In South America's Gran Chaco, voluntarily isolated indigenous groups are still dodging the rampant development of the region, and with good reason: those that have already come out have found that even greater isolation awaits them.
The young Totobiegosode sitting next to me is an “Ishi” for our time. Like the famous Yahi tribesman who suddenly emerged from the California forest almost a century ago, his story poses unsettling questions about what it means to be an “isolated person” in our modern world. His black hair is now close-cropped, and he wears a cotton shirt and pants instead of a plant-fiber woven loincloth. A baseball cap shades his opaque almond-shaped eyes as he sits sipping a warm Coke, calloused feet moving in and out of torn plastic flip-flops. In the remote jungle villages of the Gran Chaco in the heart of South America where I have spent 21 months doing my fieldwork, he is my hunting partner, the one who gives me his first find of the day and receives mine.
The Totobiegosode (“People-from-the-Place-Where-Collared-Peccaries-Ate-Their-Gardens”) are one of the six regional subgroups of seminomadic Ayoreo Indians traditionally ranging through the vast dry tropical woodlands on both sides of the international border between Paraguay and Bolivia. Whereas Ishi was the last survivor of his tribe, my friend, who I will call Jnoraine, is a member of the latest Ayoreo band to leave behind a free life in the shrinking wilderness. His grandfather was the leader of a small group first contacted in 1979; his father died in the forest; and his uncle and brother were brought in by Christian missionaries in 1986. For Jnoraine, as for Ishi, coming out of isolation has meant deep ruptures as well as new relationships.
But “isolation” is a problematic category. By all accounts, Totobiegosode bands never existed in pure isolation, but always formed part of larger social networks spanning across the Chaco. Far-ranging hunters, they always knew about remote strangers, potentially dangerous “others” lurking on the edges of their traditional hunting lands. Theirs was and is a life of courage and strength in the face of intrusion and terror.
The ancestral Ayoreo homeland was invaded by about 100,000 Bolivian and Paraguayan soldiers fighting each other during the Chaco War (1932-1935). It was sliced by the Santa Cruz-Corumba railroad in the following decade and dissected with large-scale exploration and drilling by a U.S. oil company throughout the 1950s. Invading newcomers soon occupied the few permanent fresh water sources, leading to sporadic violent skirmishes with threatened Ayoreo warriors. Frontier slave-raiders carried off Ayoreo children, and well into the 1970s the Paraguayan army offered an exemption from service for anyone who presented a severed “savage” Indian head.
I met Jnoraine in 2004, just five months after his first contact, a time, he says, “when everything was new.” He had only seen a handful of cojnone (non-Ayoreos, especially whites) up close in his entire life. For weeks, he stared at me on the other side of the fire, pale in the shadows, unblinking and blank, as tense and timid as a deer.
The Trunk of Stories
Jnoraine began speaking to me on our third hunting trip together. I talked back. Although by no means fully fluent, I gradually learned his language, known by few outsiders. Sometimes we didn’t understand one another, but often we did. By sharing experiences and stories, we both reached out to forge a link, however fraught and fragile, between his “isolated” community and the wider world beyond our horizons. Perhaps the story of his indigenous community will draw attention to the liminal life they now face, wandering the unfamiliar borderlands betwixt isolation and desolation.
Here is part of what he told me:
The whites arrived to those places because a shaman named Udodaquide made a road that connected our land to the place the whites were working. The evil spirit told this shaman to make the road in order to make problems for the shaman’s people. This shaman wanted to defeat his rival but he was too weak. So he went to heaven to bring coldness to calm and strike fear in his opponent, but he couldn’t kill him …. So he sent his soul to Earth’s End to see if he could call up large ants to cut a road. But when he spoke of the ants, he referred to the white men. This shaman made a road to bring the white men into his territory and to kill his people. This is his song:
I am going far, to the land of Earth’s End,
I spoke to the warriors,
I took out their righteous anger
to fight for their land,
I went and found cold water lilies
I used them to hit my enemies,
But I could not overcome their will.
I went and I spoke to the ants under the earth,
And I sent them here.
I went and we ate the forest,
Now I drive them to all the corners of the world.
This is the trunk of all stories, it tells about our dead world.
By the time Ayoreo made “first contact” with foreigners invading their ancestral homeland, they had already experienced the tremors of a world about to be turned upside down. Growing external pressures, including encroachments on their forests and deadly new diseases, fueled tensions and distrust among themselves, leading to warfare among northern and southern Ayoreo groups. In 1947, already decimated by epidemics and surrounded by enemies, northern Ayoreo bands began taking refuge in new Bolivian mission villages, where Christian missionaries controlling medicine and supplies urged, cajoled, and persuaded them to devalue traditional social practices. Using shotguns obtained from these powerful foreigners—their new allies—the northern Ayoreo then took revenge on their southern neighbors. Many of these, in turn, were lured to Protestant and Roman Catholic missions in Paraguay throughout the 1950s and 60s. Only the Totobiegosode, one of the larger southern Ayoreo groups, avoided such contact and chose to remain isolated. However, those southern Ayoreos who settled in mission villages acquired guns and then staged devastating raids against their “heathen” neighbors still remaining in their seasonal forest villages. One older Totobiegosode woman in Jnoraine’s band told me about a massacre she had witnessed:
We died there in that place. I was a young girl. We heard them attack. My mother called to me, she carried me on her shoulder. I remember but I forget. She ran. But she weakened with my weight. Then they killed us. She put me down then they killed her. A gun. They killed my father, my sisters, my brother. Then I began to run. I was afraid of the guns that wanted to release the blood from my body. I ran towards the place I gathered doidie roots with my mother. There one of them struck me, and I fell to the ground. They cut me several times in the head with a machete. The cuts filled with dirt. I passed out. Then I woke up and went to the sandy ground and saw my people. I was very thirsty. They told me that there was no water left. I was weak and couldn’t walk. It seemed I would die there in the afternoon, but I began to walk.
