My mother was dead. I thought my father had died. I saw that he was shot in the back,” Tiramukum told me, adding that he fled in panic, chased by a dog unleashed by the ranchers. He got tangled up in barbed wire. He was captured and locked in a room for several weeks before being turned over to FUNAI.

After their reunion in Brasilia, Tiramukum helped Karapiru get settled in Posto Awá. He later moved to nearby Tiracambu. Both communities are within earshot of the rumbling, mile-long iron-ore trains on the railway that transformed the landscape of Maranhão and the lives of the Awá forever. Karapiru eventually remarried and left behind several children and grandchildren.

Residents of Tiracambu and Posto Awá, in the Caru Indigenous Territory, are reporting a surge in coronavirus cases. In a WhatsApp audio message, Tatuxia’a, a leader in Posto Awá, said 16 villagers are infected with COVID-19, together with another 11 in a nearby encampment. “We’re staying in the community now, staying quarantined. We thought the vaccine protected us. But it doesn’t protect the older ones among us.”

Forline says that epic treks by lone Indigenous survivors such as Karapiru have enlivened debates within the discipline of “historical ecology” that hunter-gatherers crossing the Bering land bridge from Asia may have spread out and transformed landscapes across the Americas far sooner than had been supposed.

 “You can see that just by their knowledge of different ecosystems and ability to live off the land, they were able to circulate quickly and widely,” Forline says.

For Possuelo, Karapiru’s death stirred deep feelings of nostalgia and gratitude. “He was a gentle man who loved to play with my children when they were toddlers,” he said, recalling the time they shared in his home. “The news has touched me profoundly. He died of COVID in a hospital far from his people, unable to communicate with anyone, without the comfort of those he loved. What a sad end for a man who fought so heroically to survive the ferocity of the white man and the rigors of the jungle.”

Scott Wallace is an associate professor of journalism at the University of Connecticut and author of The Unconquered: In Search of the Amazon’s Last Uncontacted Tribes.

Charlie Hamilton James is a photographer, filmmaker, and conservationist who has documented life in the Amazon for over 20 years. He is a National Geographic Society Explorer.

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