In 1975, after widespread Ayoreo conversion to Christianity, raids against the free-ranging Totobiegosode took on a proselytizing slant. Assisted by American Protestant missionaries who spotted their homes in small forest clearings when flying low over the Paraguayan Chaco, southern Ayoreos who were already settled on mission lands located and contacted Totobiegosode bands in the notorious “wild man hunts” of 1979 and 1986. They took their frightened captives back to the mission villages and forced them into servitude.
In 1993, the Totobiegosode people captured in 1986 began a (still-unresolved) land claim with a Paraguayan nongovernmental organization. The pioneering effort involves establishing settlements in the ancestral homeland they are claiming. In 2004, while in the process of establishing a second village, they encountered 17 of their isolated tribal relatives. These newly contacted Ayoreos were then brought in and reduced to servile status—a social degradation the earlier contacted tribespeople had experienced upon being captured and settled on the missions. Like those before them, the “new people” were socially and emotionally pressured into abandoning traditional “heathen” spirituality, into cutting their long “savage” hair short and adopting new diets. They were taught that such extreme steps would let them be “born-again,” transformed into “civilized” people saved from their “innate sin.”
Feeling powerless to stop what I saw as an indigenous unbecoming, I witnessed the unraveling and remaking of their lives, their exile from isolation. All along this traumatic journey there were (and continue to be) shocks and situations that are difficult, if not impossible, for us to really imagine. For instance, Jnoraine’s wife was put on antidepressant medication by well-meaning outsiders to help her overcome an inexplicable case of deafness soon after first contact. Her hearing returned eventually, but her depressing situation did not change. On several occasions, she decided to offer me a small window into her past, telling me of her life “before” in a quick string of snap-shot images.
We saw tracks. White men. Where? It was very hot. We ran far. Faaaaar. There was no water. Our tongues were swollen. We cried. We left our things. We ran. Crawling low. We watched. No cattle near. There was a water tank. Full. A white man. Very fat, wearing a red shirt. We waited. Trembling. Blood in the water. A lot of blood. We didn’t sleep. We ran. Crying, we ran.
….We were very afraid of the big road. That someone would see us and kill us. We thought the vehicles had eyes, that they would see our tracks or smell our trails, and follow us. We would lie nearby. We waited and waited until we could hear no vehicles, and we would cross at night. One would go last and cover our tracks.
Boasting one of the world’s highest local deforestation rates in a country where official numbers are more fiction than fact, the Gran Chaco is being cleared at a frightening and uncharted rate for extensive cattle-ranching. Many ranchers see the wilderness and its free-ranging indigenous inhabitants as an obstacle to progress. The thick shrub is almost impossible to cut, so it is cleared with huge caged bulldozers, riding and pushing over everything in the way, working around the clock, the metal polished by the plants. Paraguayans say that driving one makes you embrutecido, hard and mean, that it damages your kidneys, your spine, your brain. A working bulldozer produces a cacophony of metal friction, diesel combustion, and exploding tree trunks. It sounds as if an unknowable monster is ingesting the forest. Depending on the wind, the guttural howl can be heard 10 miles away. Jnoraine recalled:
We thought the bulldozers were looking for us because it seemed that every time we made a village a bulldozer would come. We said, “It seems that they are following us because they always come to our villages. Every village. We have to leave behind our gardens and plants.”
Herds of cattle came in the bulldozers’ wake, wild Zebus and Brahmas, rangy and often pure white, filling up the suddenly emptied land with their inquisitive eyes and loud moaning cries and trails.
We tried to talk to the cattle. “Cattle, we are your grandfathers, too! Do not be afraid of us! Listen to us! This is our land. Tell the white men, your fathers, that we are peaceful, that this is our home!” We thought they could understand our language, but they couldn’t.
….We thought that life would be easy with the whites. We thought that everything was free, that they did not have to hunt and find their food, that they always had plenty. But now we know that everything is very expensive. We were hungry before, and we are hungry still.
“There are not any thoughts left for the old ways”
Jnoraine, his young wife and their infant son (who they named “Captive”) now confront a new kind of isolation, the danger of being separated from their orienting ancestral past by a collective resolve to silence most of “the old things.” “His memory is erased,” is a common Ayoreo explanation for choosing to repress and forget, to not pass on the sacred ancient stories, songs, and curing chants. The elders say they saw this new time coming, this time when “the visions stop.” To remember now is often too much of a burden, an insufferable weight. Many memories are traumas and have become taboo.
It is ironic, in a way, that outsiders like me would seek to probe into their past in order to record or recover those memories. Their silencing is, after all, a profound reaction to the disturbing outside world of which I’m part. For many of these Ayoreo elders, who have already seen one way of life “die” and be reformed, the notion of an impending Apocalypse is not a source of fear, but of hope for a resolution to the insoluble and demeaning contradictions they now face.
The old people run up to a visitor in the desolate Protestant mission village not far from where I lived, 10 or 20 or 30 pushing to the front of a larger crowd, all soft eyes and ravaged gums and wild gray streaked hair, keening and pulling up their tattered dust-colored rags and pressing your clean hands to their washboard ribs so that you could therefore know that they were not lying when they said they were starving and asked you for food. Many Ayoreo hoped I was one of Jesus’s people. “Do you know when Jesus will come?” I was asked more than once. “We don’t know when it will be, but he will only take those in his family. Are you one of his people?”
When the price of Paraguayan beef and uncleared land surged in the late 1990s, when the bulldozers worked 24 hours a day 365 days a year, someone decided to help the poor starving Indians by donating them food, subsidized in part by a grant from a European foreign development branch. Once a week for several years, a truck half full of the unusable bovine entrails would drive through the village, make a slow U turn, and dump the wet offal on the dusty ground. The news was shouted among the households, knives were hauled out, skirts hiked up, and the race was on. Old ladies and children trampled and pushed down by other old ladies and children, fighting over the small shreds of foul viscera, covered in bloody mud. This was replaced by a scheme to make charcoal, also sponsored in part by international development aid. This means that most Ayoreo communities—these people who believed that every plant, insect and animal in the universe had once been a member of their tribe—now cut down the trees remaining on the small plots of land they still control and burn them in giant turtle-like clay ovens for about three cents a pound.
“Before, we believed that our thoughts could become reality”
One small group of free-ranging Totobiegosode remains in hiding. Although the total number of still-isolated Ayoreo is hotly contested by NGOs and Ayoreo groups, all agree that there are at least two groups and several lone individuals in this state. Perhaps 60 people total, probably a fraction of that. One band of unknown origin roams near the Bolivia-Paraguay border, and the other band is led by Yocayipie, Jnoraine’s father-in-law. His sister and aunt live in this band. We know their names, their fears. We know that they run, far and fast, that they venture to the margins of settlements. They have theories about the people, animals and machines occupying their homeland, and how to best interact with them. They hide their urine from trucks and dogs. On several occasions they attacked the bulldozers they thought were hunting them down. They often enter isolated farm houses, taking metal, buckets, and clothes. They live quietly, often communicating with whistles, signs, and whispers, fleeing long and hard if they hear a noise or see a bootprint. They hide their trails in the thick Chaco underbrush. For these Totobiegosode, as for Ishi as a lonely survivor almost a century ago, life has been reduced to concealment.
Ecological destruction, fear, and genetic limitations will force the “isolated” Ayoreo to make “contact” at some point in the near or very near future. Based on past experiences, it is not difficult to guess what the outcome of the next “first contact” will be if we all do not begin to question the default sequences of contact, and also realize that “isolation” is an attributed description, a label we made, and one that limits the kinds of inter-relationships that otherwise may be imaginable. Meanwhile, ranchers eager to remove the people from their lands on both sides of the border hire Ayoreo workers to initiate contact or scare the isolated people away. For the Totobiegosode, these people are close relatives—their mothers, fathers, lovers, siblings, even children. They are familiar, not alien, and their isolation is an artifice of our culture, not theirs.
Many settled Ayoreo, even among the Totobiegosode, strongly advocate crossing the divide and initiating contact. As one leader rebuked me, “You do not know what it is like to always run and hide in fear.” As they struggle to find their way, voluntary isolation is becoming a focal point for discussions of international human rights. In UN regional seminars and the Inter-American system, indigenous organizations and their allies are negotiating isolation as a new category of indigenous rights, one described in the recommendations of the fifth UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues as the right “of these indigenous peoples and their designated territories throughout the world to exist in isolation, should they so choose.” Often linked to the right of self-determination, conceptualizing isolation as a human right is an urgent appeal to the international community for critically needed aid in respecting and protecting these extremely vulnerable groups. Exposed to these discourses by participating in international forums, some Ayoreo ideas are slowly changing, and their tribal organizations are expected to represent the isolated groups and defend this right.
But who are the isolated people? Are they those very small groups pushed to the last margins of their forest world, living in concealment? Are they those Ayoreo cut off from their own past and struggling to create a viable future? And what about us? What does it mean for the Ayoreo and our world if we choose to be isolated from such repeated and all-inclusive stories, cut off from a slice of humanity and a difficult situation that there still is time to change?
Lucas Bessire is a doctoral candidate at New York University and the director of the film Asking Ayahai: An Ayoreo Story. Since 2001 he has lived with the Ayoreo and served as an advisor to them. His research was funded in part by the Wenner-Gren Foundation and the Fulbright-Hays Dissertation Research program.